When people tell you they are antisemitic, believe them

Leadership Moment: Harvard and Anti-Semitism

Last week, I didn’t send out a newsletter, because I was going to write it up on Sunday, but then, like much of the world, I was stunned and dismayed at the vile actions of Hamas in invading Israel, and raping, hostage-taking, and murdering their way through Israeli civilians. Words cannot capture how awful Hamas and its actions are. For the last three quarters of a century, the phrase “Never Again” gets used, and it’s never more meaningful that right now, when an organization whose stated goal is the eradication of Jews actually starts doing it, and livestreams their actions. Even the Nazis had sufficient self-awareness to try to hide the death camps.

The next day, groups across the world began celebrating Hamas and its actions. Some chanting murderous taunts (“Gas the Jews”), others veiling slightly their genocidal ambitions (“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which requires the eradication of every Jew in Israel), and others cheering on Hamas’s victory or blaming it on Israel.

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American universities have long suffered from a dilemma in facing conversations surrounding Israel, given the significant activist population that rarely misses an opportunity to demonize, delegitimize, and apply double standards to Israel. It sadly comes as no surprise that student groups on many college campuses signed aboard with Hamas. Such was the case at Harvard, with one student group issuing a missive declaring that all Hamas activities can only be blamed on Israel, and calling for action within the Harvard community to “stop the ongoing annihilation of Palestine.” 33 student groups co-signed the missive.

As a diverse organization, Harvard now faced a conundrum. Could it clearly issue a statement denouncing Hamas, and criticizing the students? Or would it attempt to carefully navigate between Jews who physical safety was being threatened, and antisemites whose bubble of self-righteousness was being threatened?

Unfortunately, Harvard has chosen the latter course. Three messages from the President have been released, and the first one could not even single out Hamas’ actions, putting them on an equivalent footing with Israel’s response to protect its citizens. The third message finally calls out hate – but rather than clearly calling out anti-semitism, used the “All Lives Matter” formulation that Jews are too used to seeing: “Our university rejects hate. Hate of Jews, hate of Muslims, hate of any group of people based on their faith, their national origin, or any aspect of their identity.”

Harvard’s communications were inconsistent with its past choices: its messages in other matters, from #MeToo to the Russian invasion of Ukraine to Black Lives Matter all clearly land on one side of an issue.

This is the dilemma facing leaders at organizations everywhere. While the geopolitical issues surrounding Israel and Palestinian Territories are nuanced – even more so than many understand – a terror state committing atrocities is not nuanced. Antisemitic people in your organization celebrating those atrocities is not a nuanced issue, and if you cannot find your way to lead with clarity and denounce their actions, you should consider a different role.

One Minute Pro Tip: Denouncing Terror

Let’s say that you need to speak up, as an individual or organization, in the wake of last week’s atrocities. For whatever reason, you’d like your communications to not be seen as supporting one side or the other in the broader political spectrum. What do you do? Narrow your comments, rather than broaden them.

“We are heartbroken at the images and reports coming out of Israel, and we denounce Hamas’s actions.” That would be sufficient. If you want to express a hope for peace, express it strategically, rather than tactically. Calling on Israel to deescalate while its civilians have been abducted by Hamas may get you shouted off the stage, as Senator Ed Markey discovered; but a prayer for long term peace and health is unlikely to go amiss: “We pray for all the civilians in harm’s way” does not opine on anything political.

You can certainly go further, but recognize that you are communicating with the survivors of trauma, and it is not on them at this moment to charitably read your communications.


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Disclosure Moment

Up until Saturday the 14th, I was a member of a Visiting Committee at Harvard. I’ve since resigned that position.

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