Is Antisemitism ‘Rampant’ at Harvard? The Closer You Look, the Less You See

Photo by Clay Banks

“Harvard sued for violating Jewish students’ civil rights, allowing ‘antisemitism cancer’ to grow on campus.”

“Jewish students file federal discrimination suit against Harvard, accuse Ivy of ‘enabling antisemitism’”

“Harvard is sued by Jewish students over ‘rampant’ antisemitism on campus”

Students Against Antisemitism, Inc. has sued Harvard University for allegedly violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in any institution or program that receives federal funding from the U.S. Department of Education. Harvard received $676 million in federal funds last year, 11% of its operating revenue, and $3.27 billion from 2018-2022.

The litigants’ legal complaint says Jewish students have been “subjected to a severe and pervasive antisemitic hostile educational environment” and alleges that Harvard “hires professors who support anti-Jewish violence and spread antisemitic propaganda…”

It demands “the termination of, deans, administrators, professors, and other employees responsible for antisemitic discrimination and abuse, whether because they engage in it or permit it” and “suspension or expulsion against students who engage in such conduct.”

The lawsuit has garnered enormous publicity, yet there has been little scrutiny of the actual claims upon which the lawsuit is based. In examining the specific allegations of antisemitism made by the students in their legal complaint, it quickly becomes clear that what SAA is labeling “antisemitism” is overwhelmingly anti-Zionism and/or criticism of Israel.

Does Harvard ‘Blame Jews for Their Own Murders’?

The litigants claim “Numerous students and faculty members at Harvard have openly endorsed Hamas’s October 7 massacre, issuing public statements blaming Jews for their own murders…”

This is misleading–those the lawsuit criticizes are largely expressing a basic truth: Israel was attacked because of the way its government has manhandled Palestinians in the occupied territories. That Hamas, in addition to attacking legitimate military targets such as Israeli Defense Force bases, also engaged in criminal, indefensible attacks on civilians does not change this fact.

It’s telling that Palestinian Christian leaders and their parishioners see the issue similarly. Agence France-Presse reports that on October 7, leaders of the various Christian denominations in Jerusalem issued a joint statement condemning Hamas’ attacks but “laid the blame for the violence on ‘prolonged political conflict and the lamentable absence of justice and respect for human rights.’”

AFP notes that several parishioners they interviewed “argued that Israel shares the bulk of the responsibility for the current situation.” One 50-year-old embassy employee explained that Hamas militants are the “creation of Israel’s unfairness…They are living in an open-air prison and are the children of terrorism from Israelis against them…’They [Israel] made them be violent… because they were suffocating them.”

Are ‘Mobs of Pro-Hamas’ Harvard Students ‘Calling for Death to Jews and Israel’?

The SAA complaint against Harvard states:

“Mobs of pro-Hamas students and faculty have marched by the hundreds through Harvard’s campus…occupied buildings, classrooms, libraries, student lounges, plazas, and study halls, often for days or weeks at a time…Jewish students have been attacked on social media…”

There are numerous problems with these allegations:

+ Pro-Palestinian protesters and many protesters who simply want to lift Israel’s deadly siege of Gaza are routinely and falsely labeled “pro-Hamas” by their critics.

+ Occupying “buildings, classrooms, libraries, student lounges” are common tactics of protesters over a wide range of causes.

+ Re: “Jewish students have been attacked on social media”, these are not attacks, they’re criticisms, and most of the students are not being criticized because they’re Jewish, they’re being criticized because they support Israeli government policies. (Online attacks can of course be very jarring–there is much rudeness, nastiness, and general incivility all over the web, and, unfortunately, some Jewish supporters of Israel have been the recipients or targets of these. However, critics of Israel have no monopoly on obnoxious or cruel online postings–they are endemic to the debate of a wide variety of issues.)

Does Harvard Make Certain Courses ‘Off-Limits’ to Jewish Students?

The litigants claim “Harvard’s hostile environment has effectively made certain courses off-limits to Jewish students because of the bias and harassment they face” and laments the “degree of censorship [they] must take on in order to protect themselves socially and academically.”

It is true, of course, that student defenders of Israel, particularly Jewish students, will feel outnumbered, at least temporarily, and they may hesitate to express their pro-Israel views for fear of condemnation by their fellow students and professors. Because of the immediacy of the issue–an average of 250 Gaza Palestinians a day have been killed by Israel and its airstrikes over the past 107 days–protesters understandably feel the issue is pressing and visceral. In such an environment, emotional, combative, or foolish statements are inevitable.

Moreover, any social protest movement has its share of supporters who do or say stupid things which the movement’s opponents can then use to tar the movement as a whole, and this is certainly no exception.

Many students and some professors disagree with the litigants’ pro-Israel view of the Israeli-Palestine conflict. When the litigants say they want “protection”, what they are really saying is that they want to be shielded from situations where their views are outnumbered. Not wanting to cause a fuss by speaking out, figuring it’s easier to put up with hearing things you don’t agree with than it is to go into battle mode at that moment–these are common things for people who have minority opinions, and they happen in many situations involving many different types of beliefs–they’re hardly unique to Jewish students and their sentiments.

Do Harvard Professors ‘Spread Antisemitic Propaganda’? 

The litigants claim Harvard “hires professors” who “spread antisemitic propaganda.” Yet as any educator knows, it is very easy for an educator’s words to be made to look offensive or ill-informed If we’re not provided context.

One of the litigants’ first examples is Boston College Professor Yamila Hussein, who at a Harvard-hosted event in 2019 declared that Zionism is a “white supremacist, European, patriarchal, heterosexist, you name it, movement . . . when you read Zionism, it is white supremacy.” The accuracy of this statement is debatable, but it is common for academics and liberals to label many different movements and ideologies “white supremacist, European, patriarchal, heterosexist”, etc., and these labels apply to Israel more or less as much as to others.

The litigants claim Harvard Professor Bram Wispelwey’s 2021 course readings “contained disturbing antisemitic topics and materials” which “den[ied] Jewish indigeneity to Israel.” Yet Israel’s defenders have used a very expansive definition of “indigenous” to apply it to Israel. Nobody denies the existence of the ancient nation of Israel that was broken up by the Roman Empire almost 2,000 years ago. What they instead contest is the idea that a group of people who were a small percentage of the population of the Israel/Palestine region at the beginning of the 20th century can justify pushing out and/or marginalizing the overwhelming Muslim majority based on ancient claims of being “indigenous” to the area.

Wispelwey sent an email in response describing the allegations “demonstrably false”. The litigants complain that “Harvard took no steps to prevent Professor Wispelwey from promulgating antisemitism in his course or to otherwise discipline him.”

Another example of alleged antisemitism is law professor Jon Hanson, who, we’re told, “targeted” Jewish students, including one of the litigants because he “maligned Israeli Jews as ‘colonizers’ who ‘blow up’ babies.” Yet these are criticisms of Israeli government policy, not of Jews, and they are factually defensible.

RIsrael’s internationally-condemned response to the October 7th Hamas attack has, as of January 20, killed 24,927 people and wounded 62,388. According to the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, by early December Israeli bombing and attacks had already killed “10,000 infants and children.”  The United Nations labels Gaza “a children’s graveyard.”  The  “blow up” babies allegation the litigants so strenuously object to is not even inaccurate, much less antisemitic.

Re: “colonizers”, for decades leading Zionists themselves used the word “colonization” to refer to their attempts to create a Jewish state in Palestine. It certainly is apt–in 1922, Muslims represented 78% of Palestine’s population, and Jews only 11%. In the ensuing 25 years–while the U.S. and others largely refused to take in those fleeing the Holocaust –the Jewish population grew 750%. By 1948, Jewish settlers were in control of Palestine. (In fairness to Israel, it is also true that, unlike settler colonies such as the U.S., Canada, and others, many Israelis were refugees who had little choice but to become settlers.)

Another example of alleged antisemitism proffered is that “Harvard Public Health Professor Nancy Krieger accommodated students who wanted to participate in the October 20 global strike by permitting the vast majority of students to leave class to protest. Krieger then excused the remaining seven (which included several Jewish students) and asked them to return along with the protesting students at noon. As it turned out, Krieger and the protesting students returned to the classroom some forty minutes earlier than the professor had said class would resume and, in the absence of the Jewish students, Krieger resumed her lecture.”

What probably happened is that the demonstration ended a little early, they came back to class, and like any good educator who understands that class time is precious, she resumed teaching. It’s also quite possible that she “resumed her lecture” because the students who attended the demonstration wanted to ask her questions and discuss what they had seen with her. Students who missed out did not miss out because they are Jewish, they missed out because they did not want to go to the demonstration–a demonstration which doubtless had many Jewish participants.

Moreover, while the litigants complain that Harvard professors have at times “canceled class to encourage students to participate,” of course, accommodating or even encouraging students to participate in campus political events and canceling classes to encourage them to do so is hardly new.

Is Harvard Rife with ‘Antisemitic Slogans & Calls for Death to Jews & Israel’?

Re: “antisemitic slogans and calling for death to Jews and Israel”, the slogans the legal complaint itself emphasizes as evidence for this are “divest from Israeli apartheid” (this slogan and similar references to ”apartheid” are referenced in the complaint 19 times) and “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” (12 times).

However, the Israeli human rights groups B’tselem and Yesh Din, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and many other authorities internationally have likened Israeli policies to “apartheid”. An exaggeration? Perhaps. Antisemitic? No.

“From the river to the sea” is controversial, but the slogan has been credibly defended by many authorities. According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Palestinian scholar Yousef Munayyer says “today, the phrase is used to reference the lack of freedoms Palestinians have in the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, which includes the state of Israel as well as the Gaza Strip and the occupied territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. ’That’s what has to change. That doesn’t mean that there should be any violence against Israelis,’ Munayyer said.”

The litigants write that Harvard “professors teach and advocate through a binary oppressor-oppressed lens, through which Jews, one of history’s most persecuted peoples, are typically designated ‘oppressor,’ and therefore unworthy of support or sympathy.”

The “oppressor-oppressed lens” certainly has its problems and limitations, but it is used in many circumstances and against many alleged oppressors. Regarding Israel’s rule over the Palestinians, it’s accurate enough. And while Jews are arguably history’s most persecuted people, this persecution was not done by Palestinians nor was it done in Palestine, and it in no way justifies Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians.

Conflating Anti-Zionism with Antisemitism

Reading the Harvard litigants’ complaint, it quickly becomes clear that the only way they’re going to have sufficient fodder to make the case for antisemitism by and/or at Harvard is to equate criticism of Israel with antisemitism. The litigants don’t get far before they do, quickly claiming that the post-October 7, 2023 political conflicts “confirm that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.” They write:

“Anti-Zionism is discriminatory and antisemitic when expressed in terms of, for example: applying double standards not applicable to other countries or peoples in assessing Israel’s legitimacy and conduct; denying the Jewish people’s right to self-determination or the right of the State of Israel to exist; denying that Israel has the right to self-defense against terrorism, invasion, or the murder, rape, and kidnapping of its citizens; accusing Israel of being inherently racist or comparable to the Nazis; or invoking classic antisemitic canards against Israel and its people.”

There are problems with conflating each of these prongs of anti-Zionism with antisemitism.

‘Accusing Israel of being comparable to the Nazis’

In the United States, it is axiomatic that practically any criticism of any government, army, police force, or other institution, including those in Israel, ends up as an analogy to Nazi Germany. Since many Americans know little of history, when they want to condemn something, the only historical event they know which is at least vaguely similar are the crimes of Nazi Germany. This is certainly annoying, but it is not antisemitic.

In seeking to form its own nation, the early Zionists sought to create Jewish-only communities which excluded Arabs and others. One can certainly sympathize with an oppressed people seeking to carve out its own nation, particularly after the Holocaust. However, when you create a country and only want one ethnic group to live there and not another, “inherently racist” is not unwarranted.

‘Applying double standards not applicable to other countries or peoples in assessing Israel’s legitimacy and conduct’

This complaint is frequently employed by the Israeli government and its supporters. There is some superficial validity to this–certainly Israeli atrocities get more attention at the United Nations than atrocities committed in many countries in Africa and Latin America. However, Israel is arguably America’s closest ally and the US has given Israel $300+ billion since World War II–it is natural and inevitable that events there would gain more scrutiny than events in countries which share little connection with the US.

It is also important to note that while Israel does get a lot of criticism, there is little collective action done against it. American and/or UN sanctions have been harshly deployed against other nations. For example, according to the United Nations, the US’ devastating post-Gulf War embargo and trade sanctions against Iraq led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children from disease and malnutrition. Cuba has endured history’s longest trade embargo, as well as Trump-era measures which make it difficult for any foreign businesses to invest in Cuba.

Looking at the economic devastation imposed on Iraq after the Gulf War or even Cuba today, and given Israel’s very real misdeeds, it’s hard to conclude Israel is being singled out for punishment. In fact, they are almost uniquely lavished with military, political, and financial support from the United States.

‘Denying the Jewish people’s right to self-determination or the right of the State of Israel to exist’

Again, there is some superficial validity to this, but the overwhelming majority of Israel’s critics at Harvard target the fact that this self-determination and Israel’s existence have come at the expense of an indigenous population. It is not antisemitic to assert that having a Jewish nation in Palestinian lands is wrong, and to support a binational Jewish-Arab nation in historic Palestine instead. It is not antisemitic to believe that while Israeli Jews have a right to live in peace, they don’t have the right to a racially-exclusive nation.

‘Denying that Israel has the right to self-defense’

That depends on how we define self-defense. Worldwide few believe that Israel’s overkill reaction to Hamas’ October 7 attack represents justifiable national defense, and even many in Israel contest this. To get from here to antisemitism is quite a leap.

The SAA also cites the definition of antisemitism promulgated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in asserting “Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel” is antisemitic. Fair enough. But the litigants are claiming the flip side of the same coin–criticizing the actions of the state of Israel is equated with condemning Jews collectively.

Of course, as is true of many societies, America is afflicted with all manner of prejudice against many different types of people, including Jews. These prejudices exist to various degrees at various times. The litigants and their supporters want us to accept that today we’re experiencing a wave of antisemitism in America, and they’ve laid out their case in a 77-page/18,000 word document.

I have a small fraction of that space here, but while I am not able to describe and evaluate each of the litigant’s claims, I have examined the specifics of many. The closer you look at their claims of antisemitism, the less you see.

Glenn Sacks teaches social studies at James Monroe High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He was recently recognized by LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner for “exceptional levels of performance.”