At Harvard, the battle over what to say about the attacks on Hamas

After the murder of George Floyd and Russia’s war against Ukraine, Harvard and other universities issued statements expressing solidarity with the victims.

But after the Hamas attacks in Israel—in which the attackers killed women and children—Harvard was quiet.

Instead, what got attention was an open letter from a student coalition, the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Groups, which said it held “the Israeli regime fully responsible for all the violence that is taking place.”

The reaction to that letter turned Harvard’s silence into a roar.

On Monday, Lawrence H. Summers, the former Treasury secretary and former president of Harvard, condemned the university’s leadership.

“In nearly 50 years at Harvard, I have never been more disillusioned and alienated than I am today,” wrote at X, formerly Twitter. Harvard’s silence, along with the student coalition’s letter, he said, “allowed Harvard to appear at best neutral toward acts of terror against the Jewish state of Israel.”

On Monday night, and again with more force on Tuesday, Harvard spoke. Its president, Claudine Gay, issued two statements, ultimately condemning the “terrorist crimes committed by Hamas” as “abhorrent”. The spokesman said that dr. Gay could not be reached for comment.

The debate over Israel and the fate of the Palestinians has been one of the most divisive on campus for decades, and has infuriated university officials who have tried to tone down or moderate the various groups.

But, emphasized criticism of dr. Summers was moved by questions about the obligation of universities to deal with difficult political issues.

A the famous declaration from 1967 The University of Chicago urged institutions to remain neutral on political and social issues, saying the university is “the home and sponsor of critics; he is not a critic himself.” But students over the years have often and successfully pressured their administrations to take positions on issues like police brutality, global warming and war.

Dr. Summers said in an interview that he could understand the arguments for the university’s neutrality in political disputes, but that Harvard had lost that prerogative when talking about many other issues.

“When you fly the Ukrainian flag over Harvard, when you make clear, vivid and strong statements in response to the killing of George Floyd,” he said, “you have chosen not to pursue a policy of neutrality.”

But the Harvard controversy is “a moment to reflect on the virtues of neutrality,” said Tom Ginsburg, faculty director of the University of Chicago’s newly created Forum on Free Research and Expression.

Dr. Ginsburg said he surveyed 17 major universities and found that all but two had issued a statement on Ukraine. (The University of Chicago is not.)

“Nobody had a statement about the conflict in Ethiopia, which started a year earlier,” he said, referring to the civil war that has left thousands dead and displaced more than two million people.

Avoiding statements allows the university to focus its energy on “more important things,” said Dr. Ginsburg. “But it’s not a trend. Schools seem to be talking. And that’s why they found themselves in political trouble.”

The Harvard students’ letter says: “Over the past two decades, millions of Palestinians in Gaza have been forced to live in an open-air prison” and concludes that, as the war unfolded, “the apartheid regime is the sole culprit. ” It was signed by groups including Amnesty International at Harvard, the Harvard Kennedy School Palestine Club and the Harvard Divinity School Muslim Association.

Several student groups that signed the statement of solidarity did not respond to messages. By Tuesday afternoon, organizers had covered the coalition groups, citing security.

In his response on Tuesday, Dr. Gay said that “while our students have the right to speak for themselves, no student group — not even 30 student groups — speaks for Harvard University or its leadership.”

That letter followed a tepid letter from Monday, signed by Dr. Gay and 17 other deans and administrators, who said they were “heartbroken by the death and devastation,” offered condolences to members of the Harvard community who lost loved ones and called for “an environment of dialogue and empathy.”

While Harvard faced heavy criticism from politicians, academics and Jewish groups, other universities prepared to protest.

On Monday night, there was a vigil organized by pro-Israel students at the University of Florida. On Tuesday, at California State University, Long Beach, a student group held a “Protest for Palestine”.

And Bears for Palestine, at the University of California, Berkeley, organized a campus vigil for Friday to “mourn the killing of our martyrs in Palestine”.

Along with the many like-minded statements coming from pro-Palestinian student groups, a number of university presidents issued their own responses that appeared to place the blame for the conflict squarely on Hamas.

On Saturday, Ron Liebowitz, president of Brandeis University, issued a statement condemning “terrorism as we have seen today committed against innocent civilians”.

A statement on Tuesday from New York University condemned the “indiscriminate killing of civilian non-combatants” as “reprehensible” and acknowledged that the violence “is likely to heighten the feelings of those on our campus who hold strong views on the conflict.”

Alain Delaquerière contributed to the research.

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