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Was the ouster of Harvard’s first Jewish president anti-Semitic in its effect if not its intent?
On a campus with a painful history of anti-Semitism, most professors—including some of Lawrence H. Summers’ most vocal supporters—vigorously reject the charge that Summers’ faith had any connection to his downfall.
Yet the suspicion landed in Monday’s Boston Globe, where columnist Alex Beam quoted professor Ruth R. Wisse as asking, “Was anti-Semitism the driving engine of this coup?”
Summers’ Judaism entered the spotlight a year into his tenure, when he famously said a petition urging the University to divest from Israel was one of several actions that were “anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.”
A few of Summers’ supporters—most notably Wisse and law professor Alan M. Dershowitz—have claimed that the divestment petition was an important factor fueling the Faculty’s anger with its president.
In an interview Wednesday, Wisse said, “Of course, the divestment petition was anti-Semitic.” And so, she said, anti-Semitism helped turn some professors against Summers.
“Is it one of the factors at play? Yes. Is it the factor at play? No,” said Wisse, who is the Peretz professor of Yiddish literature.
Summers yesterday declined to speculate about the “motives or judgments” of his critics, but said, “I certainly have not experienced personal anti-Semitism during my time at Harvard.”
‘THE DELICATE DILEMMA’
Anti-Semitism has been an issue at Harvard since at least the beginning of the last century. A. Lawrence Lowell, the University president in the 1920s, compared Harvard to “a summer hotel that is ruined by admitting Jews,” and tried to set quotas limiting the number of Jews at the University.
More recently, Summers’ religion became an issue in his spat with former Harvard professor Cornel R. West ’74, who left the Afro-American studies department for Princeton in early 2002.
“[T]he delicate dilemma of black-Jewish relations was boiling beneath the surface of our controversy,” West wrote of his feud with Summers in his 2004 book “Democracy Matters.”
While Summers is usually considered Harvard’s first Jewish president, his predecessor, Neil L. Rudenstine, had two Jewish grandparents from Ukraine. Rudenstine’s mother, however, hailed from an Italian Catholic family.
In the autumn following Summers’ speech on the Israel divestment movement in September 2002, talk of anti-Semitism reemerged after the English Department invited Tom Paulin to speak at Harvard. Paulin, an Irish poet, had told an English-language newspaper in Egypt that Jewish settlers on the West Bank “should be shot dead.”
While Summers publicly urged members of the Harvard community to “respect the rights of those who wish to hear the speaker,” an article in The New Yorker suggested that Summers was furious with the invitation and privately pushed the English Department to dissociate itself from Paulin’s views.
‘NEVER...ON MY MIND’
But it was the memory of the Israel divestment petition that led Wisse to indict some of Summers’ opponents with anti-Semitic motives.
“People who wanted Summers out wanted him out for their reasons—many, many, many reasons,” Wisse said. “His statements on the divestment issue were certainly prominent among them.”
Dershowitz, the Frankfurter professor of law, echoed Wisse’s view that Summers’ stance on divestment from Israel antagonized professors, but rejected her charges of anti-Semitism.
“There is in my view no correlation, no interplay, between anti-Semitism and Summers’ ouster,” Dershowitz said yesterday. “But I think there is some interplay between anti-Zionism and Summers’ ouster.”
Dershowitz said that Summers’ speech on divestment from Israel was “among the three or four original reasons” that emboldened the president’s critics on the Faculty. But, he said, “I do not believe that that was anti-Semitic, and indeed, a lot of the strongest opponents of Summers are Jews.”
Other Summers supporters also shied away from using the anti-Semitism label.
Glimp Professor of Economics Edward L. Glaeser, who has frequently spoken out in Summers’ defense, said on Wednesday that the issue of anti-Semitism was “never the slightest thing on my mind” during the crisis that forced Summers out.
It was Glaeser who helped revive the charge last month, when he told The Crimson that a magazine exposé on fraud allegations against Summers’ friend and fellow economist Andrei Shleifer ’82 was “a potent piece of hate creation—not quite ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’ but it’s in that camp.”
Glaeser said on Wednesday that he regretted making the comparison, which recalled a notorious anti-Semitic hoax that first appeared in a Russian-language newspaper in 1903. The similarity he meant to point out, Glaeser said, was “that people use defamatory information for their own political objectives.”
“I spent a lot of time in the last week apologizing about this, and just feeling awful,” he said.
Summers’ religion was also brought to light last Friday when Bernard Steinberg, president and director of Harvard Hillel, released a “Dear Larry” letter thanking Summers for his “unapologetic identification with the Jewish people.”
In an interview Wednesday, Steinberg called anti-Semitism a “dangerous term.”
“It’s a very serious accusation,” Steinberg said, “and I would hesitate to apply that here.”
—Nicholas M. Ciarelli and Javier C. Hernandez contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Anton S. Troianovski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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