The Jewish Question at Harvard

A wrought iron gate in a brick wall at Harvard Yard.

I cannot believe what I heard from the leaders of some of our great universities at yesterday’s hearing on campus antisemitism in the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. The question was maybe the easiest question ever put to a witness at a congressional hearing: Does calling for the genocide of the Jewish people violate university rules on bullying and harassment? Representative Elise Stefanik put the question to the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and MIT. I am going to focus on Harvard, because I received my law degree there and would like to be able to feel proud of my association.

Rep. Stefanik: Dr. Gay, at Harvard, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment, yes or no?

Pres. Gay: It can be, depending on the context.

Rep. Stefanik: What’s the context?

Pres. Gay: Targeted at an individual, targeted at an individual.

Rep. Stefanik: It’s targeted at Jewish students, Jewish individuals. Do you understand your testimony is dehumanizing them? Do you understand that dehumanization is part of antisemitism? I will ask you one more time. Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment, yes or no?

Pres. Gay: Antisemitic rhetoric, when it crosses into conduct, it amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation–that is actionable conduct, and we do take action.

Rep. Stefanik: So the answer is yes, that calling for the genocide of Jews violates Harvard’s code of conduct, correct?

Pres. Gay: Again, it depends on the context.

Rep. Stefanik: It does not depend on the context. The answer is “yes,” and this is why you should resign. These are unacceptable answers across the board.

I am angry that I have to say to Dr. Claudine Gay, a graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy, winner of the Anna Laura Myers Prize for best undergraduate thesis in economics at Stanford, winner of the Toppan Prize for the best dissertation in political science at Harvard, the Wilbur A. Cowett Professor of Government and of African and African-American Studies, former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the thirtieth president of the University, that she should take instruction on basic right and wrong from the likes of Elise Stefanik.

I am angry that the President of Harvard thinks there are contexts in which calling for the genocide of the Jewish people does not constitute bullying or harassment. I am angry that Harvard is a place that will cancel a course studying policing techniques that does not align with its “mission, vision, and values” after criticism that the course “lacks analysis of structural racism and anti-Blackness in policing,” a place that will refuse to renew the contract of a preceptor found to have written racist posts on social media, a place that will remove the dean of one of its houses, a law professor, because he agreed to defend Harvey Weinstein in one of his criminal trials, but whose president cannot find a way to take the win by simply saying “yes” when asked to agree that calling for the genocide of the Jews is bullying or harassment under Harvard policy. What was it that made it impossible for President Gay or either of the other presidents who testified simply to say “yes”?

I am angry about the double standard. I try and fail to imagine a circumstance in which the President of Harvard says that calling for the genocide of any other minority group would be acceptable under Harvard’s policies. I try and fail to take seriously President Gay’s absolutist view on free speech that does not rise to the level of conduct in light of the University’s “abysmal” speech climate as found by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. I can imagine marginally more difficult questions: are calls for “intifada revolution” calls for genocide? Are some of the incidents that Jews have reported experiencing at Harvard violations of the University’s policy? What makes President Gay’s testimony so bankrupt is that the question was purely abstract and did not require any parsing of terms or drawing of distinctions. The answer President Gay gave was obviously the product of a lot of smart people thinking hard about what she should say. It’s hard to think of what the downside of a “yes” would be. And yet she still could not manage to give the right answer.

President Gay testified that “Antisemitism is a symptom of ignorance and the cure for ignorance is knowledge.” Learning is supposed to be the antidote to antisemitism. Maybe it is an antidote to a certain kind of antisemitism. But as we have seen throughout history, and again this week, the most learned people can blithely accommodate themselves to environments where calls for genocide of the Jews aren’t real threats until they are.

President Gay should resign. Harvard has a lot of work to do to rid itself of the rottenness we saw yesterday.

5 responses to “The Jewish Question at Harvard”

  1. Jonathan Dorfman


  2. Charles Bedell

    How can one find and read Dr. Gay’s best thesis and best dissertation award winning papers?

    1. I would probably reach out to the relevant university libraries!

  3. Jonah Folkman

    I find it so interesting that the same people who are always pontificating about the difference between what is legal and what is moral always seem to end up choosing the legalistic response over the moral one when faced with a question like this.

    1. Lawyers are great! But sometimes they can focus too much on the law and not on other relevant things. Here is the rule (from Rule 2.1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct): “In rendering advice, a lawyer may refer not only to law but to other considerations such as moral, economic, social and political factors, that may be relevant to the client’s situation.”

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