The Harvard letter, doxxing, and angry clashes: Hamas-Israel war ignites campus free speech crisis

Campus debates about Israel at the elite university have a way of turning into national conversations, where no one feels their rights are being respected, Josh Marcus reports

Friday 13 October 2023 17:38 BST
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It began with a letter.

On 7 October, the same day Hamas launched a surprise cross-border attack on Israel, a group of student organisations at Harvard University released a statement on social media arguing that Israel’s “apartheid regime” created the conditions leading to and was “entirely responsible” for the war, which has now killed over 2,600 people in Israel and Gaza, including numerous civilians.

“Today’s events did not occur in a vacuum,” the statement read. “For the last two decades, millions of Palestinians in Gaza have been forced to live in an open-air prison.”

The statement also called on Harvard to disinvest its considerable endowment from any companies tied to Israeli settlements in the West Bank deemed illegal by large portions of the international community.

A week on from the Hamas attack on Israel

Harvard is not a normal university. It has produced eight former US presidents, four current Supreme Court justices, and countless other influential leaders in government and the business world. Its policies on subjects like affirmative action often serve as stand-ins for the rest of US academia. As Harvard goes, so goes America.

So, when the student groups’ letter provoked a range of responses and numerous criticisms, it quickly turned into a national political and cultural debate at the highest level, with various sides accusing each other of dangerous tactics, bad faith debate, and breaches of intellectual freedom and free speech. According to those involved in academic conversations and campus activism around the Israel-Palestine conflict and occupation, this toxic environment is not a rare occurence, but rather a regular, troubling feature of their world.

The backlash to the letter was swift.

Influential Harvard alums like US Senator Ted Cruz and former Harvard president and Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers quickly weighed in online.

“The silence from Harvard’s leadership, so far, coupled with a vocal and widely reported student groups’ statement blaming Israel solely, has allowed Harvard to appear at best neutral towards acts of terror against the Jewish state of Israel,” Mr Summers wrote on X.

“To be clear nothing is wrong with criticizing Israeli policy past, present or future,” he added. “I have been sharply critical of[Israeli] PM [Benjamin] Netanyahu. But that is very different from lack of clarity regarding terrorism.”

A group of 17 student organisations, including Harvard Hillel and Harvard Chabad, as well as roughly 500 faculty and staff, responded with letters of their own, The Harvard Crimson reports.

Nearly 160 Harvard faculty, in their letter, said the student signees of the original statement “can be seen as nothing less than condoning the mass murder of civilians based only on their nationality.”

“The events of this week are not complicated,” the faculty response reads. “Sometimes there is such a thing as evil, and it is incumbent upon educators and leaders to call it out, as they have with school shootings and terrorist attacks.”

But the controversy quickly escalated past an exchange of statements and letters to something more charged.

Billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman wrote on social media that fellow executives had been asking him to release the names of the individual students who signed onto the original letter “so as to insure that none of us inadvertently hire any of their members.”

“If, in fact, their members support the letter they have released, the names of the signatories should be made public so their views are publicly known,” he continued. “One should not be able to hide behind a corporate shield when issuing statements supporting the actions of terrorists, who, we now learn, have beheaded babies, among other inconceivably despicable acts.”

Other executives, like the CEOs of Sweetgreen and MeUndies, voiced their support for the effort, with Jonathan Shokrian of MeUndies comparing the ideas in the original letter to a “cancer.”

By Wednesday, a truck appeared near the Harvard campus, circling the university and displaying photos of Harvard students and organisations allegedly linked to the original statement.

As tensions on campus rose, suddenly there was a backlash to the backlash, with groups and figures with a variety of different perspectives expressing a feeling that things had gone too far.

“As the events of recent days continue to reverberate, let there be no doubt that I condemn the terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas,” Harvard’s president Claudine Gay wrote in a statement released on Tuesday. “Such inhumanity is abhorrent, whatever one’s individual views of the origins of longstanding conflicts in the region.”

“We will all be well served in such a difficult moment by rhetoric that aims to illuminate and not inflame,” she added. “And I appeal to all of us in this community of learning to keep this in mind as our conversations continue.”

Student Sanaa M Kahloon of the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee told The Crimson the group’s overall message had been misinterpreted.

“To restate what should be obvious: the PSC staunchly opposes violence against civilians — Palestinian, Israeli, or other,” Ms Kahloon said.

On social media, the committee said it had been “flooded with racist hate speech and death threats,” forcing the group to postpone a planned vigil “intended to mourn all innocent lives lost.”

Meanwhile, some of those who condemned the original student letter also took issue with the tactics of its critics.

“Harvard Hillel strongly condemns any attempts to threaten and intimidate co-signatories of the Palestine Solidarity Committee’s statement, including the bus on campus displaying the names and faces of students affiliated with the groups who have signed it,” the organization said in an online statement.

“We will continue to reject the PSC’s statement in the strongest terms — and demand accountability for those who signed it,” the statement continued. “But under no circumstances should that accountability extend to public intimidation of individuals.”

Mr Summers, the former Harvard president, also expressed his concern.

“I yield to no one in my revulsion at the statement apparently made on behalf of 30 plus @Harvard student groups,” he wrote on X on Wednesday. “But please everybody take a deep breath. Many in these groups never saw the statement before it went out. In some case those approving did not understand exactly what they were approving. Probably some were naive and foolish. This is not a time where it is constructive to vilify individuals and I am sorry that is happening.”

Harvard legal scholar Laurence Tribe, speaking with CNN, compared the doxxing attempts to McCarthyism, the Cold War-era hunt for supposed Communists at US institutions that led to numerous abuses of the First Amendment.

Harvard wasn’t the only campus where the ongoing war created tensions. At the University of Indiana, police reportedly had to step in between dueling demonstrations about the war on Monday, where exchanges ranged from peaceful coversations between different groups to one group of protesters calling a Palestinian student organisation advocating for peace and non-violence “terrorists.”

At California State University Long Beach, a rally in support of Palestine provoked condemnation from the school administration. A flyer for the event appeared to show the silhouette of a Hamas fighter flying a paraglider, a seeming reference to the surprise attack on Israeli civilians carried out over the weekend, the Long Beach Post reports.

“We reject any glorification of war or celebration of death, and we acknowledge the pain caused by speech that does,” Chief Communications Officer Jeffery Cook said in a statement to the paper, calling the event “deeply offensive in light of the loss of life and unspeakable violence during this conflict.”

The event was “not advocating any sort of terrorism or any hostility toward a certain population,” one of the speakers at the event said, the paper reports.

“We condemn all forms of anti-semitism and Jew hatred,” the speaker continued. “It pains me that we have to emphasize the fact that we are not anti-Semitic, we are not Jew-hating.”

“We stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people who are rightfully fighting back against the fascist Zionist state,” another speaker told the outlet. “When oppressed people struggle for self-determination, liberation and return against fascist occupation, why are we called terrorists?”

The explosive atmosphere around campus conversations about the situation in Israel-Palestine is nothing new. Academics researching the conflict and criticising Israel allege they have been unfairly lumped in with antisemites or hounded by outside advocacy groups, while Jewish student groups and alumni have allegedly suffered harassment because of their identity.

Harassment of Jewish students is rising in the US, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which reported a 41 per cent increase in antisemitic incidents on campuses in 2022, a climb faster than general hate incidents on campus, per the group.

“Acts of vandalism on campus included the desecration of mezuzot (small ritual items that some Jews affix to the doorframe of their homes) in residence halls, as well as antisemitic messages such as ‘Jews did 9/11,’ ‘Kanye was right,’ ‘Hitler’ and ‘F*** Israel’ in academic and residential halls,” according to the ADL report.

“In addition to the 219 incidents that took place on college campuses, 25 incidents occurred at Hillels,” the ADL said elsewhere in its research. “Hillels are centers of campus Jewish life … Hillel-related antisemitic incidents add to an environment of fear for Jewish students on campus.”

Palestine Legal, a group which provides legal support to members of the Palestine solidarity movement, said in a recent letter about challenges to an upcoming conference on Zionism at UC Santa Cruz that it had logged over 2,200 incidents since 2014 of “suppression of Palestinian rights advocacy, many involving harassment and censorship attempts by university administrations and right-wing organizations aimed at intimidating Palestinians and their supporters into silence and inaction.”

Beyond just relating to certain events or groups on campus, even respected academics of Israel-Palestine affairs have been subjected to heated public campaigns related to their scholarship.

A Barnard alumna living in a West Bank settlement helped fuel a long-running, ultimately unsucessful public campaign against the tenure petition of Nadia Abu El-Haj, an American anthropologist with a Palestinian father whose research has suggested that as “Israeli archaeologists searched for an ancient Jewish presence to help build the case for a Jewish state … They sometimes used bulldozers, destroying remains of other cultures, including those of Arabs.”

At issue, according to observers of the debate, is where to draw the line between spirited, constitutionally protected and culturally vital campus debate, and speech and activism that crosses over into the dangerous advocacy of hate violence.

An instructive example can be found in the 2023 Palestine Writes Literature Festival, which took place in September on the campus of another prestigious Ivy League university, the University of Pennsylvania.

The event, which was not sponsored by the university itself, featured over 100 speakers and artists from Palestine and its larger diaspora, dedicated, according to its organisers, to “the belief that art challenges repression and creates bonds between Palestine and the rest of the world.” The festival, according to its creators, is “the only North American literature festival dedicated to celebrating and promoting cultural productions of Palestinian writers and artists.”

The festival attracted controversy for inviting figures like professor Marc Lamont Hill, who was removed from CNN in 2018 after making remarks calling for an end to what he said was Israel’s “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians and supporting a “free Palestine from the river to the sea.” Others took issue with presenters using the academic frame of settler-colonialism to discuss Zionism and Israeli policy, and the festival’s screening of a 2021 film called Farha, which dramatises incidents of the 1948 Nakba (”catastrophe” in Arabic), the name Palestinians give to the exodus and expulsion of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians from their homes during the wars surrounding the creation of the modern state of Israel.

The university disavowed the event, but supported its right to be held on campus.

“While the Festival will feature more than 100 speakers, many have raised deep concerns about several speakers who have a documented and troubling history of engaging in antisemitism by speaking and acting in ways that denigrate Jewish people,” university leaders wrote in a statement. “We unequivocally — and emphatically — condemn antisemitism as antithetical to our institutional values. As a university, we also fiercely support the free exchange of ideas as central to our educational mission. This includes the expression of views that are controversial and even those that are incompatible with our institutional values.”

Some did not share this perspective on the event.

Marc Rowan, a Penn alum, businessman, and chairman of the board of advisers of the university’s famed Wharton business school, wrote about the festival in a letter to the student paper urging alumni to cease donations until university leadership resigned.

“Numerous speakers repeated various blood libels against Jews, whom they referred to as ‘European settlers’ despite their 3,000-year presence in Israel,” he wrote.

(A community of Jewish people existed in the land that’s now the state of Israel before modern statehood, and large proportions of Europeans, many of them fleeing persecution, settled in the territory between the end of the 19th century and the mid-1900s.)

“Imagine in the wake of George Floyd, a group of professors getting together and deciding that this would be a good night to hold a white nationalist rally. My guess is the university would have found its voice,” he told CNBC’s Squawk Box on Thursday.

Others argue that equating arts and scholarship critical of Israel with hate, violence, and antisemitism is itself an ironic and violent historical erasure.

“What’s on display here, above all, is the culture of denial that has been characteristic of American Zionism—especially its more liberal formulations—for decades,” Saree Makdisi, a professor of English at UCLA and author of Tolerance is a Wasteland: Palestine and the Culture of Denial, wrote in The Nation. “The mainstream institutions of contemporary American Zionism have no way to reconcile themselves with the history and material circumstances of Zionism as it has actually been put into practice in Palestine from the early 20th century to the present day.”

If it’s not clear by now, there are far more than just two sides to the debate surrounding the Israel-Palestine crisis. Perhaps the one thing that unites this constellation of opinions is a sense that the conversation on campus surrounding the reality of the crisis is broken, just like the broken world it seeks to address.

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