How Harvard University became embroiled in anti-Semitism controversy - Hindustan Times
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Anti-Semitism on campuses: Here's how Harvard University became embroiled in controversy

BySumanti Sen
Dec 07, 2023 04:42 PM IST

In November, the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Education Department opened an investigation into allegations of anti-Semitism at Harvard University

In the aftermath of Hamas terrorists’ surprise attack on Israel on October 7, college campuses in the United States have witnessed multiple incidents of anti-Semitism. A recent Anti-Defamation League and Hillel International report revealed that a majority of Jewish students felt physically and emotionally safe on campus before the attack. Following the tragedy, the numbers dropped to 46% and 33%, respectively. Several pro-Palestine Protests were held in the campuses of these colleges.

Supporters of Palestine gather at Harvard University to show their support for Palestinians in Gaza at a rally in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 14, 2023 (Photo by Joseph Prezioso / AFP)(AFP)
Supporters of Palestine gather at Harvard University to show their support for Palestinians in Gaza at a rally in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 14, 2023 (Photo by Joseph Prezioso / AFP)(AFP)

Among many such colleges is Harvard University. After the October 7 attack, the Department of Education opened various investigations into alleged incidents of hate and anti-Semitism on campuses. Harvard thus came under investigation.

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Harvard University president Claudine Gay, along with the presidents of University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), have come under fire after their recent testimony at Capitol Hill. Out of everything the presidents said, they have been especially criticised for their approach towards a question on whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” is against the universities’ respective codes of conduct. When New York Republican Representative Elise Stefanik asked this question, all three presidents claimed the answer depends on the context.

Harvard University students’ pro-alestinian letter

Harvard became embroiled in a controversy after some students wrote apro-Palestinian letter blaming Israel for violence that erupted after the Hamas attack. A coalition of as many as 34 Harvard students organisations said they "hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence" after years of occupation. They added that "the apartheid regime is the only one to blame." Those who signed the letter included Muslim and Palestinian support groups.

The statement was condemned by prominent alumni of the university.

Did Harvard president Claudine Gay protest?

Claudine andsenior leadership including 15 deans later issued a statement saying they were "heartbroken by the death and destruction unleashed by the attack by Hamas that targeted citizens in Israel this weekend."

“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,” Claudine said in the October 10 statement. However, the authorities did not directly address the students’ letter.

Investigation launched

Later in November, the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Education Department opened an investigation into allegations of anti-Semitism at Harvard University, claiming it wasinvestigating “reports of antisemitism, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, and other forms of discrimination and harassment on college campuses and in K-12 schools.” At the time, a spokesperson for Harvard told CNN in a statement, “We support the work of the Office for Civil Rights to ensure students’ rights to access educational programs are safeguarded and will work with the office to address their questions.”

Nathaniel Styer, press secretary for New York City Public School, said that “hate or bias of any kind has no place in our public schools.” “We are taking concrete steps to ensure our schools continue to be safe, welcoming, and respectful places for all our students and staff. We received notice of an investigation by the USDOE and will cooperate fully,” Styer said in a statement.

President Claudine Gay fails to address anti-Semitism again

The Capitol Hill hearing was titled ‘Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism'. On Tuesday, December 5, the event was attended by Claudine, Elizabeth Magill of Penn and Sally Kornbluth of MIT. The trio was questioned by the Republican-led House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

The three of them spoke about the need to balance protecting free speech and keeping students safe at the same time. The presidents were grilled for several hours, and were asked questions about their disciplinary actions toward students involved in anti-Semitic acts. They were also asked how their hiring practices made sure their faculty represent diverse viewpoints, and what measures they are taking to ensure safety on campus.

However, at one point, the presidents were asked whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” is against the universities’ respective codes of conduct. Gay simply responded to the question, saying, “When speech crosses into conduct, we take action.” She is now being heavily criticised for her “silence” on the issue despite getting a massive platform to voice her opinions.

What Claudine Gay said after the testimony

After the backlash the presidents received following their testimony, Claudine released a statement on X through Harvard University. Claudine suggested that those who blasted her were “confused.”

“Statement from President Gay: There are some who have confused a right to free expression with the idea that Harvard will condone calls for violence against Jewish students. Let me be clear: Calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or any religious or ethnic group are vile, they have no place at Harvard, and those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account,” the statement read.

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