Summers Revives Divestment Debate

Rekindling a rancorous two-year-old campus debate, University President Lawrence H. Summers published an op-ed last month reiterating his stance that a faculty-led drive pushing Harvard to divest from Israel-linked companies was “anti-Semitic.”

The op-ed, printed in the New York-based newspaper Jewish Week, came from the text of a keynote speech that Summers delivered at an October fundraising event, which pulled in a whopping $35.8 million for the United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York.

Summers told donors that he takes “some satisfaction” in the fact that campus anti-Israel divestment movements have lost momentum since 2002. But he said that when comparisons are drawn between Israel and Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa, “something wrong is happening. And this is why I chose the words anti-Semitic to address proposals for the large-scale divestiture of companies doing business in Israel.”

A spokeswoman for the federation, Laurie A. Pine, said the gathering at the home of a prominent investment banker was “the most successful event we’ve ever had.”

Summers’ remarks mirrored his now-famous Memorial Church address at the first Morning Prayers session of the fall 2002 academic term. That speech came against the backdrop of the faculty-led divestment drive and an effort by the Harvard Islamic Society to raise funds for a charity with alleged links to a Palestinian terrorist group.

At the time, Summers said the petition and the Islamic Society effort were “anti-Semitic in their effect if not in their intent”—words that immediately made a splash.

Divestment petition supporters were vastly outnumbered on the Harvard faculty by members who expressed agreement with Summers’ views. The divestment effort garnered 75 faculty signatures; an anti-divestment petition drew 439 faculty members’ support.

But backers of the divestment effort vocally expressed their qualms yesterday over Summers’ recent speech and op-ed.

No professors challenged Summers’ decision to raise funds for the UJA, an organization that each year helps millions of people worldwide.

“I commend President Summers’ efforts on behalf of the UJA,” professor of Psychology Patrick Cavanagh, a signatory of the Israel divestment petition, wrote in an e-mail. “I might mention that the United Palestinian Appeal is also a worthwhile charity.”

But he said it was “nonsense to call a political action criticizing Israeli policy anti-Semitic because it did not include a criticism of Palestinians. President Summers should stick to fundraising, where we can all support his actions.”

Summers said last month that those who criticize only the Israeli government and not Palestinian officials are approaching the Middle East conflict in “an entirely asymmetric fashion.”

But Bradley S. Epps, who is professor of Romance languages and literatures and of the study of women, gender and sexuality, said Summers “is in an asymmetrical position vis-a-vis faculty, students and staff...[H]e can draw lines and make grand statements as to the inviolability of the lines that he draws in a way that is untenable for others.”

While Summers said in his 2002 Memorial Church address that he was speaking as an individual and not the University president, some professors said yesterday that—due to the prestige of Summers’ office—his remarks could have a silencing effect on campus debate.

Pierce Professor of Psychology Ken Nakayama wrote in an e-mail that he believed Summers’ remarks were “egregious assaults on the freedom of expression. Most disturbing of course is that they come from the person most anointed to defend such freedoms.”

“Nobody wants to be called anti-Semitic by anyone, particularly the president of their institution,” said Classics Department Chair Richard F. Thomas. “So the charge doubtless had a chilling effect, as is often intended by those who make the charge.”

Several professors said that criticism of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policies does not amount to “singling out” Israel. Rather, the fact that the United States sends billions of dollars in aid to Israel each year “gives us not only the right but the moral duty to speak out,” Richard Wilson, the Mallinckrodt research professor of physics, wrote in an e-mail.

Some signers of the divestment petition also said that comparisons between Israel, apartheid South Africa, and even Nazi Germany, are perfectly legitimate.

John Womack Jr. ’59, the Bliss professor of Latin American history and economics, noted in an e-mail that prominent Jews—including Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt—made the same comparison to Nazism in 1948 when they denounced the Herut Party, the predecessor to current Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud bloc.

Several Jewish professors said they saw their support for the divestment petition as consistent with their religion.

“Some of us who are Jewish, and who care about the problem of anti-Semitism as much as President Summers does, believe that the best protection from discrimination against Jews is to defend absolutely, with passion and vigor, the rights of all people to be free from discrimination,” professor of Psychology Elizabeth S. Spelke ’71 wrote in an e-mail.

Despite the torrent of criticism from divestment backers, Harvard Students for Israel President Sunny Yudkoff ’06 offered support for Summers’ remarks.

“Larry Summers doesn’t believe he has to hide his Jewish identity in the public sphere by accepting hatred so commonplace in academia,” she said. “We are grateful for his being a voice of reason on this campus.”

—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at hemel@fas.harvard.edu.