A Star Is Born: Hebrew University’s President Wheels on His Counterparts at Harvard and Stanford for Failing To Show ‘Moral Courage’ on Israel

Asher Cohen calls Harvard and Stanford ‘lighthouses that failed us’ in one of two devastating letters to the leading figures in American academia.

Igor Farberov
The president of Hebrew University, Asher Cohen. Igor Farberov

Harvard and Stanford are “lighthouses that have failed us.” That is the word from Hebrew University, where the president of one of Israel’s flagship universities, Asher Cohen, accuses the Cambridge and Palo Alto powerhouses of issuing “shockingly feeble condemnations” that fail to “unequivocally” reckon with the evil  of Hamas’s attacks on Israel.  

The release of public letters from Mr. Cohen and Hebrew University’s rector, Tamir Sheafer, to President Claudine Gay of Harvard and President Richard Saller of Stanford signals a remarkable escalation in the divisions Hamas’s atrocities have laid bare in academia’s hallowed halls. The letters also telegraph that the era of deference to America’s crown jewels of education could be nearing an end.

The correspondence comes as Harvard, Stanford, and other schools have shrunk from condemning forthrightly Hamas’s attacks. Mr. Cohen writes to the presidents of Harvard and Stanford that “you have failed us, not only as Israelis, who are subject to the imminent threat of being subject to genocide, but also as leaders of an academic institution.”

Mr. Asher was speaking from an exceptionally distinguished pulpit. At the dedication of Hebrew University, in 1925, Lord Balfour was the guest of honor and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the famed first chief rabbi of mandatory Palestine, gave the invocation. Albert Einstein was a founder, and Sigmund Freud, Martin Buber, and Chaim Weizmann sat on its board of governors. 

In a departure from the sometimes stultifying formalities of legal comity, the leaders of one of the Jewish state’s flagships university — its founding was a little less than three centuries after Harvard’s — accuse their American counterparts of “taking a morally relativist approach regarding the massacre committed by Hamas.” 

President Cohen spoke with the Sun by telephone from Jerusalem. He related that the “enormity of the horror that took place” in southern Israel “is not just unspeakable. It is unprecedented.” He called it a “singularity,” a word first popularized by Einstein to describe the “final state of matter falling into a black hole.” Einstein delivered the first science lecture, on the theory of relativity, at Hebrew University, in 1923.  

Against this backdrop, Mr. Cohen said that he was “shocked by what we saw from Harvard and Stanford,” whose public pronouncements suggest that they see Hamas’s attack as “just one more step in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” rather than as the deadliest day for Jewish civilians since the Holocaust. “One wonders,” he asks, “how come?”     

The question is an acute one for Hebrew University’s leader. He tells the Sun that his school counts “faculty members and students who were murdered” as well as university affiliates who are “missing in action.” The academic year, which was supposed to open on Sunday, has been pushed back by three weeks because a “major proportion of our students and teaching assistants were called to reserve units — they are not here.”

Mr. Cohen maintains that Harvard and Stanford “care about their own community” and were “willing to sacrifice the truth” in the service of internal cohesion, even at the cost of pandering to “radical groups.” In his letter, Mr. Cohen writes to presidents Gay and Saller that “you have failed us, not only as Israelis, who are subject to the imminent threat of being subject to genocide, but also as leaders of an academic institution.”

The accusation that the leadership of the two blue chip schools has failed to “meet the most minimal standards of moral leadership, courage, and commitment to truth” comes after Ms. Gay stood silent until last Monday, only to  issue two statements many saw as lukewarm. Adding to the consternation was a missive signed by more than 30 student groups holding “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.”

Ms. Gay, finally, in a statement titled “War in the Middle East,” said, “Let there be no doubt that I condemn the terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas.” She added that “while our students have the right to speak for themselves, no student group — not even 30 student groups — speaks for Harvard University or its leadership.”

Stanford responded to the Sun’s request for comment by sharing “An Update for the Stanford Community,” dated October 11. That note, from Mr. Saller and the provost, Jenny Martinez, says that “as a moral matter, we condemn all terrorism and mass atrocities.” It also noted “intolerable atrocities including murder of civilians and kidnapping” committed by Hamas. 

The initial note from Mr. Saller and Ms. Martinez — she previously served as the dean of Stanford’s law school, where last year a federal judge was shouted down mid-lecture — allowed, “We are deeply saddened and horrified by the death and human suffering,” but did not mention the words “Jewish,” “Israel,” “Palestinians,” or “Hamas.”  The second letter did include those terms.

Harvard did not respond to a request for comment in respect of Mr. Cohen’s letter, which tells Harvard that the world “needs you to show some moral courage. … All that is needed is basic common sense and minimum integrity.”

The New York Sun

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