cancellation call

University of Maryland-Baltimore students threaten to disrupt graduation over Sen. Cardin’s pro-Israel record

Cardin, who is the School of Social Work’s keynote speaker, said his speech is simply about encouraging students to pursue public service

Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD)

A group of University of Maryland, Baltimore School of Social Work students have threatened to protest the school’s May 17 graduation over the scheduled keynote speaker, Sen. Ben Cardin, (D-MD), the state’s senior senator and a pro-Israel stalwart.  

In a letter published on Tuesday, social work students wrote that Cardin’s “pro-war foreign policy positions are antithetical to social work values.” They requested that the senator, who is Jewish, be canceled as speaker and instead be replaced by Dr. Wendy Shaia, an associate professor at the social work school and executive director of the Center for Restorative Change. 

“Given Cardin’s positions and actions regarding Israel and Palestine in the past and since October 7th, his selection sends an unsettling pro-war political message to members of our school community who are anti-war,” the letter states, pointing to Cardin’s 2015 vote against the Iran nuclear deal, his 2017 co-sponsoring of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act and his support of Israel’s current war against Hamas. 

If the request is not fulfilled, the letter states that “there exists the possibility that people may express their anti-war opinions in a public manner.”  

In response, the school’s Jewish Affinity Group spearheaded a counterpetition on Thursday, a copy of which was obtained by Jewish Insider. The letter, which has not yet been sent to the administration, thanks the university’s School of Social Work  for selecting Cardin and defends the decision.

“Ben Cardin is also a Jew who believes Jews have a right to self-determination in a land where they’re indisputably indigenous — Israel,” the letter, which garnered some 115 signatures in its first day, reads. “Should Senator Ben Cardin be canceled as a result?”  

A spokesperson for UMB SSW did not immediately respond to inquiry regarding whether the school is considering canceling Cardin as speaker. 

In a statement to JI, Cardin, who had been unaware of the petition, said he plans to use the commencement address to encourage student engagement and public service. “There is no higher calling than helping your community and people in need,” he said. “Graduates of the University of Maryland, School of Social Work will be on the frontlines of connecting individuals with the resources and support they need for their physical and mental health. Their work may not always be in the spotlight, but it is life changing for every person touched by their care and dedication.” 

On Oct. 7, Cardin said that he would introduce legislation “at the first opportunity” to provide additional funding for Iron Dome interceptors and Israeli defense. 

The Democratic lawmaker is set to retire in 2025, which will make Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) the state’s senior senator. In March, a group of more than 70 Maryland rabbis from across the denominational spectrum accused Van Hollen, a leading critic of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, of spreading falsehoods about Israel and stoking “divisions” and “isolat[ing]” Israel and the Jewish community in his state. 

The counterletter also drew participation from UMB SSW alumni, including Judith Schagrin, a 1979 graduate and retired child welfare social worker. 

Schagrin said that the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks in Israel were a wake-up call to the “antisemitism problem in our profession… we as social workers have an ethical commitment to social justice, rooting out hate and understanding other cultures, and somehow we have forgotten about the Jews.”  

“The only flaw in [Cardin’s] foreign policy seems to be that he’s a Jew who loves Israel,” she continued. “He’s being singled out because of that.”  

Jewish Insider’s senior congressional correspondent Marc Rod contributed reporting. 

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