Harvard Is Denounced as Student Groups Rally Against Israel and University President Is Silent

President Larry Summers of Harvard says, ‘I am sickened. I cannot fathom the [Harvard] Administration’s failure to disassociate the University and condemn this statement from student groups.’

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

“I have never been as disillusioned and alienated as I am today,” a former president of Harvard University, Larry Summers, says of the deafening silence on Hamas’s war at Gaza from the administration at America’s oldest university.

Yet many Harvard students have been anything but silent, and are coming out strongly against Israel. Thirty-one undergraduate Harvard student organizations “hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence,” according to a joint statement claiming that “in the coming days, Palestinians will be forced to bear the full brunt of Israel’s violence.” The student statement is being widely denounced and has drawn fear and outrage among Jewish students. 

The student groups’ statement represents a push by “every major university toward professors and administrators propagandizing students toward woke bigotry,” an emeritus professor of law at Harvard, Alan Dershowitz, tells the Sun. “The answer to such lies is truth. The real tragedy is that some of these students will be the leaders of America and the world tomorrow.”

“Mindless affiliation with the Palestinian cause is a constant of sophomoric student leftism,” a Harvard professor, Steven Pinker, tells the Sun. “The endorsement of war crimes — the deliberate massacre and kidnapping of civilians — by a regime violently opposed to peace, democracy, and women’s and LGBT rights,” he says, “represents a new low.”

The university has yet to release a formal statement condemning the violence at Gaza or the letter in particular, despite having been quick to publicly support Ukraine after Russia’s invasion. Some faculty deans of a student dorm, Adams House, hosted a “vigil for the Middle East” on Sunday night to “grieve the ongoing violence and loss of life in Palestine and Israel,” according to an email obtained by the Sun. The deans made no mention of Hamas and are using the name “Palestine,” which is not recognized as a country by America.

In his posts on X, Mr. Summers referenced the 2020 statement by the new university president, Claudine Gay, against police violence following the death of George Floyd. He denounced Ms. Gay’s failure to address violence at Gaza three days into the war. This inaction, he says, has “allowed Harvard to appear at best neutral towards acts of terror against the Jewish state of Israel.”

Other leading academics are criticizing the school. “Something is deeply, deeply wrong in academia,” a Princeton professor, Robert George, declares on X in response to the Harvard student letter. “Harvard parents—talk to your educated kids about this,” a political scientist, Ian Bremmer, writes. Following student backlash, Harvard’s Palestinian Solidarity Committee, which posted the statement, deleted its Instagram account.

“Harvard administrators, which include several prominent Jews, have a moral obligation to condemn the bigotry,” Mr. Dershowitz says. “They would condemn it if it was directed against other minorities but they seem to be applying the double standard of silence when it comes to Jews in Israel.” 

Campus discourse surrounding the war at Gaza appears to be controlled by an “extraordinarily vocal minority of students” who are “making excuses for terrorism,” a student who serves on the board of a center for Jewish life on campus, Harvard Chabad, Alex Bernat, tells the Sun. The 31 signatories of the letter out of the school’s 569 student groups include graduate students affiliated with Harvard’s School of Government and Amnesty International’s campus group. 

As Mr. Summers points out, when Russia invaded Ukraine in January of 2022, the university immediately released a statement of support for Ukraine and flew its flag above the white granite building in the center of Harvard Yard, which is a national historic landmark. “I would love to see the Israeli flag flying off of University Hall the same way the Ukrainian one was,” Mr. Bernat says. 

The administration is silent today because it “doesn’t want to be called ‘colonizers’ and ‘racists,’ which is inevitably what all those groups are going to call them if they say anything that supports Jewish lives,” a Harvard student involved in the hub for Jewish life on campus, Harvard Hillel, Spencer Glassman, tells the Sun. 

Mr. Glassman adds, though, that school leaders “have not been slow to discuss their views on very political things, whether it’s U.S. elections, Supreme Court decisions. So when there’s a tragedy that affects a huge portion of the Harvard community, I don’t know why they wouldn’t say something.” 

Even those who are “sympathetic” to the Palestinian cause are expressing “horror and disgust” at Harvard’s response to the tragedy in Israel: “It didn’t occur to me that the PSC, never mind so many friends, could support the actions of Hamas when they slaughter hundreds in a music festival,” student Theo Harper, who is the president of America’s oldest collegiate debate society, the Harvard Political Union, says.

On Harvard’s “divided” campus, “support for Hamas, and their genocidal campaign, runs deep,” Mr. Harper tells the Sun. “The PSC has successfully turned this into a narrative about colonialism and liberation, and people don’t like to speak against that even though Hamas’ attack is nothing more than barbaric terrorism.” 

Whether the university denounces Hamas’s terrorism will be a test of Ms. Gay’s leadership at the school’s helm. Mr. Summers warned of rising global antisemitism in a 2002 address at Harvard. In an editorial for the Sun last year, he wrote that his harrowing prophecy came true on his own campus, where antisemitism “is being practiced in both intent and effect.”

Mr. Dershowitz traces the school’s attitude toward Jewish issues back to the 1930s, when, he says, many Harvard students showed support for Adolf Hitler. “Harvard had one of the worst records in the world when it came to Nazism and the Holocaust,” he says. “It should’ve learned from its failure back then.” 

On Sunday night, Harvard Hillel hosted an Israeli solidarity dinner attended by Ms. Gay as well as the college’s dean and the university provost, Harvard’s chief academic and financial officer. Afterward, a couple hundred students gathered by the school’s main library, where candles were lit in the shape of the star of David. They wrapped their arms around each other as they sang the words, “Am Yisrael Chai,” meaning “the nation of Israel lives.”

From the steps of the library, Rabbi Hirsch Zarchi urged, “If you’re going to be a leader, moral equivalence or confusion should never be part of the equation. A society or world or community that builds lifeboats for some and not others should have no place in a leadership community. Sadly on this campus, as we speak, there are people making excuses for murder,” according to an Instagram video posted by the Harvard Chabad.

Rabbi Zarchi, who serves as a Jewish chaplain to thousands of Harvard students and alumni, reminded the crowd of the university’s motto, Veritas, meaning truth, and implored them to have courage: “Don’t be intimidated.”

No ivory tower is immune to the shockwaves that Hamas’s war is triggering within and beyond the Middle East. As Mr. Dershowitz tells the Sun, “antisemitism is a worldwide problem, and it’s a shame that universities have become an important part of it.”

Harvard’s communications office did not immediately respond to the Sun’s request for comment. Neither did the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee. 

The New York Sun

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