A Harvard Law School student asked a question perceived to be anti-Semitic to former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni during an event last week, provoking outrage at the school and in Israel.
The event, titled “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the U.S.,” was a discussion between Livni and U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross co-sponsored by the Jewish Law Students Association and Harvard Hillel. During the question-and-answer session following the event, an unidentified student asked Livni, “How is it that you are so smelly?... A question about the odor of Ms. Tzipi Livni, she’s very smelly, and I was just wondering.”
The remark drew quick condemnation. Law School Dean Martha L. Minow sent an email to school affiliates on Tuesday denouncing the comment as inappropriate. “The comment was offensive and it violated the trust and respect we expect in our community. Many perceive it as anti-Semitic, and no one would see it as appropriate,” she wrote. “It was an embarrassment to this institution and an assault upon the values we seek to uphold.”
Jewish Law Association president Jonathan R. Gartner and incoming co-presidents Jeremy H. Salinger and Jacqueline A. Wolpoe decried the comment as anti-Semitic in an article in the Harvard Law Record. They wrote that the word “smelly” conjured the demeaning stereotype of the “smelly Jew,” and asked the student who made the comment to apologize.
“When this student suggested that Tzipi Livni was a ‘smelly Jew,’ he not only vilified her, but he vilified every Jewish student, faculty, and staff member at Harvard Law School. This anti-Semitic rhetoric is not acceptable,” they wrote. “It is hate speech.”
By Wednesday, the remark had sparked controversy on the other side of the world, as several Israeli newspapers began covering the story. The Jerusalem Post published a story about the incident, and Hamodia—described as the “Daily Newspaper of Torah Jewry”—wrote that Livni had been “subjected to verbal abuse” at the Law School.
The backlash prompted the student who made the remark to publish an anonymous apology in The Record, denying that he intended his comments to be anti-Semitic and expressing regret for any harm he might have caused.
“I am writing to apologize, as sincerely as I can via this limited form of communication, to anyone who may have felt offended by the comments I made last week,” the student wrote. “I can see now… how my words could have been interpreted as a reference to an anti-Semitic stereotype, one that I was entirely unaware of prior to the publication of this article.”
The apology and the Jewish Law Association article did not name the student, and the Law Record removed comments identifying the student from their website. Law School spokesperson Michelle B. Deakin said federal privacy laws prevent the school from revealing the name of the student in question and whether that student will face disciplinary action.
The school released a full video of the event on Wednesday with the offending comment edited out, according to The Record. A student condemned this action in The Record, writing that “Harvard Law is sending a message that censorship may be appropriate if comments are embarrassing or offensive.”
The incident comes amid debate about the right to free speech at the school—an issue Minow addressed in her message to HLS affiliates. “The fact that speech is and should be free does not mean that hateful remarks should go unacknowledged or unanswered in a community dedicated to thoughtful discussion of complex issues and questions,” she wrote.
—Staff writer Claire E. Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireParkerDC.
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