University of Manitoba president responds to an anti-Israel speech by a medical school valedictorian drawing widespread condemnation—including from its biggest donor

Dr. Gem Newman, the valedictorian of the University of Manitoba, giving his valedictory speech on May 16, 2024.

A newly minted doctor from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg sparked outrage—including from the medical school’s primary charitable donor—when he used his valedictory speech to his fellow Max Rady College of Medicine graduates to disparage Israel.

During his time at the podium on May 16, Gem Newman called for an immediate ceasefire to the war between Israel and Hamas, while decrying the widespread destruction in Gaza.

He charged Israel with deliberately targeting medical facilities and healthcare workers and called out Doctors Manitoba and the Canadian Medical Association for “their deafening silence.”

“I’m sure that some of you here today are worried that you might face censure for speaking about the genocidal war that Israel is waging on the people of Palestine, that it could jeopardize your career before it’s even begun,” Newman said in his speech.

“I understand your fear,” he said before telling the newly graduating doctors that it was their job to be advocates.

Michael Benarroch, the university president, issued a statement on May 24 about Newman’s remarks, affirming a commitment to free speech, yet also saying UM needs to do better in curbing perceived antisemitism on campus.

“Valedictory addresses should celebrate the accomplishments of the students in the class and provide inspiration to help motivate the graduates in their future careers,” wrote Benarroch. “The address should speak to all the students in the class. Valedictory addresses are not political platforms for one student or a group of students to express their views, no matter how important or relevant the issue.”

He has committed to “additional anti-racism education resources including antisemitism training,” which will be mandatory for medical students.

“I wish I could guarantee you that this type of occurrence will not happen again at our university,” wrote Benarroch. “Unfortunately, I fear that there will continue to be hard times ahead.”

Gustavo Zentner, the Winnipeg-based vice-president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) was among those sharing outrage in the aftermath of the valedictory address: “How can we trust this cohort who cheered on this speech to provide unbiased healthcare?”

CIJA has been working with concerned physicians and faculty to draft an action plan.

More significantly upset by Newman’s remarks was Ernest Rady, a Jewish billionaire born and raised in Winnipeg, who made a $30-million donation to UM in 2016.

Rady, who now lives in San Diego, sent a personal note on May 20 addressed to school president Benarroch and Peter Nickerson, the dean of medicine, which was also shared publicly.

The letter noted the obstacles that his father Max had to overcome to become a physician more than a century ago, something Ernest honoured by making the largest personal donation in the history of the University of Manitoba.

The philanthropist took issue with the initial “lukewarm message” posted by Nickerson on the website of the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences.

“When I make a gift to an institution, I do it because I believe in that institution and I trust its governing body to do important, significant, and good work with that money. I therefore make it a point not to intervene or tell an institution what it should or should not do,” wrote Ernest Rady.

“But in this instance, by remaining silent, I would be complicit. So I am speaking out now because I must.”

He chastised the school for not vetting the speech in advance–while noting the risk that may have been involved given recent protests at universities across the continent—but advised the school withdraw a video of the convocation speech from official circulation, something which was subsequently done.

When contacted by The CJN for further comment, Ernest Rady said his letter calling on the school to denounce antisemitism did all the talking he wants to do at this time.

Gem Newman responded to the controversy with his own statement, posted to social media:

“Since my valedictory address, I have received hundreds of messages from doctors, medical students, and members of the public thanking me for my words,” concluded Newman. “I have also received more than my share of harassment and threats.

“But at the end of the day, I still get to hug my kids, something that so many parents in Gaza will never get to do again.”