Taking Action

Jewish leaders praise Harvard for cracking down on latest antisemitic activity

Harvard’s president announced the school will be investigating how anti-Jewish material got reposted online by a pro-Palestinian faculty group

Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Harvard Yard during finals week, December 13, 2023 in Cambridge, Mass.

Harvard University, under scrutiny for its inaction against antisemitism on campus, took a tough stance this week against pro-Palestinian student and faculty groups for distributing “deeply offensive antisemitic tropes” posted to social media.  

The groups had posted an image containing a cartoon from 1967 of a puppeteer whose hand is marked by a dollar sign inside a Star of David, lynching two men who appear to be Muhammad Ali and former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Harvard announced that it will be launching an investigation into how the antisemitic material got posted, and who was responsible for promoting the hateful material. “The University will review the situation to better understand who was responsible for the posting and to determine what further steps are warranted,” Alan Garber, Harvard’s interim president, said in a statement on Tuesday. 

Harvard’s response has led some Jewish leaders who have criticized campus leadership’s handling of antisemitism to applaud the college’s swift response to the most recent incident, with Harvard Chabad Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi calling it the school’s first “moment that looks appropriate.”

Harvard’s crackdown comes as the Israel-Hamas war has put a spotlight on the university, leading the House Committee on Education and the Workforce to open an investigation into the school’s record on antisemitism.

“As regards to [this one post, Harvard administration is] taking steps,” said Rabbi David Wolpe, who in December, citing the school’s antisemitism problem, stepped down as one of eight members on Harvard’s antisemitism advisory committee. The committee was formed at the end of October, before an official task force launched, as the school faced fierce criticism over its response to Oct. 7.

“What this will mean longer term, I don’t know,” Wolpe told Jewish Insider, adding that he remains “hopeful but very, very cautious.” 

“I know some people were unhappy I stepped down, but I don’t see any action that suggests that had I stayed the world would be better,” said Wolpe, the Anti-Defamation League’s rabbinic fellow. “I think that we still have serious problems and the onus is not on the task force, the onus is on the administration. The most the task force can do is try to get Harvard’s administration to take steps… it’s going to take fundamental changes and we’ll see whether there’s any willingness to actually undertake those.” 

Wolpe declined to comment further on the task force, which is not yet up and running. 

Zarchi said the school’s response in the current instance is “a very welcome step and an absolute necessity for the university to be able to function with any dignity and legitimacy.” 

“We’re witnessing Jew hate in its ugliest form,” Zarchi, who said in December of then-Harvard President Claudine Gay: We in the Jewish community are longing for a day that we can refer to the president and all of Harvard as ours.”

Zarchi told JI that the administration’s response to the antisemitic post was cheered by Jewish  students. He pointed to a Chabad event on Tuesday night with 150 undergraduate students in which many expressed relief that the incident was being investigated. 

“We finally have a moment that looks appropriate and is responsive. I sense in the students how much it meant to them to hear a voice saying the obvious in condemning the hateful conspiracies against Jews,” Zarchi said.   

Most concerning about the original posting, Zarchi said, was that “faculty were behind the Jew hatred and conspiracies, and have been for some time, and it’s gone unaddressed.”

“People saw a cartoon, it went public and made a lot of noise so we got a response but this didn’t just begin, it’s been going on for some time. Faculty have been writing and speaking on campus publicly in this manner,” Zarchi said. 

While the post originated from two student organizations — Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee and the African and African American Resistance Organization — most of the initial criticism was directed at a Harvard faculty and staff of the pro-Palestine group that reposted the image in an Instagram story, the Harvard Crimson reported. 

Garber, who took over for Gay after she resigned amid widely criticized statements about the university’s handling of antisemitism, strongly condemned the antisemitic image on Tuesday. 

“While the groups associated with the posting or sharing of the cartoon have since sought to distance themselves from it in various ways, the damage remains, and our condemnation stands,” Garber said in a statement. “The members of the [Harvard] Corporation join me in unequivocally condemning the posting and sharing of the cartoon in question.” 

Meanwhile, Walter Johnson, the Harvard professor who guided the groups Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee and Harvard Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine, stepped down on Tuesday from his faculty adviser role after the groups were widely condemned for posting the antisemitic image on Sunday. 

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which on Feb. 16 opened an investigation into Harvard over antisemitism on campus, also condemned Harvard faculty involvement in the original post. “This repugnant antisemitism should have no place in our society, much less on Harvard’s faculty,” the committee tweeted.

Jason Newton, a Harvard spokesperson, told JI that “the university is aware of social media posts today containing deeply offensive antisemitic tropes and messages from organizations whose membership includes Harvard affiliates. Such despicable messages have no place in the Harvard community. We condemn these posts in the strongest possible terms.”

Newton continued, “This matter is being reviewed by the university and is being referred to the Harvard College Administrative Board, which is responsible for the application and enforcement of undergraduate academic regulations and social conduct.” Newton declined to comment further on the investigation.  

Zarchi added that while “the message was certainly on target, the question that still remains is what actions will follow from this.”

“But yes,” he said, “this was the right statement.” 

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