More than 800 University affiliates signed a Harvard Israel Initiative letter supporting “the right of the Jewish people to self-determination” and Israel’s “right to self-defense” against rocket attacks by the Islamic militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.
The letter denounces the recent rise in anti-Semitic attacks across the United States, which followed the conflict between Israel and Palestine escalating in May to its worst violence since 2014. Nearly 250 Palestinians — including 66 children — were killed, and thousands were left injured or homeless in the 11 days of fighting. Twelve Israeli civilians — including two children — and one Israeli soldier were also killed.
In the letter, the Harvard Israel Initiative — a student group affiliated with Harvard Hillel — wrote that it has observed a rise in “anti-Israel sentiment” among Harvard students and faculty, as well as increased support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. The controversial BDS movement aims to put economic pressure on Israel to shift its policies toward Palestinians; critics have accused it of anti-Semitism and delegitimizing Israeli statehood.
“We are also disheartened by the rise in anti-Israel sentiment and in activism across the University and the greater Cambridge area that seeks to delegitimize the existence of the State of Israel and the right of the Jewish people to self-determination, not least through the libelous application of terms such as ‘apartheid,’ ‘white supremacy,’ ‘ethnic cleansing,’ and ‘colonialism,’” the letter reads.
On May 25, the Cambridge City Council passed an amended policy order that would terminate contracts with companies that “perpetuated violations of International Human Rights Laws.” The original version — which sparked more than seven hours of public comment — proposed to terminate the city’s business with Hewlett-Packard, which some councilors charged with “abetting apartheid in the Middle East.”
The letter also references Harvard affiliates’ social media posts.
“Even at Harvard, students have been disturbed by posts on social media cheering on the burning of Israeli flags and dismissing student fears about antisemitism,” the letter states.
As of Thursday morning, the letter had nearly 850 University-affiliated signatories spanning alumni, students, and faculty.
University chaplain and Harvard Hillel Executive Director Jonah C. Steinberg, who signed onto the letter, wrote in an email that he wondered whether students expressing anti-Israel sentiments realize that Israel is a “boisterous and inclusive democracy.”
During his upbringing in Vienna, Austria, Steinberg added, his father worked with the “post-Holocaust remnants” of the Eastern European Jewish community.
“Having seen, in that context, the residue of murderous anti-Semitism up close, I perceive in our own place and time a distinct, alarming, and unhealthy negative fixation on Israel and Jewish community that is very different from attitudes expressed about any other people or geopolitical debacle represented in our Harvard community,” Steinberg wrote. “I think we must find a way to raise consciousness among many students and faculty members about the wider historical phenomenon they verge into joining and stoking when they fixate uniquely on Israel and when they project guilt they themselves may feel about privilege and relative security disproportionally onto Israel.”
Benjamin M. “Ben” Simon ’21-’22, another signatory, said he believes recent discourse on Harvard’s campus has conflated criticism of the Israeli government’s policies with the existence of Israel itself — which Simon said is “anti-Semitic rhetoric.”
Simon said he believes engaging in that type of discourse lays the foundation for acts such as the two vandalism incidents at Harvard Hillel in May.
“As a Jew who’s been on a college campus, it’s difficult to see a lot of what has been legitimized as criticism,” Simon said. “It doesn’t surprise me that a lot of that has now manifested in vandalism and acts of violence.”
Government professor Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. ’53 cited the vandalism as one of the reasons he signed onto the letter.
“Support for the Palestinians and opposition to Israel have for some time been the hallmark of the hard Left in America,” Mansfield wrote in an email. “Recently, this malicious attitude has been adopted by Progressives at Harvard and elsewhere, and it has prompted attacks on Hillel in our campus. These acts have to be denounced as well as stopped.”
The Israel Initiative’s letter comes several weeks after a statement signed by 89 Harvard student groups and 925 student signatures condemned Israel’s use of force against Palestinians and called on the University to “end its complicity with Israeli apartheid policies” by publicly rebuking Israel’s “excessive use of force against civilians.” It also called the University to remove investments that support the “Israeli settlement enterprise.”
—Staff writer Raquel Coronell Uribe can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @raquelco15.