Opinion | Why I’m Boycotting My 50th Harvard Reunion

By | May 24, 2024
Highlights, Latest, Opinion
Red-washed photo of the Harvard college quad.

I graduated from Harvard College in the spring of 1974. Until recently I was eagerly anticipating attending my 50th reunion. Harvard afforded me an extraordinary learning experience, and along the way I established friendships that have lasted decades.

But I am not going.   

I am boycotting because of how the university, significant parts of its faculty and meaningful proportions of its student body have responded to the October 7 pogrom outside Gaza and the subsequent war between Hamas and Israel. 

The pro-Palestinian Harvard protesters would have us believe the turmoil they have unleashed on the Harvard campus is fully justified. They argue that they are fighting for free speech and are engaged in a moral struggle of good vs. evil.

What they are doing is certainly not setting an example for the practice of free speech. At least not the type of free speech on which pluralistic, democratic societies thrive. It is, rather, representative of what the late journalist and historian Nat Hentoff described 30 years ago as “free speech for me but not for thee.” 

This “free speech for me” mentality was evident at this year’s Harvard commencement. Because 13 students were denied graduation for breaking university rules in pro-Palestinian protests, hundreds of graduates stormed out of the ceremony claiming free speech rights trumped any rule breaking— including breaking Harvard property and harassing Harvard staff.

It is not free speech when a Jewish student attends a discussion forum of Harvard Divinity School students where the State of Israel is regularly demonized and is kicked out because he dared to bring up the hostages held by Hamas. What kind of free speech is it when Harvard student organizations twice sponsored a Palestinian speaker who has accused Israelis of eating Palestinian organs? Would Harvard have ever allowed such a vile speaker who similarly targeted other minorities? Is it free speech when Harvard’s Students Against Antisemitism holds a small discussion session with a guest speaker at Harvard Law School and it is shut down by hundreds of pro-Palestinian protesters shouting outside the session’s meeting room while Jewish students removed kippot and hid under desks?

Anti-Israel students and faculty at Harvard may not have been advancing the cause of free speech, but they have contributed to other outcomes on campus. Even before the outbreak of the Gaza conflict a study of antisemitism at Harvard, which included interviews of 47 Harvard Jewish students, found Israeli students faced profound social isolation because of their nationality while over two thirds of all these students stated that their Judaism or connection to Israel caused them to self-censor in academic or social settings. Jewish students have also been threatened with violence and manhandled by a “die-in” mob at Harvard’s Business School.

And then there is the question of whether some anti-Israel activism at Harvard has crossed a red line and can be characterized as antisemitic. The answer is an emphatic yes. 

On an anonymous Snapchat platform accessible to only the Harvard community, an avalanche of antisemitic comments in January included posts that referenced crooked Jewish noses and charges that all Zionists (which includes the vast majority of American and world-wide Jewry) are lovers of pedophiles and are killers and rapists of children. In February two Harvard student groups posted a cartoon which showed a hand with a Star of David on it holding a noose around the necks of a Black and Arab leader—very similar to the type of cartoon art put out by the Nazi regime in the 1940s. The poster, which was subsequently condemned by Harvard’s interim president as “flagrantly antisemitic,” was also reposted by Harvard Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine.

The most disturbing manifestation of today’s antisemitism at Harvard may not be the intense demonization of Israel or even the verbal and physical harassment of Jewish students on campus but the prominence of an all-encompassing, Manichaean worldview that divides the world into the good-oppressed vs. the bad-oppressors. When applied to the history and politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it turns a complex problem into a cartoon wherein the Zionists and Jews are the source of all evil and terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah are the guys in the white hats. This mindset is the source of declarations like that of the 35 Harvard student groups who, in the immediate aftermath of the butchery on October 7, placed total blame for Hamas’s barbarity on the State of Israel.

The leadership of Harvard has at times recognized the morally unconscionable behavior of portions of the student body and faculty, but on too many occasions their silence and passivity in the wake of hate speech and harassment of Jewish members of the Harvard community has been stunning.  

I cherish my memories of my Harvard years, but I can’t imagine joining my 50th reunion celebration when the brokenness of the university is so manifestly apparent. 

Ira Forman served as the U.S. State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism during President Obama’s second term. He currently curates Moment’s Antisemitism Monitor and teaches classes on contemporary antisemitism and Jewish engagement in American democracy at Georgetown University.

Top Image: Ellen September (CC BY 2)

One thought on “Opinion | Why I’m Boycotting My 50th Harvard Reunion

  1. PoWoW says:

    What higher education has been allowed to become is deeply concerning. I’m sorry we are where we are, at times there doesn’t seem to a path forward for our institutions due to how far down a dark path we have gone. I’m sorry you face this situation, just as I would for any group receiving this treatment. There’s a reason why groups in the American south wore masks when they spewed their hate, and why it’s happening again in Universities.

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