‘Root problem’ of antisemitism at Harvard remains after Gay resignation, Jewish leaders say

Harvard President Claudine Gay stepped down on Tuesday after scrutiny of her handling of antisemitism on campus and amid allegations of plagiarism in her academic work. She didn’t acknowledge either

Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Claudine Gay speaks to the crowd after being named Harvard University's next president.

Harvard President Claudine Gay resigned on Tuesday, following months of scrutiny of her handling of antisemitism on campus and amid allegations of plagiarism in her academic work. 

In December, the university’s governing body pledged its support for Gay. But in long statements emailed to the Harvard community on Tuesday, neither Gay nor the Harvard Corporation explained what had changed over the university’s winter break, and why she was now leaving her post. Their messages did not mention the explosion of antisemitic incidents at Harvard since Oct. 7 under Gay’s leadership. 

Jewish community members met the news with skepticism — some tentatively hopeful that her resignation would bring about change in the university’s much-criticized response to antisemitism, and others pessimistic that a change in leadership will root out the deeper problems facing Jewish students and faculty at the Ivy League university. 

“The problems at Harvard have been years, if not decades, in the making,” Jeremy Burton, CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, told Jewish Insider on Tuesday. “Whatever your opinion about Gay’s decision to step aside and how that came about, we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we pretend that this in any way moves us closer to resolving the root problems with the campus environment at Harvard.”

Harvard has faced widespread scrutiny for its response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel. The university did not address the terrorist attack for more than two days, at which point a letter authored by dozens of student groups blaming the bloodshed on Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians had gone viral. 

The day after the attack, Gay spoke with Harvard Chabad Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi to express her condolences and offer sympathy for the campus Jewish community. But she told Zarchi she did not plan to release a statement.

“This was after the student groups came out with their message,” Zarchi told JI on Tuesday. “She said to me that she doesn’t think she’s going to say anything, [that] she’s going to rely on the deans. She had a lot of faith in the deans.” 

Soon after, the dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education sent an email blaming both “Hamas and the Israeli government” for everyone killed in the attack. 

The next day, Gay sent her first statement addressing the situation in the Middle East and responding to rising reports of antisemitism and Islamophobia. She sent two more that week alone. Ever since, the school has been locked in a cycle of reactionary damage control. 

“Claudine Gay tacitly encouraged those who sought to spread hate at Harvard, where many Jews no longer feel safe to study, identify and fully participate in the Harvard community,” the Harvard Jewish Alumni Alliance, which has thousands of members, said in a statement Tuesday. 

The slow response and equivocation of Gay and other Harvard administrators were particularly jarring, Jewish community members argue, given how quickly Harvard has responded to other global events like the war in Ukraine and the anti-racism movement that emerged after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. 

“It created a culture that we don’t remain silent when we experience or witness the slightest form of discrimination,” said Zarchi. “That’s a beautiful culture to inculcate in students. But then there’s a double culture in which, when it comes to matters of the Jewish community, there’s nothing being said.” 

The tipping point for Gay may have been allegations of plagiarism in Gay’s academic work, dating back to her graduate thesis, that emerged in recent weeks. Those accusations followed a disastrous performance on Capitol Hill in which Gay refused to say definitively that calling for the genocide of Jews violates the school’s code of conduct.

“It can be, depending on the context,” she said at the December congressional hearing. 

Gay later walked the testimony back, telling the Harvard Crimson that she got caught up in a combative hearing and “failed to convey what is my truth,” which is “that calls for violence against our Jewish community — threats to our Jewish students — have no place at Harvard, and will never go unchallenged.”

In her Tuesday email announcing her resignation, Gay said “it is in the best interests of Harvard for me to resign so that our community can navigate this moment of extraordinary challenge with a focus on the institution rather than any individual.” But she argued that she had been unfairly maligned in recent weeks. 

“It has been distressing to have doubt cast on my commitments to confronting hate and to upholding scholarly rigor—two bedrock values that are fundamental to who I am—and frightening to be subjected to personal attacks and threats fueled by racial animus,” Gay said.

In November, Gay announced in a speech at Harvard Hillel that the university was forming a group to advise administrators on how to combat antisemitism on campus. One person familiar with the group’s proceedings told JI on Tuesday that the group has met once or twice a week for the past two months. But Gay did not consult with the group, which included several university administrators, author Dara Horn and Harvard Divinity School visiting scholar Rabbi David Wolpe, before she testified on Capitol Hill. Wolpe resigned from the group after Gay’s appearance. 

Despite the frequent meetings of the advisory group, the university has not announced any new actions against antisemitism. The person familiar with the group’s work said there are no future plans to meet, and that its members have not been told what the university’s next actions on antisemitism will be — if any. 

Jacob Miller, a junior at Harvard and the former student president of Harvard Hillel, said something at the school needs to change to make Jewish students feel at home. But it’s not clear if that will happen. 

“There does need to be a change in the culture, and I don’t know if this is a part of that, or if this is just Harvard trying to evade the negative press that it’s receiving,” Miller, who was an editorial fellow at Jewish Insider from 2021-2022, said. “It remains to be seen exactly how the school reflects its commitment to protecting Jewish students. It’s too early to tell.” 

Jewish students have begged Harvard’s administration to do more to fight antisemitism and to enforce the school’s code of conduct, such as by taking disciplinary action against students who have disrupted classes with pro-intifada chants. 

Jewish donors aren’t convinced that the change in leadership is reason enough for them to rethink their decision to withhold donations from Harvard. 

Yossi Sagol, an Israeli businessman who attended Harvard Business School, told JI’s sister publication eJewishPhilanthropy in October that he was considering withholding a donation to Harvard. A spokesperson for Sagol Holdings told JI on Tuesday that Sagol “is waiting to see the actions of the university, and will not have a decision until then.” A separate group of Jewish alumni decided last month to lower their donations to just $1 to signal their dissatisfaction. 

Harvard announced that university provost and chief academic officer Alan Garber, an economist and physician, will serve as interim president. 

“The provost has a very close relationship with the Jewish community,” said Miller, who added that Garber occasionally attended Jewish prayer services at Harvard Hillel. “He’s very friendly and attentive to the issue of antisemitism on campus.” 

eJewishPhilanthropy news reporter Haley Cohen contributed to this report.

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