Summers Says Anti-Semitism Lurks Locally

Divestment strongly denounced in Morning Prayers speech

University President Lawrence H. Summers warned on Tuesday that Harvard’s campus has not been immune to a global upturn in anti-Semitism.

Calls for the University to divest from Israel and a Harvard student group’s fundraising activities are examples of developments on campus in the last year that are “anti-Semitic in their effect if not in their intent,” Summers said to students and faculty attending the first Morning Prayers of the term.

Summers said he spoke “not as president of the University but as a concerned member of our community.”

“Where anti-Semitism and views that are profoundly anti-Israeli have traditionally been the primary preserve of poorly educated right-wing populists, profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities,” he said.

Given recent attacks on Jews in Europe, actions against Israeli academics and profoundly anti-Israel sentiment at last summer’s UN conference on racism, the developments on campus are all the more worrisome, Summers said.

A petition that circulated last spring advocating that the University divest from Israel, Summers said, is an example of anti-Semitism’s spread. While aspects of Israel’s foreign policy “should be vigorously challenged,” the calls for divestment seek to unfairly “single out Israel,” he said.

Summers also said that “events to raise funds for organizations of questionable political provenance that in some cases were later found to support terrorism have been held...with at least modest success and very little criticism.”

The Harvard Islamic Society (HIS) has in the past been criticized for planning to donate proceeds from a November 2000 fundraiser to the Holy Land Foundation, a charity which the U.S. government says has ties to Hamas. HIS ultimately chose not to donate to the group, giving instead to the International Red Crescent (IRC).

“It is unclear how supporting the IRC, an internationally recognized humanitarian relief organization, can be characterized as anti-Semitism,” said Wasim W. Quadir ’04, president of HIS.

Reaction to Summers’ speech was highly polarized—evidence of a campus deeply divided over the question of Israel.

David B. Adelman ’04, president of Harvard Students for Israel, lauded the speech, describing it as a powerful statement on the need for increased vigilance.

“I think it was a very appropriate speech, at a very appropriate time, by a very appropriate person,” he said. “Larry Summers has a lot of credibility—a lot of people will listen to him.”

Robert Leikind, director of the New England chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, welcomed Summers’ speech on campus anti-Semitism. “It helps put the issue on the map,” Leikind said.

Supporters of the drive for divestment blasted the speech, arguing that it conflated respectable protest with racism.

“To lump people who are working for peace in Israel with racists is really unfair,” said Professor of Philosophy Richard G. Heck, a supporter of divestment. “I’m very, very disappointed that the president of the University would have made those accusations.”

Winthrop House Master Paul D. Hanson, another signer of the divestment petition, said he agreed with Summers’ underlying message about the danger of a rise in anti-Semitism, but said that the protests over divestment were not anti-Semitic.

“This is in no way a protest against the State of Israel, but against the Sharon government, the Bush government and their policies,” Hanson said.

“The same moral convictions that underlie my feelings against anti-Semitism underlie my position on the right of the Palestinians to their own land,” he said.

Summers’ statements Tuesday were his most explicit—and most political—to date on the issues surrounding Israel. Last spring, Summers rejected calls for divestment, arguing that political advocacy is not the proper province of the University.

The speech was also one of Summers’ more personal.

“I am Jewish, identified but hardly devout,” explained Summers, who is Harvard’s first Jewish president.

“In my lifetime, anti-Semitism has been remote from my experience,” Summers said, a fact which he had attributed to a growth in tolerance and an acceptance of the Israeli state’s right to exist.

“But today, I am less complacent,” he said.

He said that he has long been wary of those who raise the specter of anti-Semitism in response to any disagreement over Israel.

But he said such views “seem rather less alarmist in the world of today than they did a year ago.”

Staff writer David H. Gellis can be reached at gellis@fas.harvard.edu.