As Seinfeld Receives Honorary Degree at Duke, Students Walk Out in Protest

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As Jerry Seinfeld, who has recently been vocal about his support for Israel, received his honorary degree on Sunday during Duke University’s commencement ceremony, dozens of students walked out and chanted, “Free, free Palestine,” while the comedian looked on and smiled tensely.

The students rose from their chairs, waved Palestinian flags and walked out of their graduation ceremony while Mr. Seinfeld stood next to a school official who ran through his career highlights on the stage in Duke’s stadium. Many in the crowd jeered the protesters.

In his commencement speech, Mr. Seinfeld was mostly cautious, opting for a tight comedic script interspersed with life advice instead of a full-on response to the protests against his presence.

Still, in one part of his speech, he defended various types of privilege and appeared to hint at the elephant in the room.

“I grew up a Jewish boy from New York,” he said to applause from the crowd. “That is a privilege if you want to be a comedian.”

Outside Duke’s stadium, graduates walked around campus, chanting: “Disclose, divest, we will not stop, we will not rest.” When they arrived at a green space, they were joined by hundreds of other people — including faculty, relatives and other protesters — who organized a makeshift graduation for them.

As they prepared to throw their caps in the air, Mr. Seinfeld continued his speech inside Wallace Wade Stadium, telling students that while he admired their generation’s commitment to inclusivity and not hurting other people’s feelings, “it is worth the sacrifice of occasional discomfort to have some laughs.”

Mr. Seinfeld, who has two children who have attended Duke, has been uncharacteristically vocal about his support for Jews in Israel while doing press in recent weeks for his latest film, “Unfrosted,” which chronicles the invention of Pop-Tarts.

Typically an apolitical comedian who prefers punchy takes on ordinary observations, Mr. Seinfeld is now engaging in the type of celebrity activism that few associate with him, and that has drawn criticism and praise. Since the attacks of Oct. 7 in Israel, he has signed a letter in support of the country and posted an earnest message on social media about his devotion to it.

His wife, Jessica Seinfeld, a cookbook author, recently promoted on Instagram a counterprotest at the University of California, Los Angeles, that she said she had helped bankroll, and where clashes with pro-Palestinian demonstrators turned violent.

In December, Mr. Seinfeld traveled to Tel Aviv to meet with the families of hostages, soberly recounting afterward the missile attack that occurred during the trip.

Still, his comments on the issues have been somewhat modest.

“I don’t preach about it,” he told GQ last month. “I have my personal feelings about it that I discuss privately. It’s not part of what I can do comedically, but my feelings are very strong.”

On Sunday, Mr. Seinfeld played to the crowd, telling students: “You’re never going to believe this: Harvard used to be a great place to go to school. Now it’s Duke.”

Not everyone at Duke, however, was laughing at Mr. Seinfeld’s jokes.

The Rev. Dr. Stefan Weathers Sr., an ordained minister in the American Baptist Church who was awarded a Ph.D. in divinity, had written a letter before the ceremony to the university asking that the comedian be replaced, citing Mr. Seinfeld’s ongoing and strong support for Israel.

Shreya Joshi, a graduate and one of the organizers of the protest, said that after Duke selected Mr. Seinfeld as the speaker, she and other seniors, faculty members and pro-Palestinian supporters began organizing the walkout and an alternate graduation.

Ms. Joshi, 21, who studied history at Duke and will be attending law school at the University of Chicago, said that it was painful to have lost out on a high school graduation ceremony in 2020 because of the pandemic, and the seniors still wanted one this year, even if it meant creating one outside of the university’s official channels.

And that pain, she added, paled in comparison to what people in Gaza are experiencing.

“The fact that we were going to sit here and celebrate our own?” Ms. Joshi said. “It felt trivial in the face of all that. Have you seen the tiny violin? That’s how it felt.”

Ms. Joshi said that they had tried to leave the main commencement ceremony in the least disruptive way possible. They chose to leave as the honorary degree was being given to Mr. Seinfeld because “none of us particularly wanted to listen to Seinfeld.”



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