Anti-Israel Protesters Disrupt Harvard’s Convocation for New Students as Sentiment Against Israel Grows on Elite Campuses

‘I’m sorry to see anyone at Harvard make anti-semitic statements as defined by the US government,’ a former university president, Larry Summers, tells the Sun.

Alex Bernat
Protesters outside Harvard's convocation, September 4, 2023, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Alex Bernat

While the start of the school year is typically a moment for colleges to welcome new students to campus through uplifting speeches and cherished traditions, at Harvard, freshmen are facing anti-Israel protests in their first days that some are calling “extremely disrespectful.” 

As was the case last year, Harvard’s convocation ceremony for the class of 2027 was interrupted by shouts of protest from members of the student organization in support of Palestine, the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee.

“Veritas? Here’s the real truth: Harvard supports Israel apartheid,” one of numerous banners carried into Harvard Yard read. The ceremony was the first led by the university’s new president, Claudine Gay.

As quiet settled over the crowd after remarks by the dean of Harvard College, Rakesh Khurana, a student involved in the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, Asmer Safi, stood up, according to reporting by the Harvard student newspaper, the Crimson. 

“Harvard supports investments and upholds Israeli apartheid and the oppression of millions of Palestinians across the world,” Mr. Safi shouted, as seen in video footage of the event obtained by the Sun. “Join the Palestinian solidarity movement, and hold Harvard accountable.” 

Mr. Safi and the Palestinian Solidarity Committee did not respond to the Sun’s repeated requests for comment.

“I was really disappointed,” one freshman student, Charlie Bernat, tells the Sun, saying the protest disturbed “an amazing, once in a lifetime experience that focuses on welcoming freshmen to an entirely new community.”

The attempt to use the event “to further political agendas,” Mr. Bernat says, was “disrespectful to the class of 2027 and to the entire Harvard community.”

“I’m sorry to see anyone at Harvard make antisemitic statements as defined by the U.S. government,” a former university president, Larry Summers, tells the Sun. “There is nothing wrong with criticizing Israeli policy but there is a line that is crossed when Israel is singled out or demonized.”

The demonstrations come as anti-Israeli sentiment has proliferated on Harvard’s campus, much as it has at other elite college campuses as the “Boycott, Divest and Sanction” movement has gained steam. 

The Anti-Defamation League counted more than 350 anti-Israel campus incidents in 2022, many of which took the form of protests that ostracized Zionist students, supported anti-Israel violence, and promoted antisemitic tropes. This surge represents the highest number on record since ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979.

The incident also took place just before the release of a survey that placed Harvard last in a ranking of free speech rights on American campuses.

At Harvard, some student and faculty leaders have admonished the disruptive anti-Israel protests as antithetical to a liberal arts education.

“It’s extremely disrespectful of this organization to decide that their cause du jour is worth ruining the beginning of four years that these freshmen should be really excited about,” a student who serves on the board of a center for Jewish life on campus, Harvard Chabad, Alex Bernat — the brother of Charlie Bernat — tells the Sun.

The politicization of a purportedly apolitical university-wide gathering contributes, in Alex Bernat’s view, to what he described as a culture of hostility aimed at students who identify as Zionist or Israeli. 

In recent years, the Palestine Solidarity Committee has become more vocal in denouncing the state of Israel at Harvard. The organization is Harvard’s on-campus representation of the BDS movement, which operates on the principle that “Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity,” according to its website. 

In April 2022, an art display in the center of campus equated Zionism with “racism” and “white supremacy.” The Crimson subsequently published an editorial endorsing the display and “Palestine’s cry for freedom,” a departure from the paper’s opposition to BDS in prior years, the Jerusalem Post reported.

In response, more than a hundred Harvard faculty members, including Mr. Summers and an emeritus law professor, Alan Dershowitz, criticized the Crimson for “turning the complex and intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a caricature that singles out only one side for blame with a false binary of oppressor versus oppressed.”

“The reality is that BDS merely coarsens the discourse on campus and contributes to antisemitism,” the faculty said in a statement.

Asked by the Sun about the convocation protest, Mr. Dershowitz emphasizes the importance of “-ism equity,” meaning that the school must treat political movements such as Zionism and Palestinianism equally. 

“I’m pro-Israel, but I defend the right of people to be anti-Israel, as long as the same rules apply to people who are anti-Palestinian,” Mr. Dershowitz says. “As long as there’s one rule for everybody, then I have no problems with short protests, both verbal and by manner. But it has to be equally applied.”

Fewer students are willing to stand up for Israel than there are students advocating for Palestine, though, rendering the playing field for discourse on the conflict unequal, Spencer Glassman, a Harvard student who is involved in the hub for Jewish life on campus, Harvard Hillel, and its affiliated group advocating for the Jewish state, the Harvard Israel Initiative, argues.

“I don’t feel that there’s any official policy that would prohibit me from stating my views on the Israel-Palestine issue,” Mr. Glassman says, but “social pressure” often silences support of Israel. “A smaller minority shouldn’t be punished for their size.”

Mr. Glassman says the outnumbering of Israeli advocates on campus underscores “the existential risk to the existence of Jewish people at large in any single generation.”

The protesters “filled that event with tension and animosity as opposed to community and optimism,” he said, only worsening “a ubiquitous theme throughout Jewish history to speak so harshly against the only safe place for that group.”

In addition to demanding divestment, the protesters at the convocation called for Harvard to end its program that brings non-Jewish students to Israel and the West Bank over spring break, Israel Trek. The crowd responded with some smatterings of applause while some members of the Jewish community in attendance reportedly booed. 

The ceremony was also interrupted by shouts from a student demanding the school “dename Winthrop,” one of the college’s residential houses whose namesakes have been connected to slavery and the poor treatment of Indigenous peoples.

Mr. Bernat argues that PSC differs from student movements like “denaming” because it is “inherently intertwined” with an Islamic terrorist organization, Hamas, and an Islamic militant group, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, both of which have a history of abuse toward minorities and LGBTQ people. 

These groups are “antithetical to most values that we as Americans attending a liberal arts institution would hold dear,” he says. “It’s dangerous to let these protesters dance around the real human rights abuses that are going on in the West Bank.”

“Everybody has the right to protest the political issues that are important to them,” a student who writes about BDS and free speech issues for an undergraduate journal, Harvard Political Review, Shira Hoffer, tells the Sun. 

Convocation provides an opportunity for students to make their opinions known in front of the leaders of the university, but Ms. Hoffer says she wishes that this annual event were “non-political,” adding that “convocation and graduation bookend your college experience, and I would like the focus to be on that — not on partisan politics.”

A Harvard student who supports a two-state solution to the conflict, Rebecca Ackerman, argues that the issue is more complex than dialogue on campus makes it seem: “To make it so black and white and present it in this charged political way, when there are Israelis sitting in that audience and that’s their home — I think that can feel super exclusive.”

Ms. Ackerman says that pro-Palestine activists should voice their support in ways that are less negative and potentially traumatic toward the other side.

“I have people I love and who are my family that live in Israel, and when bombs are flying either way, it’s like, these are people and this is their life and this is their community and this is their home,” she says, noting that she grew up visiting her relatives in Israel and has sequestered with them in bomb shelters.

Protesting against Israel, therefore, is “not just a political statement.”

Ms. Ackerman says she wishes students could find opportunities at university-wide events “to come together, Israel and Palestine, and demonstrate unity and peace and show the great example of youth.”

A Harvard College spokesman, Jonathan Palumbo, did not directly address the interruption, but explained that “freedom of expression is essential to a liberal arts and sciences education” in a statement to the Crimson.

Asked by the Sun whether Mr. Safi faces any disciplinary action over his disruption of the convocation, Harvard’s press office did not immediately respond.

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Correction: Harvard’s convocation for the Class of 2027 was disrupted by protest. A previous version of this story misstated how often such events have been interrupted.


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