To Am Yisrael (the Jewish people) and our friends,
I’m writing this note to underline the antisemitism that underlies the worldview of a lot of folks who have taken up residence on American university campuses. I don’t expect them to listen to this message – they’ve spent decades developing the language they use to sound reasonable when they’re espousing a worldview that is anything but. Nor do I actually expect the university administrations to respond directly; indeed, a culture of free speech should make it difficult to do much to faculty that say mean things. But we as Jews need to recognize that in addition to the genocidal adversaries we have in groups like Hamas, we also have adversaries who share common cause with them, but couch their attacks in flowery language that appeals to people who just want things to go away. And while “things” to those listeners doesn’t explicitly mean Jews, it does mean the violence they see in Jewish self-defense. Those listeners do not necessarily hate Jews, and are often swayed by reasonable sounding arguments, especially when they only hear small snippets of events half a world away.
A number of Harvard faculty have signed onto an open letter to Harvard President Claudine Gay, in which they express their dismay that Harvard would dare to stand against antisemitism. If you’re someone who cares deeply about antisemitism on campuses, at first glance, the letter is full of arguments that sound reasonable, even as they are apparently calling for restraint (but not restraint of antisemitism). Most of the arguments are rhetorical cover for antisemitism, and, at the end of the day, this letter is likely more a reflection of how stunned these faculty members are that this action happened, rather than a criticism of the action itself. I’ve included the letter below, and I’ll add in some inline commentary about what some of the words in it might mean or evoke, especially to Jews at this time.
It’s possible that some of the signers thought this was a letter about academic freedom and open dialogue, and mistakenly signed it. If so, I invite them to understand how they might be mistaken, and they can use their own platforms to loudly renounce their error. For the rest of you, this will hopefully let you see through some of the plausible sounding arguments that are being used.
Dear President Gay:
As Harvard faculty, we have been astonished by the pressure from donors, alumni, and even some on this campus to silence faculty, students, and staff critical of the actions of the State of Israel.
The first sentence may be the most important one: an expression of shock from a writer who believed that the social conventions of the world aligned with theirs so much that blatant and outright support for genocidal terror on the part of Hamas was something that people could get away with, and no one would dare to challenge this behavior. Recall that the entire Harvard debacle was started by a student group, with 33 co-signers, who published a letter on October 7th asserting, “We, the undersigned student organizations, hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” The students effectively claimed that Hamas’s atrocities (including murder, rape, mutilation, torture, burning people alive, and abduction) were Israeli action. The Harvard faculty who signed this letter are continued in that vein: pretending that this outside pressure isn’t about denouncing those who support terror. In this letter, they are claiming that support of Hamas’s actions or targeting Jews are really just critiques of Israel.
It is important to acknowledge the patronizing tone and format of much of the criticism you have received as well as the outright racism contained in some of it.
This argument is tantamount to “you’re racist for criticizing us!” This is revealing in two ways: first that the people acting in antisemitic ways believe that a valid defense of antisemitism is the color of their skin (that brown people can’t, by definition, be antisemitic, because you’re totally allowed to “punch up”), but second, that this is seen as a race war of sorts: brown Palestinians and their BIPOC allies against white Jews (ignoring that Israeli Jews are not predominantly European in origin, given the million Mizrahi Jews expelled from Israel’s Arab neighbors in 1948). Recall when “tone-policing” was considered bad form; but apparently that rule only applies when it is convenient. The language is also referencing President Gay’s race; while it is possible that some racists have used this opportunity to denigrate her, I haven’t seen that in the criticisms of Harvard’s complete lack of moral clarity under her leadership.
We were nevertheless profoundly dismayed by your November 9 message entitled “Combating Antisemitism.”
This continues the “we thought we had won the narrative battle” thread. Recall that Harvard has issued multiple statements already. The first statement (by the President and numerous Deans) on October 9th expressed that Harvard was “heartbroken” by both the Hamas attacks and the Israeli response. The second statement (by President Gay, October 10th) was very short: a condemnation of the Hamas atrocities, and asserting that the student statement did not represent Harvard. The third statement that week (also by President Gay alone), expressed rejection of Hamas’s atrocities, but immediately pivoted to a “both sides” tenor, and then brought up a free expression defense for the student groups who supported Hamas. It is unsurprising that some faculty would have thought that this matter was closed, with the Harvard administration willing to silently condone antisemitic activism on campus.
The University’s commitment to intellectual freedom and open dialogue seems to be giving way to something else entirely: a model of education in which the meaning of terms once eligible for interpretation is prescribed from above by a committee whose work was, on Tuesday, described to the faculty as only beginning.
There is a lot to unpack here. First, the University does NOT have and never has had a commitment to open dialogue – FIRE has ranked Harvard with a worst-in-the-nation rating on free expression. As for the definition of terms, the Harvard community, especially along the lines of identity politics, has often dictated what the specific meaning of terms is, and have often used the definition that a purported victim claims. The signing faculty’s issue is not that this is happening; it’s that the people defining antisemitism aren’t antisemites. Further, if an organization is going to assert that certain activities are beyond the pale, then it behooves the University to also clearly define what those activities are, rather than leaving their pronouncements vague and “eligible for interpretation.”
There should surely be limits to what is speakable, even in a university. Saying things that are plainly untrue – denying the Holocaust, for example – merits condemnation. Derogating other members of the community in racist, xenophobic, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic language merits condemnation.
The issue is not that language can be condemned: it’s that these faculty members would like to be in charge of defining what language matters – and they don’t care about antisemitism. Note that antisemitic language didn’t even make their list; they’ve limited the sole mention of antisemitism to merely be Holocaust-denial. I suspect the only reason that even makes the list is so that the term “denialist” is rooted in some meaning, so it can be applied to the other debates in a way to limit the speech of skeptics, by equating them to Holocaust-deniers (as we’ve seen with terms like “climate change denier” or “vaccine denier”).
There must, however, be room on a university campus for debate about the actions of states, including of the State of Israel.
This is a very common rhetorical tactic: when criticized for antisemitism, pivot to saying “we’re just debating/criticizing Israel, this isn’t about Jews.” A simple rubric for testing whether criticism of Israel might be rooted in antisemitism:
1: Does it Demonize Israel? Is the conversation around Israel loaded with language that makes clear that Israel is a villain? Language like “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” and “apartheid” are clear examples of this; statements made to portray Israel as awful. (A good mental test for the reader: if Israel actually wanted to commit genocide against the Gazans, how long would it take them, and would it look like humanitarian corridors and cell-phone warnings of impending strikes?)
2: Does it apply a Double Standard to Israel? Consider the plight of the Palestinian people. Have these voices commented at all on the plight of the Palestinians in Syria? Has Egypt been criticized for not permitting in refugees? Consider how many Muslim civilians have been killed in the last year around the world … and the overrepresentation of criticism directed at Israel. When we consider how ISIS was fought and defeated, was comparable criticism directed at the coalition, even as they engaged in far less careful practices than Israel?
3: Does it seek to Delegitimize Israel? Does the argument pretend Israel doesn’t fundamentally have a right to exist (calling it a “settler” state or a “colonist project”)? Arguments rooted in pretending that Israel isn’t a legitimate nation-state are antisemitic, especially if they also deny the Jewish connection to the land.
It cannot be ruled as ipso facto antisemitic to question the actions of this particular ethno-nationalist government any more than it would be ipso facto racist to question the actions of Robert Mugabe’s ethno-nationalist government in Zimbabwe.
Note that the ethno-nationalist states that surround Israel aren’t used as comparison, but rather one everyone dislikes. The reader is invited to think of Israel in the same terms as Zimbabwe’s Gukurahundi genocide, rather than comparing it to, say, the 20-odd Arab Muslim states that surround Israel (most of which have ethnically cleansed themselves entirely of Jews). While ethno-nationalism is a norm in much of the world, calling it out as a feature is also a specific appeal in America – the ethno-nationalist white supremacist fringe movement is an issue that many people can relate to, and tying Israel to them perpetuates the anti-semitic idea that Israeli Jews are white supremacists.
Nor can arguments that characterize Israel as an “apartheid” state or its recent actions as “ethnic cleansing” or even “genocide” be considered automatically antisemitic, regardless of whether one concurs with such arguments. The University’s recently-announced “Discrimination and Bullying Policies and Procedures,” it is useful to remember, includes “political belief” (and thus presumably its expression) as a protected category.
Some immediate examples of antisemitic arguments are now provided, with the assertion that they aren’t antisemitic – in a letter that has already asserted that it is ipso facto racist to challenge the antisemitic actions and statements of people who happen to be non-White. Only the terms “settler” and “colonizer” didn’t explicitly make the list, but they’ll show up implicitly later.
As for the Discrimination policy noted, while “political belief” is as protected as “religion,” that doesn’t mean all expressions of those are protected – many religions explicitly demand awful things (stoning people, for instance) that modern practitioners usually ignore, but I doubt Harvard would let those practices slide (unless you were stoning Jews, probably).
It is understandable that in the shadow of the twentieth-century history of Europe, Palestine, and Israel, as well as the attacks of October 7 and the ongoing catastrophe in Gaza, you would want to remind members of our community that their words have meaning.
There is a subtle narrative being told to one set of readers in the list of words the professors used: the Holocaust in Europe led to the occupation of Palestine* by the settler colonial state of Israel, whose policies justified the October 7th atrocities, and Israel’s defense of its people against genocide makes them responsible for every civilian life lost, especially the ones Hamas has put at risk deliberately. It would be easy to misread this as just listing a few contextual clues.
*note that there was not a political state known as Palestine prior to 1948, it referred to a region of the world that encompasses what we now think of as Gaza, Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan; its name was applied by the Romans after yet another failed uprising of the indigenous Israelites as a way of ethnically cleansing the land. The last sovereign state in Palestine was the Kingdom of Judea. The flag of “Palestine” in the first half of the 20th century had a Magen David on it.
And yet, at a moment when an affiliate of the University has with apparent impunity stood in the yard and accused students of supporting terrorism, your delineation of the limits of acceptable expression on our campus is dangerously one-sided.
Hamas is an internationally-recognized terror organization that is also the elected government of Gaza. It conducted a genocidal campaign on October 7th, and documented it for us. Defending Hamas’s actions on that day, or blaming them on Israel, is supporting terrorism. 34 student groups stood up and supported terrorism. Most of those groups or their officers have yet to recant or apologize for those statements.
If we want to talk about words having meaning and acceptable expression, I’ve sat in rooms at Harvard, and had a single individual say, in short order:
- It’s okay to punch a Nazi;
- All white supremacists are Nazis;
- Anyone who isn’t working to dismantle the tools of white supremacy is a white supremacist;
- Capitalism is a tool of white supremacy.
Those are a set of words that are, I think, beyond the pale. It’s justifying violence toward people based on their support for … checks notes … the economic system that has lifted more people out of abject poverty than every other system in the history of humanity. But those are also words, spoken in a Harvard Center, that, when raised to the administration of the center, were given a pass. For a long time, members of the Harvard community have spoken truly awful things with impunity, but as long as they are the right awful things, Harvard professors and administrators have been tolerant of them.
Similarly, the phrase “from the river to the sea, Palestine must be free” has a long and complicated history.
No, it does not. The River is the Jordan. The Sea is the Mediterranean. Israel sits between those two, and this phrase is a direct call to ethnically cleanse Israel of Jews, and establish another judenrein state in the region. There is nothing complicated about it; it has been part of the charter of actual genocidal organizations like Hamas for decades. The “Palestine” in this chant is not referencing the Palestinian Territories of Gaza and the West Bank, it refers to the entirety of the British Mandate between the Jordan and the Mediterranean: all of Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Its interpretation deserves, and is receiving, sustained and ongoing inquiry and debate. Singling it out as necessarily implying removalism or even eliminationism – when over a million Palestinians have been forced from their homes and over ten thousand civilians, including four thousand children, have been slain in Gaza, actions which the Holocaust historian Omer Bartov suggests in the New York Times may amount to a “crime against humanity” being executed with “genocidal intent” – is imprudent as a matter of university policy and badly misjudged as an act of moral leadership.
There are two misdirections happening here. One is a “whataboutism” argument, and the other an indirect appeal to authority. If “from the river to the sea” is eliminationist rhetoric (it is), then that’s a fact on its own. Whether or not the displacement of a million Palestinians who are used by Hamas as the ablative armor of a terrorist fortress, the deaths of ten thousand Palestinians (who are unlikely to all be civilians), or the deaths of four thousand minors (note that half of Gaza is under the age of 18, and we do not know how many of the casualties are Hamas’s child soldiers) are problematic in their own right does not alter the fact that calling for the genocidal murder of Jews and the destruction of Israel is a problem. As has been noted elsewhere, it is quite likely that more Germans died in World War II than Jews in the Holocaust, yet it would be unserious to use that fact to claim that criticism of the Nazis and their supporters would be “imprudent.”
As for the reference to Omer Bartov’s column, always be cautious when someone quotes only phrases and strings them together in a sentence. “Crime against humanity” appears in the second paragraph (“As a historian of genocide, I believe that there is no proof that genocide is currently taking place in Gaza, although it is very likely that war crimes, and even crimes against humanity, are happening.”) and in the third paragraph, “genocidal intent” (“In justifying the assault, Israeli leaders and generals have made terrifying pronouncements that indicate a genocidal intent.”). Note that Mr. Bartov uses “justifying” the assault language (specifically, a quote from Devarim 25:17 “Remember what Amalek did to you,” a reference to an ancient people who specifically targeted women and children, and the commandment to blot out their memory) while the letter writers now attach that to the “execution” of the war. This allows them to indirectly assert that Mr. Bartov has made these claims, not them, even as they take his cautionary note and make it stronger.
We call on you to present a balanced commitment to the support of intellectual freedom at Harvard by taking the following steps:
Basically, these steps amount to “please make sure that the people who are antisemitic get the full protection of Harvard, and don’t do anything to improve.”
- Resisting calls to suspend and/or decertify the Palestine Solidarity Committee in retaliation for its public statements and advocacy, and resisting calls to set aside the University’s normal disciplinary procedures to prematurely sanction students and employees because of concerns raised about their political activity absent specific allegations of wrongdoing (and those already thusly sanctioned must be reinstated pending a procedurally sound investigation);
- Directing the President’s Advisory Group on Antisemitism to explain its definition of antisemitism to the University community, as requested at the FAS faculty meeting of November 7, before recommending any policies touching upon the freedom of thought and expression on our campus;
- Explicitly and specifically affirming the University’s commitment to the freedom of thought, inquiry, and expression in light of the extraordinary pressure being brought to bear upon critics of the State of Israel and advocates of the Palestinian people, and indicating that there can be no tolerance for a “Palestine exception” to free speech;
- Creating an advisory group on Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab racism (as suggested at the FAS faculty meeting of November 7).
Signers as of this moment captured for posterity, in case the letter suddenly disappears. Captured on 17-Nov-2023.
- Walter Johnson, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Kirsten Weld, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Vijay Iyer, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Deidre Lynch, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Nikolas Bowie, Harvard Law School
- Diane Moore, Harvard Divinity School
- Namwali Serpell, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Harvard Kennedy School
- Sidney Chalhoub, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Christopher Hasty, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Salma Abu Ayyash, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Jesse B. Bump, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health
- Ryan D. Doerfler, Harvard Law School
- Atalia Omer, Harvard Divinity School
- Bram Wispelwey, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School
- Sara Roy, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Neel Mukherjee, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Margareta Matache, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health
- Soham Patel, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- John Womack, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Musa Syeed, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Jacinda Tran, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Vincent Brown, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Adhy Kim, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Richard Thomas, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Lara Jirmanus, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health
- Altaf Saadi, Harvard Medical School
- Hibah Osman, Harvard Medical School
- Lisa Thompson, Harvard School of Dental Medicine
- Khameer Kidia, Harvard Medical School
- Mary T Bassett, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health
- Sawsan Abdulrahim, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health
- Cemal Kafadar, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Lauren Kaminsky, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Amy Hollywood, Harvard Divinity School
- Malak Rafla, Harvard Medical School
- Bassima Abdallah, Harvard Medical School
- Alejandra Caraballo, Harvard Law School
- Eleanor Craig, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Matylda Figlerowicz, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Adam Haber, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health
- Tara K. Menon, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Arunabh Ghosh, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Joel Suarez, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Karameh Kuemmerle, Harvard Medical School
- Sam Marks, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Rosie Bsheer, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Nader Uthman, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Glenda Carpio, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Adaner Usmani, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Paulina Alberto, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Sarah Darghouth, Harvard Medical School
- Alisa Khan, Harvard Medical School
- Patricia Stoeck, Harvard Medical School
- Hajirah Saeex, Harvard Medical School
- Sherar Andalcio, Harvard Medical School
- Diana L. Eck, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Gordon Schiff, Harvard Medical School
- Mahmoud Abu Hazeem, Harvard Medical School
- Rania El Fekih, Harvard Medical School
- Hicham Skali, Harvard Medical School
- Ramona Dvorak, Harvard Medical School
- Kamal Itani, Harvard Medical School
- Haytham Kaafarani, Harvard Medical School
- Ousmane Kane, Harvard Divinity School
- David U. Himmelstein, Harvard Medical School
- Joycelyn Ronda, Harvard Medical School
- Christian Williams, Harvard Law School
- Steffie Woodhandler, Harvard Medical School
- Ju Yon Kim, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- M. Amin Arnaout, Harvard Medical School
- Autumn Allen, Harvard Graduate School of Education
- Avik Chatterjee, Harvard Medical School
- Farhana Sharmeen, Harvard Medical School
- Duncan Kennedy, Harvard Law School
- Aisha James, Harvard Medical School
- Corey Hardin, Harvard Medical School
- Caroline Light, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Karen Huang, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- George Aumoithe, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Michelle Morse, Harvard Medical School
- Sadeq Rahimi, Harvard Medical School
- Sugata Bose, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Lorenzo Bondioli, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Michael Bronski, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- David Kennedy, Harvard Law School
- Christina Villarreal, Harvard Graduate School of Education
- Hilary Rantisi, Harvard Divinity School
- Kassem Safa, Harvard Medical School
- Huma Farid, Harvard Medical School
- Bernhard Nickel, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Amanda Raffoul, Harvard Medical School
- Martha Ann Selby, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Marshall Ganz, Harvard Kennedy School
- Amir Mohareb, Harvard Medical School
- Eman Ansari, Harvard Medical School
- Mohamed Jarraya, Harvard Medical School
- Liz McKenna, Harvard Kennedy School
- Maggie Doherty, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Hussein Rashid, Harvard Divinity School
- Juliana Morris, Harvard Medical School
- Sandra Smith, Harvard Kennedy School
- Kaia Stern, Harvard Graduate School of Education
- Nicholas Bloom, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Theodore Weatherwax, Harvard Medical School
- Rita Hamad, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health
- Emmet von Stackelberg, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Areej Hassan, Harvard Medical School
- David Showalter, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Amina Elbendary, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Pedja Stojicic, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health
- Ryan Enos, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Raif S. Geha, Harvard Medical School
- Chance Bonar, Harvard Divinity School
- Nikhil Mathews, Harvard Medical School
- Hesham Hamoda, Harvard Medical School
- Talal Chatila, Harvard Medical School
- Jennifer Leaning, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health
- Gretchen Brion-Meisels, Harvard Graduate School of Education