At Yeshiva University commencement, John Fetterman disavows his alma mater Harvard

US senator, who has been one of the most vocal pro-Israel Democrats since October 7, takes off red stole to protest Harvard’s ‘inability to stand up for the Jewish community’

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Democratic Senator Jon Fetterman of Pennsylvania, center, with Yeshiva University leadership, ahead of the university's commencement ceremony in Queens, May 29, 2024. (Luke Tress via JTA)
Democratic Senator Jon Fetterman of Pennsylvania, center, with Yeshiva University leadership, ahead of the university's commencement ceremony in Queens, May 29, 2024. (Luke Tress via JTA)

New York Jewish Week via JTA — US Senator John Fetterman, the Pennsylvania Democrat who has emerged as an unlikely champion for Israel since Hamas’s invasion and massacre in southern Israel on October 7, disavowed his alma mater, Harvard University, while receiving an award at Yeshiva University’s commencement ceremony.

Fetterman and YU leaders used Wednesday’s event, held at Louis Armstrong Stadium in Queens, to portray the flagship Modern Orthodox university as a counterpoint to college campuses across the United States (including Harvard’s) that have had pro-Palestinian encampments against Israel and whose graduation ceremonies have been marked by disruptive protests.

In his remarks on stage after receiving the Presidential Medallion, which YU says is its most prestigious award for global leadership, Fetterman echoed that comparison. He said the last time he attended a graduation ceremony was his own at Harvard, 25 years ago.

At the mention of Harvard, the crowd hissed — and Fetterman responded.

“I have been profoundly disappointed,” he said, mentioning “Harvard’s inability to stand up for the Jewish community after October 7.”

He then removed a red stole from his shoulders, from Harvard’s traditional graduation robes.

“I do not fundamentally believe that it’s right for me to wear this today,” he said to applause.

Since the Israel-Hamas war began nearly eight months ago, Fetterman has been one of the most outspoken supporters of Israel at the US Capitol, wallpapering his office with the pictures of hostages held by Hamas and wearing dog tags to show his support for their release. The approach has earned him opponents on the left and, uncharacteristically, friends on the right.

“I’m just a senator with a big mouth that happens to be committed to Israel,” he said in his remarks at the ceremony, which drew enthusiastic applause. In addition to voicing support for Israel’s war effort, Fetterman said, “I actually grieve for all the innocent Palestinian women and children that Hamas is responsible for taking.”

Rabbi Ari Berman, YU’s president, said the decision to invite Fetterman was “unanimous” for the university.

“Standing for Israel is a source of great strength for our community and it’s our privilege to honor him,” Berman told the New York Jewish Week. “Everyone was very excited about it.”

Before appearing on stage, Fetterman — clad in shorts and black sneakers under his commencement robe — told the New York Jewish Week that he was surprised by the invitation to speak at the ceremony, especially after finding out that last year’s commencement speaker was the inventor of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.

“I was blown away. I was like, ‘I don’t belong in that kind of category,’” Fetterman said.

The ceremony was filled with references to Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel and the ensuing war in Gaza. Popular Orthodox singer Mordechai Shapiro sang a blessing for Israeli soldiers, and a video presentation honored fallen troops, including children of YU alumni. Police were stationed outside and security checked entrants at the gate, but there was no sign of anti-Israel protests.

The ceremony had its celebratory moments. After speeches by Berman and Fetterman, Shapiro sang a song with the refrain “Am yisrael chai,” Hebrew for “the people of Israel live.” Graduates danced in front of the podium next to Fetterman, who clapped his hands with the music as the students waved Israeli flags overhead.

Speakers, including Berman, highlighted students’ efforts to support Israel, including by fundraising, organizing prayer groups, and tutoring Israeli children online.

“After October 7, every prayer, every class, every day at Yeshiva University has changed and been charged with the mission of supporting Israel and the Jewish people,” Berman said in his commencement address.

Fetterman said that the commencement was a cause for celebration, despite Hamas’s attack and the war.

“I really believe there’s two things that are true today — that you can’t ignore what happened, but there’s a lot of joy and a lot of reasons to celebrate today,” he told the New York Jewish Week.

Berman also portrayed the university’s approach as a counterpoint to anti-Israel activism on other campuses, decrying other colleges for “capitulating to misbegotten demands” from protesters who have called to boycott Israel. YU has sought to capitalize on anti-Israel activism on other campuses, including by extending its transfer application deadline to students looking to leave other campuses.

“We are taking the opposite stance,” Berman said to applause. “At YU we don’t divest, we invest. We invest in Israel, we always invest in Israel.”

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