Living Inside a Psyop

The university’s initial statements had acknowledged that there was in fact a war happening in the Middle East and that members of our community had families and friends who had been killed or were living in extreme danger. This latest statement, on the other hand, sought to ban the chanting of words in a time of war without mentioning the war itself.

Three months at Harvard

Harvard University. Photo via Flickr.

People would later say that it began with the statement issued by the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee and thirty-four other campus groups after the massacre of October 7. The statement was relatively restrained. It did not celebrate the violence. Instead, it attempted to reframe the killings in a longer history—to say, as many would in the coming days, that history did not begin on October 7. “Israeli violence has structured every aspect of Palestinian existence for seventy-five years,” the statement read. “From systematized land seizures to routine air strikes, arbitrary detentions, military checkpoints, and forced family separations to targeted killings, Palestinians have been forced to live in a state of death both slow and sudden.” But for all the conversation there has been about it both here at Harvard and elsewhere, I doubt that many people actually read the whole statement. It was only the first sentence that came to matter: “We, the undersigned student organizations hold the Israeli regime responsible for all unfolding violence.”

That one sentence was enough to compel 350 of these students’ teachers to issue a public denunciation.1 The students’ statement, the professors argued, “can be seen as nothing less than condoning mass murder.” In place of the students’ argument that the sources of the violence were to be sought in history, the professors pointed to metaphysics: “sometimes there is such a thing as pure evil,” they wrote. “How,” they concluded, “can Jewish and Israeli students feel safe on a campus in which it is considered acceptable to justify and even celebrate the deaths of Jewish children and families?”

I don’t wish to diminish the trauma and the fear to which that statement about safety alluded. But the plain fact of the matter is that the students’ statement did not attempt to justify or “celebrate” murder at all; the phrase “can be seen as” in the professors’ own initial formulation was itself an equivocation. In the place of evidence to back up the charge they had made against their students—the charge that their students were “condoning mass murder” and flirting with evil itself—the professors offered rumor: “We’ve heard reports of . . . Harvard students celebrating the “victory” or “resistance” on social media.”

As a piece of reasoning, the faculty members’ response was a good deal less coherent than the students’ statement. As a case study of the “Palestine Speech Exception,” however, it was exemplary, even field-defining. The statement demonizing the students and offering them up online as targets for public obloquy was circulated through the listserv of the university’s self-appointed Council on Academic Freedom, a faculty organization supposedly “devoted to promoting free inquiry, intellectual diversity and civil discourse.” And with the statement began the work of conscripting the dead of October 7 to the cause of silencing criticism of Israel.

More or less simultaneously, critics both within and outside Harvard were demanding that the university president, Claudine Gay, denounce the October 7 attack. Former Harvard president Lawrence Summers issued the following statement to his hundreds of thousands of social media followers on the morning of October 9. “In 50 year of @Harvard affiliation, I have never been as disillusioned and alienated as I am today,” he began. “Harvard is being defined by the morally unconscionable statement apparently coming from two dozen student groups blaming all the violence on Israel. I am sickened. I cannot fathom the Administration’s failure to disassociate the University and condemn this statement.” This was not a struggle over politics or even history: it was a fight for the soul of the university.

It is worth pausing to ask: why did it seem—why does it seem—so important for people to know that the administration of Harvard University supported Israel? How did this proxy battle—the battle for the soul of Harvard—come to stand in for, and finally replace, the war as a topic of conversation and conflict on campus, and, indeed, nationwide?

Later the same day, Gay, along with the deans and upper administration, issued a statement that mourned “the death and destruction unleashed by the attack by Hamas that targeted citizens in Israel this weekend, and by the war in Israel and Gaza now underway.” “In a community devoted to learning,” the university leaders hoped, “we can take steps that will draw upon our common humanity and shared values in order to modulate rather than amplify the deep-seated divisions and animosities so distressingly evident in the wider world.”

For many, that statement was too little, too even-handed, and too late. In a note appended to the original professors’ letter, five faculty members additionally condemned the administration’s statement. The next day, the president issued her own second statement, distancing the university from the student groups and more closely aligning the university’s position with that of its loudest and most powerful critics. “Let there be no doubt,” Gay wrote, “that I condemn the terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas. Such inhumanity is abhorrent, whatever one’s individual views of the origins of longstanding conflicts in the region.” Both the timing and the distinct shift in tone suggested that the second statement had been spurred by outrage from online commentators and important benefactors; indeed, one of the university’s billionaire donors later explained to the New York Times, proudly, that he had called the senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation to complain about the administration’s first statement and been reassured that his doubts were being addressed. This striking acknowledgment of a formerly unspoken fact—that when billionaires insisted, Harvard acquiesced—would come to seem fairly ordinary over the coming weeks.

On October 12, President Gay made a third statement, this time in the form of a video message to the university community, which was issued along with a transcription of the text. It was, for the most part, a resolutely liberal defense of civil discourse. It predictably left unanswered the question of whether “civil discourse” within a university whose endowment is invested in companies tied to illegal Israeli settlements on the West Bank can ever be considered truly neutral or even civil. But the real tell was in a single em-dashed clause. “Our University rejects terrorism—that includes the barbaric atrocities perpetrated by Hamas.” Who would ever think that such a statement made at such a moment did not include Hamas? Who would ever demand that sort of specification? What must have been intended to reset the conversation at Harvard on the basis of institutionally articulated liberalism, leavened with empathy and humility, came across as a barely coded message: outraged donors were editing the university’s statements, down to the dashes.

As Israel tightened the siege on Gaza and a million people were presented with the choice of leaving their homes or being bombed within them, the doxing trucks began to patrol the perimeter of the campus. They carried signs emblazoned with the photographs of individual students beneath the words “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites.” Billionaire hedge fund mogul William Ackman called for the creation of a blacklist to ensure that members of the campus organizations that had supported the statement would be unable to infiltrate their firms. The names of students belonging to the offending groups (and of some who did not) were circulated online, so that they might be isolated, shamed, and punished.

Harvard’s official responses to these threats to student safety were characterized by a troubling and paradoxical two-step of overlooking and overreacting—calibrated according to which students’ feelings of frustration and fear could gain the largest supportive audience outside the university. Overlooked by the university were many mounting instances of provocations and abuse toward Palestinian and Palestinian-aligned students: students reported being shouted at from passing cars or other pedestrians—“suicide bomber,” “terrorist,” “fuck you and fuck Palestine, fuck all of you,” “so did you murder your way into Harvard the way Hamas murdered their way into Israel,” “go back to your country, you don’t belong here”—and spat on during a demonstration. This abuse remains officially unspeakable at Harvard. The administration responded only with general acknowledgment of the importance of addressing Islamophobia along with antisemitism. At a November 7 faculty meeting, a faculty member requested the creation of a task force to track and address incidents targeting Palestinian and Palestinian-aligned students, a task force that could address the perplexity of a situation in which students feel too fearful to use the existing mechanisms the university provides to ensure their safety. As of this writing, that request has gone without response.2

Overreaction, meanwhile, characterized Harvard’s responses to perceived threats of antisemitism. The overreacting was epitomized by the case of a graduate student who was dismissed from his position as a proctor (archaic Harvard-speak for a residential advisor who lives in an undergraduate dormitory) following events at an on-campus protest on October 18. The protestors were staging a “die-in” to protest the ongoing attacks on Gaza. As they lay on the ground, a counter-protestor walked through the protest, periodically stopping to stand astride the protestors and film their faces, an action which was understood in the context of the doxing truck and online harassment as a threat. Along with other organizers, the proctor attempted to shield the protestors’ faces and to usher the counter-protestor away from the peaceful demonstration.

In the aftermath of the action, however, the events were reworked into an upside-down morality play. The proctor’s effort to protect his fellow students from an obvious act of provocation was transformed, through the power of repetition on right-wing media platforms, into an act of aggression. Six separate investigations of (and around) the proctor’s actions are apparently now ongoing: 1) the standard process of the university ad board, which is nominally overseen by the faculty; 2) an investigation by the Harvard University Police Department; 3) an investigation by the Cambridge Police Department; 4) an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation; 5) an investigation by the United States Department of Education; and 6) an investigation by the United States Congress. Meantime, the university administration unilaterally suspended the proctor from his residential-life position and evicted him from the room where he was living.

On October 29, President Gay announced the formation of a special committee to “begin the vital work of eradicating antisemitism from our community.” When its membership was announced, it struck some observers as odd that the committee did not include several members of the Harvard community widely respected for their scholarly work on the historical and contemporary manifestations of antisemitism. Writing in Jewish Currents, Peter Beinart concluded that the principle of selection seemed largely to be stated support for the definition of antisemitism supported by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association, which defines “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” (that is, antizionism) as necessarily antisemitic. It did not seem like an accident that the scholars of antisemitism who were left off the committee were on record as supporting the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, which holds that “criticizing or opposing Zionism” is not necessarily antisemitic.

There is no doubt that some degree of antisemitism existed on the Harvard campus both before and after October 7. Antisemitism has long been a regrettable feature of some segments of the ruling class in the United States, from which Harvard draws many of its students. And it is an element of the unholy political alliance of some members of that class with the floridly bigoted supporters of Donald Trump, who include avowedly antisemitic organizers and provocateurs. Some Jewish students on campus presumably felt the same way as many liberal Jews in the United States in the aftermath of the response to October 7: wounded and misunderstood by erstwhile friends and allies who suddenly seemed callously indifferent to violence against civilians simply because it happened in Israel. Nor it is hard to imagine that many Jewish students have felt hyper-visible as the war escalated in Gaza: called upon to take a side in a war that some of them wished probably would just go away, a sentiment that many scared and confused young people have expressed to me over the past weeks.

Some of these feelings might be understood as a part of the broader history of universities in the 21st century. There are many more Palestinian, Arab-American, and Muslim students at Harvard and other institutions than there were when the most vocal alumni and faculty went to college. Their numbers and their political commitment have ruptured what has been, for several generations, a de facto speech code about Israel, always contested, but never really threatened. Younger people (including younger Jews in organizations such as IfNotNow, Jewish Voice for Peace, and, at Harvard, Jews for Palestine) who have come of age during a period where the corrupt and expansionist Benjamin Netanyahu has been Israel’s most prominent representative on the global stage are no longer beguiled by the lockstep support for Israel that is so common among older generations, and which we have so recently seen expressed across a wide variety of powerful American institutions. For elders, especially those raised in the shadow of the Holocaust, the ways that college campuses are changing and the ways that young people are insistently speaking out have been uncomfortable and even frightening. And yet we must understand their deliberate and disproportionate misconstrual of students’ statements and chants as acts that target not only unruly Palestinians critics of Israel, but also liberal, non-, and antizionist Jews. On the one hand seeking to silence and to punish, on the other to terrify, to mobilize, and to discipline.

On November 1, Harvard Chabad hosted an on-campus “Jewish Leaders Forum” featuring William Ackman, the same hedge fund billionaire who had advocated the earlier doxing and blacklisting. Ackman later characterized the event (in one of several patronizing, bullying, and arguably racist open letters he wrote to the president over the past several weeks) as an opportunity for him to investigate Harvard’s campus climate, which he claimed, on the basis of several anonymously reported statements, was feverishly antisemitic. President Gay’s message promising to protect “free expression” on campus seemed to Ackman to represent “a clear message that the eliminationist and antisemitic statements of the protesters are permissible on campus.” At Harvard, he suggested, the defense of academic freedom had become a kind of institutional cover for the university’s genocidal students and faculty members.

His visit coincided with a palpable increase in on-campus discourse around antisemitism. On November 5, the head of Harvard Chabad, Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi, called for the decertification of the undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee, stating that the university had been “taken hostage by its hateful bullies” and accusing the students of “supporting terrorism.”3 (The PSC at Harvard has been consistent and clear about its commitment to nonviolence and condemnation of antisemitism: following an October 14 rally at which a student speaker declared his support for armed Palestinian struggle against Israel, the PSC issued a statement explicitly distancing themselves from the speaker (who was not a PSC member) and disavowing his statement. “We remain staunchly opposed against violence against civilians, and in no way endorse any message that condones, tacitly or explicitly, violence against civilians . . . That’s a red line for the PSC, and it’s a fundamental part of our effort for a nonviolent struggle for a free Palestine.”) And on November 8, President Gay issued a statement on “combatting antisemitism.” The simple existence of the statement embraced the premise that the campus was facing an antisemitism crisis. It adopted many of the rhetorical patterns that have come to characterize such discourse, including a blanket condemnation of the phrase “from the river to the sea.”

The statement read like the sort of policy that might be designed by people who were accustomed to ruling by force when confronted with unanticipated dissent. But more than a ham-fisted attempt to pacify donors and faculty members—who by this point had been demanding that the president silence her students for a month—the statement on “combatting antisemitism” was a distraction. The university’s initial statements had acknowledged that there was in fact a war happening in the Middle East and that members of our community had families and friends who had been killed or were living in extreme danger. This latest statement, on the other hand, sought to ban the chanting of words in a time of war without mentioning the war itself.

Things that had once seemed unlikely, if not unthinkable, were happening in plain sight. Increasingly, one sensed a new willingness to say the quiet part loud: On November 18, for example, the board of the Harvard Law Review voted to suppress a piece that had been solicited from the Palestinian human rights lawyer (and HLS doctoral student) Rabea Egbariah. The piece argued that the war in Gaza could best be understood through the Palestinian framework of “Nakba”; the reason the Law Review gave for killing the article was that its editors feared retaliation and blacklisting if they allowed publication to go forward.

Pressure was mounting from outside the university, and from more and more powerful players. On November 7, the President of Israel sent an open letter to the president of Harvard and other universities. He asserted that his commitment to free inquiry went “without saying,” then called on American university presidents to form task forces to address the antisemitism crisis on their campuses. He compared nonviolent protests on American college campuses to “events in the last century in Europe” and termed nonviolent student protests “a defilement.” Then he asked: “How can anyone endorsing, excusing, or glorifying the Hamas atrocities have a place in any college, or in the civilized world?” Again, we must ask, perhaps a bit less naively this time: why did the president of Israel, who, after all, had a war on his hands, care so much about what was happening on American college campuses?

As the Israeli president’s letter suggested, American universities had become the targets of a resurgent propaganda campaign. On November 25, the Israeli news site Ynet reported that the Foreign and Diaspora Affairs ministries of the Israeli government were launching a campaign targeting “antisemitic students” at American universities. The campaign worked across several “axes.” One might be termed “lawfare,” or in the words of summary on Ynet: “Taking legal action outside the law [sic] against activities and organizations that pose a threat to Jewish and Israeli students on campuses, such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). Israel will hold discussions with elements from the U.S. Department of Justice to map out legal tools that can be used to deal with factors that pose a threat on campuses.” Another axis focuses on the “naming and shaming” of students and faculty: “publicizing the names of those generating antisemitism on campus—both students and faculty and impacting the employment of those identified as perpetrators of antisemitism.” A third focuses on getting donors to withdraw their contributions from non-compliant universities. Still another on deliberate harm: “Personal, economic and employment repercussions for the distributors of antisemitism.” These last, the article notes, are “action[s] that should not have the signature of the State of Israel on [them].”4

This interlocked campaign of financial, political, and reputational attacks on dissidents in American universities is seemingly designed to secure the inter-generational transfer of unquestioned support for Israel by producing object lessons illustrating the costs of speaking out.

Two weeks after the letter, Ackman, Rabbi Zarchi, and the Israeli government—represented by its ambassador to the United Nations, Michael Herzog—screened a propaganda film on the Harvard campus. ​​As Herzog explained, “Harvard is considered one of the most important campuses in the world, and we are truly concerned from what we see, that instead of growing and educating the next leaders of the United States or the world, it has become the hotbed of terrorist supporters.” Rejecting the premise that my colleagues and students are soft on terrorism, I’d suggest that it is Harvard’s outsized prestige and ready-made attraction of attention in capitalist media markets that accounts for the ambassador’s concern. Harvard has become a singularly important theater in the contest over information and narrative about the war: the propaganda war, of which the film screening was an obvious aspect.

The film, which I have not seen, has been described as an unsparing documentation of the violence suffered by Israeli civilians on October 7. Though it had been screened for audience of journalists covering the war, members of the United States Congress, and groups that Jewish Insider has termed “influencers outside Israel,” it had never before been screened to a university audience. Zarchi told Jewish Insider that the screening of the film could be seen as a restaging of the “desecration of the dead,” but in this case an exception should be made “if it will help us preserve life.” As that newspaper summarized his views: “[Zarchi] concluded that it was important to show the footage to counteract denial of the events of Oct. 7, which he compared to Holocaust denial.”

The suffering of the 1200 slain Israelis was terrible, and undeniable. But the film was being shown not to “preserve life,” but to sanction the taking of life in Gaza. By November 25, the day that the existence of the Israeli campaign against “antisemitism on American college campuses” was reported on Ynet, over 14,000 Palestinians—most of them civilians and many of them children—had been killed in Gaza. That evening three Palestinian-American college students, wearing keffiyehs and speaking to one another in a mixture of Arabic and English, were shot in Burlington, Vermont.

And yet, somehow, the focus remained on university presidents, as if either their statements or their silence might have made some actual difference in the accruing horror. On November 28, as the death toll in Gaza topped 16,000, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce announced that Harvard’s president, along with the presidents of two other universities, had agreed to testify at a Congressional hearing on the topic of antisemitism on American college campuses. The testimony of all three presidents was disastrous. Harvard’s president stumbled over her own misguided insistence (presumably underscored by the lawyers who had prepared her for the hearings) on ascribing a single and genocidal meaning to phrases that are historically complicated and semantically vexatious. Having accepted that proposition—having chosen to speak strategically rather than courageously, I would say—she was unable to respond to questions framed by the premise that the words “Globalize the Intifada” could have no other meaning than an explicit call for the mass murder of Jews. Having, as many have noted, co-signed her interrogators’ speech-suppressing premise, she was forced to retreat to a legalistic insistence on the constitutionally established distinction between speech that offends and speech that incites. It hardly mattered that the grand inquisitor herself represented a political movement that has been characterized by its own explicit antisemitism, or that the Congressional representatives kept leaving behind their announced concern with protecting Jewish students and wandering off into attacks on Black, Gay, and Trans students, or that the whole thing was a tawdry McCarthyite spectacle. The damage was done. Along with the outraged Zionists who had already been calling for the firing of university presidents, many others horrified by the circulation of out-of-context (although nevertheless awful) clips of the testimony joined the fray.

Faculty and students critical of Israel were presented with a baleful choice: should they support presidents who had done nothing to support them—who had, indeed, bent to pressures of wealthy donors and bad-faith media characterizations—or should they remain silent in the face of a morally corrupt and borderline authoritarian attack on the institutions in which they live, learn, and work? Though I have just termed that choice “baleful,” which it was, it was also a deeply structured and curated choice. It was the culmination of the ongoing propaganda campaign in the United States, and possibly a subject of concerted state action in Israel, ruthlessly effective from beginning to end. Faculty and students were forced to choose between defending their universities or trying to keep the focus on Gaza.

On December 3, I joined seven hundred other members of the Harvard faculty in signing a two-sentence letter to the Harvard Corporation urging them to resist obvious and unconstitutional federal regulation of expression on university campuses.

On December 9, the death toll in Gaza surpassed 18,000 and the State Department bypassed its own standard approval process in rushing to send more ammunition to Israel, which was apparently running short of tank shells.

On December 12, the Harvard Corporation issued a statement reaffirming its support for the president. “So many people have suffered tremendous damage and pain because of Hamas’s brutal terrorist attack, and the University’s initial statement should have been an immediate, direct, and unequivocal condemnation,” they noted, apparently outlining the officially approved version of the recent history of the Middle East and the university. A neatly inverted version of the original PSC statement, it might as well have read “we hold Hamas responsible for all of the unfolding violence.” The proctor was still suspended and evicted; eight brave students from the group Jews for Palestine, who participated in a 24-hour occupation of the university administration building, were facing university sanctions up to and including expulsion. “The most Jewish thing about me is my commitment to justice,” one of their supporters said at a rally held outside the occupied building that night.

Somewhere in the technicolor fog of the week of the Congressional hearings, a plane flew over the city of Cambridge, pulling behind it a long banner emblazoned with a Palestinian flag and the words “Harvard Hates Jews.” There was nothing novel about the message, but there was something terrifying about the plane. “During recess today,” the principal of one of the elementary schools in the city wrote to parents, “a plane flew over the school with a banner displaying a message of hate. Some of our students in Grades 1-5 saw this message and were understandably upset.” Oddly (at least it seemed to me that way at first), the subject line of the principal’s message was “Antisemitic Message Flown Over City.”

I struggled for a while to understand the uncanny resonance between the image of little Palestinian kids in Gaza being killed by 2,000-pound bombs and little Jewish kids in Cambridge being terrified by a message in the sky advancing a propaganda campaign against Harvard. Whether intended or not, the collateral harm done to those little Jewish kids in Cambridge was an acceptable cost of making certain that people in the United States did not think about those little Palestinian kids dying by the thousands in Gaza. There was the two-step maneuver again: look here, not there.

On campus, a different sleight of hand was going on. Even as the corporation discussed Gay’s future in light of her Congressional testimony, separate accusations began to emerge regarding her academic record. There was no doubt that the accusations were part of an organized effort to destroy Gay’s reputation and force her resignation: they were apparently delivered anonymously to (at least) the New York Post, the Washington Free Beacon, and the right-wing activist Christopher Rufo. Rufo later said that he recognized the forty-page dossier documenting Gay’s sloppy paraphrasing and insufficient scholarly apparatus that had been sent him with no return address as an “act of war.”

Whoever had compiled the dossier on Gay’s scholarship found an enthusiastic warrior in Rufo. Gay’s mistakes were embarrassing by prevailing standards, but showed no evidence of intent to take credit for the works of others. But in the hands of Rufo they were mobilized as evidence that Gay owed her position—assumed only months earlier—to a soft conspiracy to advance unqualified people of color into positions of power within the nation’s universities.

Even before Rufo trained his hard-right racism on Gay (Harvard’s first Black president), there had been some secondary but ongoing discussion, on campus, about the relationship between campus debates over Israel and questions of “DEI” (a sort of catch-all employed by critics to describe hiring and admissions decisions, scholarship, teaching, and student services to which they object) on American college campuses and especially at Harvard. On November 10 Lawrence Summers had given a speech at Harvard Chabad about the “spreading cancer” within the University: diversity, inclusion, and belonging. Summers’s argument would become familiar over the coming weeks: he first lamented that Jewish students had been excluded from what he took to be the broad protections offered by the University’s diversity bureaucracy to other students (a characterization premised on a belief in the scope and effectiveness of those offices that would surely be contested by many of the students whose ongoing and unaddressed scapegoating and harassment he had arguably initiated)—and then he insisted that those supposed protections should not exist at all. “Ideologies arising out of identity politics have too often had the effect of driving discrimination against groups whose members have been most committed to the values of rigorous study and intellectual inquiry,” Summers concluded.

Summers’ mirror-image account of replacement theory lay dormant for almost a month. On December 9, the ever-vigilant Ackman retweeted a message purporting to have discovered the “smoking gun,” a “memo written when she was shortlisted to be president” that revealed then-Dean Claudine Gay’s intention to weaponize the politics of diversity and transform Harvard into a DEI haven. Far from being evidence of anything secret (or even a “business plan” as Ackman termed it), the recovered document was the text of an email sent by Gay to faculty, students, and staff in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. The following day, Rufo opened his inquiry into “problematic patterns of usage and citation in Gay’s dissertation.”

There has been no shortage of aspirants seeking to take credit for the president’s downfall. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Rufo cheerfully described the lessons he had taken away from his effort to damage Claudine Gay’s reputation and inflict professional harm: “The key, I learned, is that any activist campaign has three points of leverage: reputational, financial and political.” Rabbi Zarchi hoped that Rufo’s campaign would help abate the torrent of antisemitism on campus, which he characterized as becoming “more and more brazen with each passing day,” even during a period in which classes were not in session and the students were not on campus. But most of those seeking to profit from Gay’s shaming seemed to have moved on from the question of antisemitism (not to mention from the question of the ongoing catastrophe in Gaza). Ackman wrote a long self-serving piece stating that he had “concluded that antisemitism was not the core of the problem” at Harvard. Rather it was “DEI” and “anti-white racism.” From support for terrorism on campus to antisemitism to plagiarism and then, finally, to the inherent anti-Americanism of diversity, equity, and inclusion: Ackman declared that he had finally dug down through the levels of corruption and conspiracy to a place where he’d found solid rock.5

Claudine Gay herself, writing in the New York Times, tacitly accepted Ackman’s revised account of the underlying terms of the conflict. There had been, she allowed, a misunderstanding about Israel. She had known all along that “Hamas is a terrorist organization that seeks to eradicate the Jewish state” and should have said so from the beginning. What underlay the criticism of her academic record, however, was something deeper than that: “generational and demographic changes unfolding on American campuses,” which Gay was eager to embrace so long as they did not touch upon Israel.

Like Gay, who had negotiated the terms of her departure from the presidency and the way in which it would be officially described with the corporation in advance of its announcement, we are being offered a bargain. Its terms are essentially to return to status quo ante: to set aside the dizzying and divisive question of Palestine and return to the familiar ground of the ongoing culture war. To take up our old positions, promising never to say the word “Palestine” again.

Meanwhile, in Gaza, the death toll passed 23,000 and the Israeli government began to plan for the ethnic cleansing of those who survived the ongoing war.

  1. For a timely and measured response to the initial faculty letter see https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2023/10/16/cammett-enos-levitsky-dissenting-views/ 

  2. For the record, it is my own sense that there are many Harvard administrators who have been horrified by the suppression of student speech critical of Israel. The problem, of course, is that in a climate of fear that has been promoted by some affiliates, some professors, and the president of the university, it is hard to know who to trust. 

  3. Two days before calling for the decertification of the PSC, Zarchi made a speech which referred to enemies on the Harvard campus in the following terms: “When you reduce or hijack your mind to fulfill your impulses, to connive, and to be philosophical, to justify murder and torture—you’re not just an animal. You’re below an animal. You’re a monster.” Perhaps unintentionally, the chaplain’s language echoed that of the Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who had said on October 10 that Israel was beginning a war against “human animals” in Gaza, language that was widely interpreted as genocidal. In any case, it is worth emphasizing that the original student statement said nothing remotely as outrageous as this. To my knowledge, the university has taken no action to distance itself from this statement, which was made in the middle of Harvard Yard. 

  4. For the history of this and similar campaigns see https://www.thenation.com/article/world/israel-spying-american-student-activists/. The formulation “legal action outside the law” is suggestive of the bad-faith use of legal instruments as a tool of harassment, but may simply be a question of unsteady translation from Hebrew to English. 

  5. For a local effort to transform the antisemitism panic at Harvard into a diversity panic at Harvard see https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2024/1/8/lewis-reaping-what-we-taught/ 

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