Harvard President Drew G. Faust was not among the 286 American university presidents who signed a petition last week condemning a boycott of Israeli universities, but she had criticized the boycott in a private letter she wrote early last month.
The boycott was proposed earlier this summer by University and College Union, which represents 120,000 British professors and other academics, as a means to protest the Jewish state's human rights record. The proposal will be voted on by the union's membership in the coming months.
University presidents from across the country condemned the proposed boycott in an advertisement in The New York Times last week declaring, "Boycott Israeli Universities? Boycott Ours, Too!" The petition, organized by the American Jewish Committee, featured a statement by Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger, a noted free speech scholar, and was signed by numerous others including the presidents of MIT and Princeton University.
Faust did not add her name to the full-page ad, continuing Harvard's tradition of not signing onto petitions, but she had previously written a letter—on July 2, her second day in the office—to the University and College Union voicing her "strong opposition to this measure."
"I expressed my conviction that such a move subverts the academic values and freedoms necessary to the free flow of ideas," Faust said in a statement
on Monday. "[A]cademics should be promoting, not undermining, the fullest possible collaboration with Israeli universities as well as other universities in the Middle East and elsewhere."
Faust added that while she was "most comfortable expressing my views on such matters directly in my own words" rather than through a petition, she "join[s] colleagues throughout the international academic community in denouncing unequivocally an action that would serve no purpose."
Several professors who had signed other petitions against the boycott applauded Faust's sentiments and her decision to express them privately.
Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz, a vocal supporter of Israel who co-drafted a separate petition against the boycott, said that he thought Faust had "handled [the situation] superbly."
"Harvard presidents often don't join in with petitions," Dershowitz said. "But I think what President Faust did strongly conveys her views, and she did it in a personal way."
Baird Professor of Science Dudley R. Herschbach, one of 32 Nobel laureates who signed Dershowitz' petition, said he thought that Faust's writing a letter meant more than simply signing a statement composed by someone else.
"Signing a petition is always some kind of approximation or a compromise in some sort, because you aren’t the person who originated the statement," said Herschbach, who won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1986.
Reaction among student groups was more mixed, but three of the groups that are active on Middle East issues criticized the boycott to varying extents.
Noah Hertz-Bunzl '08, the vice chair for education of Harvard's Progressive Jewish Alliance, called the boycott "terrible," but added that "there is something to be said for a Harvard president staying out of the fray and not jumping into petty politics."
Still, Harvard Students for Israel said in an e-mailed statement that the group would like to see Faust sign the petition. Terming the proposed boycott "a blatant attack on intellectual freedom," the group called Faust's letter a "first step."
One group, the
Harvard Society of Arab Students, pointed out the positive results
of the proposed boycott, noting that it "
has already prompted the presidents of four major Israeli universities
to push for Palestinian rights to travel from Gaza to the West Bank to
The group's president, Nadia O. Gaber '09, a writer
for The Crimson editorial board, praised the effort to address the "very real imbalance in the Israeli educational system," which she said should be "publicly censured."
But, she added, the boycott seemed "misguided" because "Israeli academics are often among the most stringent
critics" of Israel's human rights record.
Faust's predecessor, Lawrence H. Summers, confronted questions over the university's treatment of Israel throughout his tenure.
Summers divided much of the campus in September 2002 when he said
that Harvard and MIT professors who advocated that the universities divest their endowment holdings from Israel were "anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent."
And last May, when the 67,000-strong Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education passed a resolution urging its members to boycott Israeli universities, Summers, who was in London at the time, said
that the resolution was "anti-Semitic in both effect and in intent."
—Staff writer Paras D. Bhayani can be reached at email@example.com.—Staff writer Claire M. Guehenno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.