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Israel’s Conflict with Hamas Sparks Controversy at Harvard: Accusations of Anti-Semitism and McCarthyism Fly

October 14, 2023

Harvard has found itself embroiled in a weeklong controversy over a letter signed by 30 student groups that blamed the Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel and the university’s slow reaction to address it publicly. The letter, and the university’s response, set off a very public war of words that has sucked in some of the luminaries in Harvard’s orbit: a former university president and the current one, a billionaire hedge fund manager, a former White House staffer, and now, a billionaire board member.








The firestorm erupted on Saturday after Hamas attacked Israel, when an organization known as the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Groups published a letter on Instagram in which it said it held “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” It took Harvard’s leadership almost 48 hours to denounce the letter. In the lead-up to the university’s response, former Harvard president Larry Summers and well-known economics professor Jason Furman rebuked the school for its slowness in speaking out. Meanwhile, hedge fund billionaire and alum Bill Ackman called on the university to release the names of the organization members who had signed the letter.

On Friday, the blowback reached the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer, who has an estimated net worth of $13.6 billion, and his wife, Batia, resigned from that school’s executive board. Ofer and his wife told CNN they were leaving the board because of a “lack of clear evidence of support from the university’s leadership for the people of Israel following the tragic events of the past week, coupled with their apparent unwillingness to recognize Hamas for what it is, a terrorist organization.”

“Unfortunately, our faith in the University’s leadership has been broken, and we cannot in good faith continue to support Harvard and its committees,” they told CNN.

Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government declined to comment.

On Monday, Harvard president Claudine Gay issued a statement about the attacks saying the university was “heartbroken,” but didn’t acknowledge the student letter, which had been published two days earlier. On Tuesday, under fire for her initial comments, she released another statement distancing Harvard from the student letter and forcefully denouncing Hamas. “Let there be no doubt that I condemn the terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas,” Gay wrote in the second statement.

She also sought to draw a distinction between the university and its student groups. “Let me also state, on this matter as on others, 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,” her statement read.

Gay’s comments came after notable figures in the Harvard circle criticized the school.

Summers said he’d never been as “disillusioned” in his 50 years of association with the university. In particular, he was frustrated by the university’s failure to disavow the student letter and issue its own public statements of support for the Israeli civilians who were killed, injured, or taken hostage. Harvard’s silence on this issue was a contrast to its previous decisive comments on other issues like police brutality in the U.S. and the war in Ukraine, Summers said.

“Harvard is being defined by the morally unconscionable statement apparently coming from two dozen student groups blaming all the violence on Israel,” Summers posted on X, formerly Twitter. “I am sickened. I cannot fathom the administration’s failure to disassociate the university and condemn this statement.”

Furman struck a tone similar to Summers’ about the student letter. “The sentiments it expresses are egregious,” Furman wrote on X. “Blaming the victims for the slaughter of hundreds of civilians. Absolving the perpetrators of any agency. This is morally ignorant and painful for other members of the community.”

The student letter drew a particularly strong reaction from Ackman, CEO of hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management. On Tuesday, he posted on X that some CEOs had asked him if Harvard would release the names of students in the organizations that had signed the letter to ensure “none of us inadvertently hire any of their members.”

After that comment, lists of student’s names began circulating online. At this point, the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Groups, the coalition that published the letter, removed the names of the organizations that signed it, citing safety concerns. Some Harvard alumni reported being swept into the maelstrom, even though they no longer attended the university. Furman shared an email he received from a student who had graduated two years earlier but had been listed by Harvard critics as currently part of an organization that had signed the disputed letter.

Conservative activist group Accuracy in Media even hired a billboard truck that drove around Harvard’s campus with the pictures of some student leaders who signed the letter, labeling them “Harvard’s leading anti-Semites.”

Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe complained to CNN that such tactics were unconstructive and dangerous. “We shouldn’t repeat the McCarthy era’s excesses in the interest of moral clarity,” he said.

Harvard’s Hillel, a Jewish group on campus, also denounced the billboard truck and the public campaigns to shame the signatories. “Harvard Hillel strongly condemns any attempts to threaten and intimidate cosignatories of the Palestine Solidarity Committee’s statement,” the organization posted on its website.


Culled from  Fortune.com

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