Hundreds of student and faculty demonstrators disrupt Harvard’s graduation ceremony

Jewish student leader said the commencement chaos culminated a year filled with antisemitic incidents

RICK FRIEDMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Anti-Israel demonstrators protest outside Harvard Yard during Harvard University's class of 2024 graduation ceremony in Cambridge, Massachusetts on May 23, 2024.

Hundreds of students and faculty members walked out of Harvard University’s commencement ceremony on Thursday in solidarity with 13 anti-Israel student protesters who were denied degrees as a result of their involvement in the school’s illegal campus encampment.

Shabbos Kestenbaum, who in March spoke to a roundtable organized by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce about the antisemitism he experienced on Harvard’s campus, said he was “shocked but not surprised.” 

Kestenbaum, who graduated with a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School, said the unrest at graduation —  which included several students rushing the stage with signs reading “Harvard funds genocide” — “summed up” months of antisemitic protests, culminating in the encampment, that took over campus after the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks in Israel. 

“This has been building for months and is a natural outcome of failed leadership,” Kestenbaum told Jewish Insider, calling the protests that engulfed Harvard Yard “degrading and frustrating,” while noting that it “ruined graduation for everyone else.” 

The commencement speaker, Maria Ressa, the CEO of the Philippines-based news site Rappler and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, supported the student protests in her address. “Harvard, you are being tested,” she said. “The campus protests are testing everyone in America. Protests give voice; they shouldn’t be silenced.” Ressa, whose publication wrote an editorial comparing Israel with Nazi Germany after the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks, went on to say that “money and power” called her an antisemite for speaking at Harvard. 

The two student speakers at the ceremony, an undergraduate and a graduate speaker, also criticized the Harvard Corporation, the school’s top governing body, for its decision not to let some of the encampment demonstrators graduate. “This semester, our freedom of speech and expressions of solidarity became punishable, leaving our graduation uncertain,” Shruthi Kumar, the undergraduate student speaker, said to resounding applause. (There was no applause when other crises, including Sudan or Ukraine, were briefly mentioned.)   

“The focus of those speeches was less about what’s happening in Gaza and more about free speech and repercussions,” Barak Sella, a Harvard Kennedy School of Government graduate and former director of the Reut Institute, told JI. “It’s clear that the speeches weren’t about opposing injustice around the world.” 

Sella noted the irony in the speeches. “They’re saying they don’t have free speech while talking on one of the most central stages of academia, in front of 15,000 people.” 

“It’s fully their right to protest but they were loud and disruptive and today was a special day for many people,” he continued, noting that “many people do not agree with the protesters.” 

“One of the student speakers said, ‘the students have spoken, the faculty has spoken,’ but that isn’t true. Many students were sitting down and quiet,” said Sella, who held an Israeli flag throughout the ceremony and posted a photo online showing a plane trailing an Israeli flag and the words “Jewish lives matter” appearing to fly overhead.

Kestenbaum, a first-generation American, said he “cautiously told my parents that I didn’t want them to come to commencement because I didn’t want them exposed to this narrative.”

“I’m the first of their seven kids to graduate with a masters from an American university and it would have been deeply upsetting [for them to see] that this was overshadowed by antisemitic students who have not been disciplined for their previous engagements like the encampments and occupation of university halls,” he said. “Today sent a really disappointing message to Jewish students.” 

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