Jerry Seinfeld appears at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, as he received an honorary degree and delivered the commencement address, May 12, 2024. (Screenshot from livestream)

Students walk out as Jerry Seinfeld, a recent Israel advocate, delivers Duke commencement address

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Students walk out as Jerry Seinfeld, a recent Israel advocate, delivers Duke commencement address

Jerry Seinfeld appears at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, as he received an honorary degree and delivered the commencement address, May 12, 2024. (Screenshot from livestream)

(JTA) — As Duke University’s president introduced the commencement speaker, two cries rang out: first, loud boos, and then, a joyous chant of “Jerry! Jerry!”

Dozens of graduates, some carrying Palestinian flags, walked out of the ceremony to protest Jerry Seinfeld, who has been outspoken in his support for Israel since Oct. 7, the beginning of the war that has ignited anti-Israel protests on college campuses across the United States. With Seinfeld at his side, Duke President Vincent Price paused his introduction for nearly a minute for the commotion to settle down.

It was an example of the types of disruptions that have punctuated graduation ceremonies this spring amid the protest movement, which has caused some schools to cancel or revamp their commencements. Price resumed his comments quickly, and Seinfeld delivered his address as planned, to raucous applause. Still, the protest was detectable — and made more pointed because the students appeared to be protesting Seinfeld himself, not, as at other schools, their university.

“No room for celebration when your school brings a Zionist, pro-genocide commencement speaker,” one wrote on social media, according to a post shared widely and disparagingly by a pro-Israel user.

Seinfeld, who has never made politics a centerpiece of his celebrity, has emerged as an unexpected pro-Israel advocate in the wake of Oct. 7, when Hamas attacked Israel. Seinfeld visited Israel in December, visiting with families of hostages held in Gaza; the visit elicited a sharp backlash, including heckling by pro-Palestinian protesters when he attended a speech in New York City by Bari Weiss, the editor of The Free Press and a longtime crusader against antisemitism and anti-Zionism, in February.

When GQ magazine asked him last month why he chose to make the trip to Israel, Seinfeld answered, “Well, I’m Jewish.” He also acknowledged the backlash, saying, “Every Jewish person I know was surprised by how hostile the reaction was.”

But Seinfeld told GQ that he did not view himself as a crusader when it comes to Israel, as some celebrities have become over the last seven months. “I don’t preach about it,” he said. “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.”

Seinfeld did not mention Israel during his speech, and he mentioned his Jewish identity only when exhorting graduates not to be ashamed of the advantages they possess, including a Duke degree.

“Privilege is a word that has taken quite a beating. I would like to take a moment to defend it,” he said, adding, “I say, Use your privilege. I grew up a Jewish boy from New York. That is a privilege — if you want to be a comedian.”

But he did allude to a form of intolerance that some have pointed to as a driving force behind problems with contemporary universities.

“This is probably the biggest point I would like to make to you here today regarding humor. … The slightly uncomfortable feeling of awkward humor is OK. It’s not something you need to fix,” Seinfeld said.

“I totally admire the ambitions of your generation to create a more just and inclusive society. I think it is also wonderful that you care so much about not hurting other people’s feelings in the million and one ways we all do that every second of every day,” he added. “It’s lovely to want to fix those things but — all caps — but what I need to tell you as a comedian: Do not lose your sense of humor. You can have no idea at this point in your life, how much you’re going to need it to get through.”

Seinfeld’s oldest child, daughter Sascha, graduated from Duke last year; his son Julien is an undergraduate at the school now.

Seinfeld received an honorary degree from the university, which says it enrolls about 800 Jewish undergraduates out of a total population of 6,600. (The school is home to both a thriving Jewish life center and a newly expanded Chabad as well as one of the only Jewish basketball coaches in the NCAA.)

Seinfeld’s wife Jessica Seinfeld, a vocal supporter of Israel on social media, wrote on Instagram that the boos had targeted the protesters, not her husband.

“Jerry’s speech was amazing and the grads and their parents gave him a standing ovation,” she posted. “You can’t beat this school. We are #forever Duke.”

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