Antisemitism at Harvard: Separating Fact from Fiction
After a recent explosion in antisemitic incidents on college campuses, Jewish students at American universities do not feel safe, and nowhere is that more pronounced than Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvard in particular has become a byword after its inaction and delay in denouncing the October 7th attack on Israel by Hamas terrorists from Gaza, even as 30+ Harvard student groups blamed Israel entirely for the violence. A number of mega donors very publicly dropped or suspended their support to or affiliation with the university as a result, with some key donors asserting early on to Harvard President Claudine Gay: “Your silence as the situation intensifies is both astounding and frightening.” Former Harvard President Larry Summers said that he was “sickened” by the delayed response, asserting, “In nearly 50 years of affiliation, I have never been as disillusioned and alienated as I am today.” Harvard alumnus and House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik stated, “Harvard continues to disgrace itself on the global stage,” and called upon Gay to resign.
Why the delay? Harvard’s leadership and its new president were evidently torn over what to do. Several days late and now many donor dollars short, Gay finally issued a letter specifically denouncing Hamas, but long after the damage had been done. Nearly three weeks later, on October 27, Gay spoke to the Jewish Hillel group on campus, announcing the establishment of a university advisory group to combat antisemitism. She noted the “profound toll” that the heightened hostilities had taken “especially on our Jewish students, faculty, and staff.” She appropriately said: “Antisemitism has no place at Harvard.”
But then came the Great Pivot: “Antisemitism,” Gay proclaimed, “has a very long and shameful history at Harvard.” Not exactly true. We can certainly consider as an example of antisemitism the period from 1922 through the late 1930s, when, under the Lowell Administration, the university set quotas for highly qualified Jewish applicants—but while those quotas are universally denounced today and rightly so, Harvard today has had no problem in applying similar mechanisms to try to “balance” its student body from having too many highly qualified Asian-American students. Fortunately though, its race-conscious policy was quashed earlier this year by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Besides those relatively short-lived quotas, there undoubtedly have also been past cases of individual Jewish students who were discriminated against or denied entry to certain student clubs or similar incidents. So, while we should decry any such incidents as “shameful,” these certainly do not rise to the level of a “history” of antisemitism at Harvard. The university has made a long trek from its founding as a Puritan college to becoming a secular university, but that does not include a “very long” history of antisemitism as Gay claims—in fact, quite the contrary.
In the modern era, Harvard has provided a flourishing environment for Jewish students, faculty and staff, with many famed departments filled with extraordinary Jewish scholars, Nobel Prize winners and the like, in a nearly unbroken chain of meritocracy and genius almost unprecedented in world academic history. Further, for many years there have been many Jewish representatives on Harvard’s governing boards (The Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers), while three of the last four Harvard presidents prior to Gay have a Jewish background. So once again the claim falls flat.
Billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, in his long critical Nov. 4th open letter to President Gay, while already stating that he has “lost confidence” in her, wondered aloud about this claim, since neither he nor his daughter had ever experienced any form of antisemitism at Harvard whatsoever.
Why did Gay make this claim? I believe that the goal was deflection and misdirection to draw attention away from her own missteps and those of the current Harvard Corporation. A “safe” move in today’s ultra-woke academic culture is always to attack the past. The university under Lawrence Bacow did something very similar in its 2022 “Report of the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery,” which I have critiqued here. Although containing some important truths about the past, that report was also full of many half-truths. These were then conflated as if they represented the whole, which is what I believe occurred here with this unwarranted statement about antisemitism’s alleged “very long” history at Harvard.
It didn’t wash, which is why Bill Ackman and others are confused. No, in point of fact, antisemitism at Harvard, to paraphrase Hobbes, has been mostly “nasty, brutish, and recent.” Prior to October 7th it had been festering behind the scenes but with clear warning signs: Alan Dershowitz sounded the alarm in a May 2022 letter to the Harvard Crimson, although he was apparently thoroughly ignored by the Harvard establishment. Even more specifically, Shabbos Kestenbaum, in a piece titled “Antisemitism at Harvard” at Aish.com, wrote these incredibly prescient words in February 2023:
If Harvard is the canary in the coal mine for what is deemed acceptable behavior towards Jews in universities, then I can assure you there is danger ahead.
Indeed. Kestenbaum also recounted an October 2022 campus event that featured a speaker whom Kestenbaum describes as “a notorious antisemite” who reportedly publicly fantasized about murdering Jews (this was long before October 7th). Hundreds attended this campus event, according to Kestenbaum. Then, if it weren’t already bad enough that Harvard recently came in dead last among American universities regarding its commitment to free speech (according to the 2023 Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) survey), Harvard also registered the highest incidence of threats to Jewish identity of all the schools surveyed in a November 2022 report by the AMCHA initiative.
This is way beyond appalling; it demonstrates the utter failure of Harvard’s entire leadership structure to see and heed the warning signs. It is also a direct byproduct of the ruling ethos at Harvard and at many of our Ivy League universities today. This is the ideology of so-called “anti-racism,” a catch-all term for neo-Marxist, “oppressed-versus-oppressor” railings against Western values and calls for “decolonization.” The fact that more than 99% of the American public is anti-racist in reality according to the simple definition of the term is irrelevant—anti-racist means something else entirely different to campus wannabe revolutionaries who detest America as founded. I have previously written about anti-racism at Harvard here and how it has even infected the Harvard library system!
The current eruption of hatred not only against Israel but now against Jewish people in general demonstrates clearly that the ideology of anti-racism is at its core antisemitic. It embraces violence against certain “targets” as being entirely justified. Many liberal Jews are only now waking up to this awful reality, although conservatives have been experiencing it for some time. For years, many conservatives have been smeared or ostracized on college campuses because of their views, sometimes even physically attacked. However, what we are seeing now with this current rage of antisemitism is a blind hatred that is demonic, a throwback to the Holocaust and to the pogroms of medieval times, fueled by ideological lunacy.
If nothing changes, divestment is only the first step. It is time for Harvard to make a fundamental choice—it must either jettison its false god of “anti-racism” and once again embrace Judeo-Christian values, or it will descend completely into the abyss.
A.J. Melnick is a 1977 graduate of Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and is a former Pentagon analyst. He produces podcasts for EarlyHarvard.com and is the author of a book on the history of the Harvard Corporation.
Image: Free image, Pixabay license, no attribution required.