Protecting Pluralism

These past few weeks have caused the Harvard community to reevaluate the ways in which it understands and embraces diversity. After a series of articles and debates, campus discussions have increasingly focused on topics such as affirmative action and the implications of living in a pluralistic world. In a strange manifestation of the old adage “speak of the devil and he doth appear,” circumstances throughout campus have tested Harvard’s priorities, and in an overwhelming display of solidarity, the community has established that policies encouraging diversity are vital to the success of our university.

In my two and a half years here, I have learned far more from my peers than from my classes. At its very core, Harvard recognizes the value of “building a class,” creating a body of students that exemplify diversity, passion, diligence, thoughtfulness, and the capacity to express one’s ideals. In addition, Harvard recognizes the value of “civilian diplomacy,” the ability to dispel stereotypes through open, interpersonal interactions. In many ways, policies such as affirmative action are about creating a community that embodies a range of opinions and values. In accordance with these values, the Harvard Admissions Office firmly holds that there is no such thing as an admissions mistake. Yet, from time to time, this campus that treasures its diversity has faced policies that threaten its core ideals.

Take for example the recent circumstances surrounding the Hillel Dining Hall, in which a campus-wide outcry against proposed dining hall restrictions prompted Harvard University Dining Services, Hillel, and the Harvard Administration to take measures to protect the openness of a small yet significant dining hall. When HUDS faced financial pressure to restrict access to the Hillel Dining Hall, members of the Harvard community, including its Jewish community, took offense to the implications of these restrictions and the possibility that such actions have the capacity to perpetuate the stereotypical concept of Jewish exclusivity. With laudable insight, the students of this university recognized the tremendous benefits of the Hillel Dining Hall as a welcoming space for the broader Harvard community.

Among Jewish communities worldwide, Harvard Hillel is extraordinarily unique. As the center for Jewish life on campus, it truly embodies a diversity that defies description. Hillel houses Jews from different backgrounds with incredibly varied approaches to identity, politics, religion, culture, academics, and campus life. As a community, Harvard’s Jews do not often see eye-to-eye, but these very disagreements weave the living tapestry that continues to frame the future of the Jewish people. Hillel is amazing in its ability to occupy seemingly contradicting roles. Where else can a community be both religious and secular, both political and apolitical? Its diversity is a gift, a model that must be shared. What kind of community is better suited to exemplifying the enigmas and complexities of cultural identity than Harvard Hillel? More importantly, what better audience could such a community have than the future leaders of the world, the students of Harvard University?

In the simple act of restricting access to a dining hall, Harvard risked closing doors to the kind of spontaneous cross-cultural connections that incrementally change the world. Through the casual, unstructured interactions typical of any campus dining hall, the Hillel Dining Hall creates civilian diplomacy. Hillel and Harvard have always rejected the notion that formal programming dispels stereotypes more effectively than people do. Yet because many religiously observant students depend on this dining hall for so many meals, HUDS’s proposed restrictions could have had a chilling outcome in denying both the Jewish and non-Jewish student community the greater opportunity to gain mutual knowledge.

As we face future challenges, we should remain steadfast to protect our inclusiveness as Harvard students. We should protect our opportunities for mutual understanding created by open dialogue. If, as with the Hillel Dining Hall, finances need to be considered, I am sure there are ways to address these matters without sacrificing Harvard’s core concept of plurality. I am proud that our Harvard community has taken initiative in addressing these concerns with regards to HUDS and Hillel. In the spirit of our ideals, let us always stand together in defense of diversity.

David F. Sackstein ’14 is a comparative study of religion concentrator in Adams House. He previously served as Vice President for Community Relations on Harvard Hillel’s Steering Committee.