Brandeis Center demands action from Harvard over prof with ‘anti-Israel and antisemitic bias’

The university had previously acknowledged the three Israeli students were targeted by anti-Zionist Jewish faculty member

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Gate at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

More than four months after Harvard University found that a professor at its John F. Kennedy School of Government discriminated against three Jewish Israeli graduate students, violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law on Monday morning sent a legal warning to the university demanding immediate action. 

“It’s extraordinary that Harvard on the one hand is willing to acknowledge that clients faced inappropriate discrimination and different treatment and yet is not taking meaningful action to address it. This is just the sort of thing you would expect from a university that is under immense pressure for the waves of antisemitism that its students are facing,” Kenneth Marcus, founder and chairman of the Brandeis Center and former U.S. assistant secretary of education for the Bush and Trump administrations, told JI. 

The letter, which was first obtained by Jewish Insider, comes as Harvard’s administration faces criticism from lawmakers and alumni over its mishandling of a surge of antisemitism at the school since Hamas’ deadly rampage in Israel on Oct. 7. In a letter to the university’s general counsel, the Brandeis Center said that the school’s failure to address the discrimination claim has exacerbated antisemitism at the university, pointing to a letter published earlier this month on social media by 31 student organizations claiming Israel is “entirely responsible” for Hamas terrorists’ murder of 1,400 Israelis.

“It isn’t a coincidence that you would see the extraordinary developments at Harvard since Oct. 7 in light of the weak administrative actions prior to that date,” Marcus said, noting that while the primary incident addressed in the case occurred prior to Hamas’ attacks, “Harvard’s inaction paved the way to what we’ve been seeing since then.” 

The Brandeis Center wrote, “This failure, on top of other failures of leadership, have set the stage for the worsening climate that we have seen for Jewish Harvard students since [Oct. 7]. Harvard’s failure to speak out against anti-Semitism masked as anti-Zionism has only emboldened the student groups who are now celebrating Hamas’ atrocities. The silence needs to end.” 

Marcus told JI that “this is a great example of what happens when university administrators fail to address antisemitic incidents when they should. Things just get worse and worse as we’ve been seeing at Harvard, especially in the days since Oct. 7.” 

The incident involves alleged discrimination and harassment of Jewish Israeli students Amnon Shefler, Gilad Neumann and Matan Yaffe, which took place in professor Marshall Ganz’s “Organizing: People, Power, Change” course last spring. All three students have been called up for Israel Defense Forces reserve duty and were not available for comment. 

According to the Brandeis Center, “the students decided to work together on a joint project that would examine ways to ‘to harness and unite a majority of diverse and moderate Israelis to strengthen Israel’s liberal and Jewish democracy.’”

“The students articulated their purpose as ‘organizing a growing majority of Israelis…that act in harmony, building on a shared ethos of Israel as a liberal-Jewish-democracy, being a cultural, economic and security lighthouse.’ Professor Ganz dismissed their project as illegitimate, demanded they change it, and subjected them to anti-Israel and anti-Semitic bias and discrimination when they refused,” the letter continues.

According to the complaint, Ganz told the students they could not use the term “Jewish democracy” to describe Israel – stating that using the words “Jewish” and “democracy” in regard to the Jewish state was akin to a project promoting white supremacy. When the students decided to stick with their project as designed, Ganz threatened them with academic consequences. 

“Professor Ganz admitted he had never told students in any other class that they could not present their work, even when it centered on controversial topics. During the final class, two of Ganz’s teaching fellows taught a lesson on how to recruit support for Palestinians,” the letter said, noting that while the topic itself was not objectionable, “it led to students making hostile claims, inaccurate characterizations and false accusations against Israel and Israelis. Ganz refused to let the Israeli students provide a response or any counter-arguments to the wildly inaccurate data presented.”

The Brandeis Center’s initial complaint to the university was sent in March. In response, Harvard launched a third-party-investigation, which agreed with the Brandeis Center and concluded that “Ganz subjected the students to anti-Israel and antisemitic bias and discrimination on the basis of their identities as Jewish Israelis, silenced the speech of the Jewish Israeli students about a topic he viewed as illegitimate, treated the students differently and denigrated them on the basis of their Israeli national origin and Jewish ethnicity and ancestry, and prioritized others’ concerns over the Israeli students.” 

Marcus said that the investigator made “fairly strong recommendations,” adding that he would have made “even stronger recommendations,” but was “happily surprised since investigators paid by colleges and universities seldom are as firm as this.” 

According to the Brandeis Center, the investigator concluded that Ganz’s conduct violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires schools that receive federal funding to respond immediately to discrimination and/or harassment that “negatively affect[s] the ability and willingness of Jewish students to participate fully in the school’s education programs and activities.” 

Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf pledged to address the problem, asking for time over the summer to do so, Marcus said, adding that ultimately, his plan was “an apology and unspecified personnel actions,” which Marcus called “deeply disappointing.” 

Four months later, the Brandeis Center said that “not only has there been no action to address the anti-Semitism, Harvard is now publicly touting Ganz, who continues to teach there, as a civil rights hero. The latest edition of the Harvard Gazette esteems Ganz’s early civil rights work, leaving out mention of the antisemitic conduct.” 

“Harvard, it seems, has no genuine intent to address the anti-Semitism on its campus, choosing instead to publicly celebrate a professor who recently subjected Jewish and Israeli students to bias and discrimination,” the letter sent on Monday states.

In July, amid the White House’s rollout of a national strategy to combat antisemitism, the issue was addressed in the Knesset by American Jewish leaders and Israelis studying in the U.S. 

One of the Israeli students who spoke at the hearing was Lt. Col. Amnon Shefler, the former deputy military secretary to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also served as the IDF international spokesperson and as a fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force. Shefler was studying at Harvard while still in the military on leave and mentioned the Ganz case when describing the struggles he and other Israeli students faced in their classes. 

The Brandeis Center is demanding that Harvard “fulfill the commitment it made to address Ganz’s discrimination, and eliminate the hostile environment that is snowballing on its campus, as it is required under Title VI.”

It specifically calls on Harvard “to commit to university-wide changes, including requiring all faculty and staff to undergo training on anti-Semitism, including understanding that expressing support for the Jewish homeland is a sincere and deeply felt expression of Jewish ethnic and ancestral identity as well as the Jewish religion. The training also must help faculty and staff recognize when anti-Semitism directed at Jewish ethnicity is a concerted strategy to marginalize Jewish students on campus and make them feel unwelcome.” 

Earlier this month, the Wexner Foundation cut ties with Harvard over “the dismal failure of Harvard’s leadership to take a clear and unequivocal stand against the barbaric murders of innocent Israeli civilians by terrorists [on Oct.7].” More than 250 Israelis have graduated from the long-standing and prestigious Wexner Foundation Fellowship, which includes a period of study at Harvard’s Kennedy School. These alumni have often gone on to hold high-ranking positions in the Israeli civil service and in government, including Knesset members, Israel Defense Forces generals, top state prosecutors and others.

A letter from the foundation to the Harvard Board of Overseers severing ties said that many Israel fellows “feel abandoned” by the university. 

Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer and his wife, Batia, also announced they are quitting Harvard’s Kennedy executive board in protest over how university leaders have responded to the massacre.  

eJewishPhilanthropy’s news editor Judah Ari Gross contributed reporting.

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