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“…The heroes of the pandemic are undoubtedly the women and men of science and medicine in Israel and around the world. They were the ones to work around the clock, while racing against it, and it’s mainly due to them – and the knowledge gained over many years of practice – that we are able to stand here today at a public ceremony attended by this great congregation, mask-free, and bless ‘Shehecheyanu.’” With these words Justice Esther Hayut, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Israel, concluded her opening speech as guest of honor at the Feinberg Graduate School’s 2021 commencement. The ceremony took place on the Weizmann campus, returning to its “real life” format after pandemic restrictions had been lifted.
Justice Hayut spoke in her address about the similarities and differences between the rules of evidence and scientific reasoning. She even offered her audience a rare glimpse into the dramatic deliberations that took place in the Supreme Court over lockdown policies and other restrictions imposed by the government this passing year: “…I want to take you all back to March 2020. The novel Coronavirus had just begun arriving at our borders and little was known about it. What are its symptoms? What is the mortality rate? Do masks provide adequate protection? And how long can the virus be airborne or attached to surfaces? Even though there were plenty of unanswered questions at the time, the State of Israel had decided to follow through with a preventive strategy and instated a state-wide lockdown. The education system was mostly shut down, the skies closed and even leaving one’s home was restricted; all the while the General Security Service deployed its resources to interrupt the chain of infection.
""We as justices had to assume that the extent of COVID-19’s threat could not be unequivocally proven, black on white legal paper, but it could not be easily refuted either"
“With this in mind, various citizens and civil organizations submitted appeals to the Supreme Court challenging lockdown policies by claiming that they were disproportionate and inappropriate in their treatment of basic civil rights. The State, on its part, presented an epidemiological legal opinion provided by the Ministry of Health’s professional cadre, which it later relied on when imposing its different restrictions.
“…As the Court exercised its jurisdiction based on deliberations supported by scientific evidence, we were aware of the gentle balancing act that needed to be played out, which had repercussions to human life. We as justices had to assume that the extent of COVID-19’s threat could not be unequivocally proven, black on white legal paper, but it could not be easily refuted either. However, avoiding making a decision altogether – to this or that end – was never an option…”
Weizmann Institute President, Prof. Alon Chen, referred to the events of the passing year in his address as well: “After more than a year of working and living through a global pandemic, it is good to be back here in person and to meet all of you, with no filters,” he told graduates and their family members. He also recommended that they always remember to nurture their primal, childlike curiosity that guides them in the pursuit of knowledge and which is “a source of unperishable energy for us all.” Prof. Gilad Perez, Dean of the Feinberg Graduate School, emphasized in his address the importance and immense value of reliable information and true knowledge, which was made all too clear during the pandemic; he added: “For many in academia and beyond, you are officially becoming ambassadors of human knowledge. It might be hard for you to see it at the moment, but you are now carrying with you this quality seal for many more years to come – and it is definitely something worth celebrating.”
Prof. Daniella Goldfarb, Chair of the Scientific Council, mentioned in her speech the violence that surged through Israel lately: “In these past months, we have witnessed trying events of violence, racism, separatism and the exclusion of different social groups from our society. Remember this – science brings us closer together in unison. We work together regardless of gender, religion, race and nationality; working together while making the best use that we can of our intellectual resources, of our curiosity, in order to solve problems and expand human knowledge and understanding of nature.”
The evening’s entertainment was entrusted to singer-songwriter Roni Daloumi and musician Aviv Koren.
12% of graduates – international students
A total of 115 alumnae and 171 alumni received their degrees – 105 Doctorates and 181 Masters – from the Feinberg Graduate School this year. While 33 out of 54 Doctoral graduates in the Life Sciences were female students, only one out of thirteen Physical Sciences graduates and one out of seven Mathematics and Computer Science graduates were female students. Among this year’s cloak wearers and mortarboard throwers were also 31 international research students – 12% of total graduates.
This year’s traditional graduates’ address was given by Dr. Aviram Uri, who has completed both his Master’s and Doctorate under the supervision of Prof. Eli Zeldov of the Condensed Matter Physics Department. Uri, married and father of three girls, served as an active and reserve helicopter pilot in Israel’s Air Force for the past twenty years, and had only recently stored away his uniform for good.
“Science unites humanity. Is this the reason why we do it? No. We do it because it’s fun; because it intrigues us; and because it’s really, truly, fun. Except for when things don’t quite work out the way you wanted them to – which is 95% of the time,” joked Uri during his opening lines and later added on a more serious note: “…When I completed active duty in the Air Force and started studying – I remember that this change was very significant for me and that one of the following two is probably correct: either sane reality is very painful and the academia is an insane bubble detached from it; or that the opposite is in fact true and the academia is an island of sanity in an ocean of madness. I would like to believe the second option to be true.”
""…We would like to thank our parents that gave us the freedom to think for ourselves... To our spouses and partners that forgave us when we disappeared at night because the helium was running out during measurements or because the mice needed us"
Uri, who will soon relocate to Boston to begin his postdoctoral fellowship at MIT, signed off by thanking, on behalf of all Feinberg graduates, a long line of Weizmann Institute officials and added: “…We would like to thank our parents that gave us the freedom to think for ourselves and in this way enabled our timely arrival at Weizmann’s gates. To our spouses and partners that forgave us when we disappeared at night because the helium was running out during measurements or because the mice needed us. To our teachers at school, and to that particular one which always believed in us… It is true, Earth is just a small bump in an almost infinite void, but it’s our small bump and we must watch over it. Science is the only way forward for rising up to the challenges of our era – one step at a time. As scientists we take part in realizing our generation’s responsibility for the wellbeing of future generations to come.”