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Harvard administration slammed by lawmakers, alums for response to pro-Hamas student letter

Rep. Seth Moulton, a Harvard graduate: ‘I cannot recall a moment when I’ve been more embarrassed by my alma mater’

Scott Eisen/Getty Images

An entrance gate on Harvard Yard at the Harvard University campus on June 29, 2023 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

One day after 31 student organizations at Harvard University published a letter on social media claiming Israel is “entirely responsible” for Hamas terrorists’ murder of 900 Israelis, Jewish student leaders and alumni condemned the university’s handling of the incident and called for a stronger response from Harvard’s administration. 

Harvard President Claudine Gay and other university leaders said in a Monday night statement that the school is “heartbroken by the death and destruction unleashed by the attack by Hamas.” But Jacob Miller, the president of the student board at Harvard Hillel and a former editorial fellow at Jewish Insider, called Harvard’s response a “weak statement [that] fails to capture the gravity of the moment.” He called for the university to “unequivocally condemn these terror attacks, a step they have been unwilling to take thus far.”

“It’s completely wrong to blame Israel for these types of attacks,” Miller told JI on Monday afternoon. “Clearly Israel is not responsible for attacks against its own civilians and it’s also deeply offensive to the Jewish community. I would say it’s antisemitic to blame Israel.” 

Two letters from Harvard students and alumni directly call on the university’s leadership to condemn the anti-Israel statement released by the student organizations, who called themselves the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Groups (PSG). 

One, organized by Harvard Hillel and Harvard Chabad, was signed by more than 2,000 people as of Monday night. “The statement signed by the Palestine Solidarity Committee and dozens of other student groups blaming Israel for the aforementioned attacks is completely wrong and deeply offensive,” the letter states. “There are no justifications for acts of terror as we have seen in the past days. We call on all the student groups who co-signed the statement to retract their signatures from the offensive letter.” 

Signatories include former NBC Universal President Noah Oppenheim, businessman and philanthropist George Rohr, former Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, former U.S. solicitor general Seth Waxman, Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY), Hadar President Ethan Tucker and novelists Dara Horn and Allegra Goodman. 

The Harvard chapter of alumni group Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF), is demanding in a letter set to be released today that the school’s leadership directly condemn the anti-Israel statement released by the student organizations. 

“It’s time for the administration to step up and make a statement,” Naomi Steinberg, a 1988 Harvard graduate who spearheaded the counter letter through ACF, told JI.  “Our strategy is completely alum-based to put pressure on the administration.” 

Steinberg’s daughter, Alana, who graduated from Harvard in 2018, added, “The silence is deafening. In not saying anything they are making a statement.” 

The alumni letter, which is addressed to President Gay, states that “ACF-Harvard holds Hamas and Iran fully responsible for this premeditated day of savagery, which will live in infamy. More Jews were murdered on October 7, 2023, than on any single day since the Holocaust. Hamas has killed and kidnapped babies, raped women, and paraded mutilated bodies of Israelis through the streets of Gaza, often accompanied by celebrations.”

The letter, a copy of which was obtained by JI, goes on to call the joint statement from Harvard student groups “shameful and replete with lies and should be rejected by fair-minded and informed people.” A Harvard spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.

“As pro-Israel alumni, ACF stands with Jewish students and faculty on Harvard’s campus during this difficult time. We call on President Gay, the Board of Overseers, and all Harvard administration and faculty to unequivocally support the Jewish and Israeli members of the Harvard community during the difficult days ahead.” 

“We believe that now is the time for the university to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which would place the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Groups’ statement well within the definition of antisemitism, and would give the university even more grounds for condemnation,” the statement concludes. 

The statement from Harvard’s administration, which came after pressure from several prominent alumni, including members of the U.S. House and Senate, did not condemn or mention the letter from the student groups. 

The student letter, titled “Joint Statement by Harvard Palestine Solidarity Groups on the Situation in Palestine,” was signed by 31 student organizations, including the Ivy League’s affiliate of Amnesty International. It condemned Israel, claiming Hamas’ attack “did not happen in a vacuum,” and that the Israeli government has forced Palestinians to live in an “open-air prison for over two decades.” 

“We, the undersigned student organizations, hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence,” the letter reads. “The apartheid regime is the only one to blame.” 

The letter continued, “Today, the Palestinian ordeal enters into uncharted territory. The coming days will require a firm stand against retaliation. We call on the Harvard community to take action to stop the ongoing annihilation of Palestinians.”

Signatories to the letter include the African American Resistance Organization, the Harvard Islamic Society and Harvard Jews for Liberation.

The statement from Harvard’s administration, which came more than 24 hours after the student letter, said the university has “heard an interest from many in understanding more clearly what has been happening in Israel and Gaza.” 

It also said the school has “no illusion that Harvard alone can readily bridge the widely different views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but we are hopeful that, as a community devoted to learning, we can take steps that will draw on 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.” 

Naomi Steinberg told JI that “ACF-Harvard rejects the equivocating statement made by the Harvard administration, which attempts to draw a moral equivalency between Hamas terrorism and Israel’s defensive operations. The statement blatantly ignores and fails to condemn simple facts, among which are: that Hamas has slaughtered, raped, and taken innocent civilians hostage and is using them as pawns on the international stage.” 

“The administration must clearly and unequivocally condemn Hamas as an antisemitic terrorist organization in order to protect Harvard’s Jewish and pro-Israel students, as well as denounce the statement made by PSG,” Steinberg said. 

On Sunday night, more than 100 students gathered at Harvard Hillel to mourn Israeli victims.  

A vigil for “all civilian lives lost and in solidarity with Palestine” is planned for Tuesday night at the university. 

The letter from the student groups sparked almost immediate scrutiny, including from Lawrence Summers, who served as Harvard president from 2001-2006. “In nearly 50 years of @Harvard affiliation, I have never been as disillusioned and alienated as I am today,” Summers wrote on X on Monday.

Summers, who was the Treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton and advised former President Barack Obama, wrote, “The silence from Harvard’s leadership, so far, coupled with a vocal and widely reported student groups’ statement blaming Israel solely, has allowed Harvard to appear at best neutral towards acts of terror against the Jewish state of Israel.”

“Instead, Harvard is being defined by the morally unconscionable statement apparently coming from two dozen student groups blaming all the violence on Israel,” he wrote, adding, “I am sickened.”

Lawmakers who attended Harvard also expressed disappointment in the school’s lack of response. 

Immediately after the Harvard administration released its statement, Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-MA) tweeted, “Harvard’s leadership has failed. The president and deans refuse to denounce the antisemitism of Harvard student groups. Instead of moral clarity and courage, they offer word salad approved by committee. I am ashamed of my alma mater.” 

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) wrote on X,  “Terrorism is never justified nor someone else’s fault. As hundreds of Israelis and others, including several Americans, remain kidnapped, injured, or dead, the 31 Harvard organizations that signed a letter holding Israel ‘entirely responsible’ for Hamas’ barbarous terrorism should be condemned, as should Harvard leadership for whom silence is complicity.” He added, “I cannot recall a moment when I’ve been more embarrassed by my alma mater.”

Republican Conference Chair Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), who graduated from Harvard in 2006, also condemned the letter and called on Harvard to respond. 

“It is abhorrent and heinous that Harvard student groups are blaming Israel for Hamas’ barbaric terrorist attacks that have killed over 700 Israelis,” Stefanik tweeted. “Any voice that excuses the slaughter of innocent women and children has chosen the side of evil and terrorism.

“I am calling on the leadership of Harvard to immediately publicly condemn these vile anti-Semitic statements.”

Jason Furman, head of the U.S. National Economic Council under the Obama administration, wrote on X that the letter is “getting global attention and the sentiments it expresses are egregious.”

“Blaming the victims for the slaughter of hundreds of civilians,” Furman continued. “Absolving the perpetrators of any agency. This is morally ignorant and painful for other members of the community.” 

Political scientist Ian Bremmer posted on X that he “can’t imagine who would want to identify with such a group.” “Harvard parents — talk to your educated kids about this.” 

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who attended Harvard Law School, wrote, “What the hell is wrong with Harvard?”

At a Monday pro-Israel rally on the Boston Common, former Harvard Hillel director Rabbi Jonah Steinberg called out his former workplace. “We do not want to see crimson in this city become blood on the hands of those student groups who have signed on to such a despicable letter,” said Steinebrg, who is now the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in New England.

At universities around the U.S., Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters released statements similar to the Harvard student group letter, but with far fewer student groups signing on. National SJP called for a Day of Resistance on Thursday at colleges including Penn State, New York University and University of Virginia The group also praised Hamas’ “surprise operation against the Zionist enemy which disrupted the very foundation of Zionist settler society.” 

Jewish Insider’s Capitol Hill reporter Marc Rod contributed reporting. 

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