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Don’t Bully Students With Dissenting Views. Protect Them.

By Melani Cammett, Ryan D. Enos, and Steven Levitsky, Contributing Opinion Writers
Melani Cammett is the Clarence Dillon Professor of International Affairs in the Department of Government. Ryan D. Enos is a Professor of Government. Steven Levitsky is the David Rockefeller Professor of Latin American Studies and a Professor of Government.

Hamas’ horrific terrorist attacks on Israel and Israel’s brutal ongoing assault on Gaza have opened emotional wounds and divided our community. We must not make matters worse by creating an atmosphere in which vulnerable students are demonized by those in power, afraid to share their opinions, or fear for their safety.

We do not support the joint statement written by the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee, which held “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” Indeed, we are quite critical of it. Whatever one’s view of the roots of Hamas’ terrorist attack, the statement was horrendously timed and, in failing to recognize the massive toll in human lives and profound grief the attack brought to so many members of our community, displayed a troubling lack of empathy and compassion. An explanation without condemnation can be perceived by critics as justification.

But two things should be made clear: First, the statement did not endorse the terrorist attack, Hamas, or the use of violence. And second, the statement was not antisemitic. Harsh criticism of Israel should not be conflated with antisemitism. That conflation can stifle debate and silence critical views. What the PSC statement did do was present a position that many people strongly objected to.

Individuals have a right to object to the PSC statement. But no one should be punished for dissenting views. For this reason, we are deeply troubled by powerful individuals’ public attacks on the students, often based on a misconstrued reading of the statement.

A prominent former University President fanned the flames of anger and pressured University leaders to condemn the students. A local congressman accused them of antisemitism and, sounding more like a social media troll than an elected representative, called their statement “morally depraved.” Hundreds of Harvard faculty members used their collective professional weight to call upon University leaders to condemn what they described (in our view, inaccurately) as the students’ “condoning” of Hamas terrorism.

It was certainly not the intent of these faculty, but their and others’ actions helped create an environment of threat and intimidation for members of the student groups that signed the original statement, including targeted harassment, doxxing in Harvard Square, promises by prominent business leaders to blacklist them from future employment, and even reports of death threats against students.

All the while, many of these students were living with the knowledge that their friends and families face an increasingly horrifying situation in the Middle East. The actions of anonymous internet trolls and media provocateurs are to be expected. The same cannot be said for congressmen, former University presidents, and billionaire CEOs who use their clout to silence and potentially endanger these students.

In our view, these attacks by powerful people within and outside our university showed a disregard for pluralism. They failed to recognize that members of our community come from different backgrounds, have different life experiences, and hold legitimately different beliefs.

All of these factors have helped create an atmosphere in which our students feel not only that they have been denied the right to speak their views but that their lives and careers are threatened. This is especially troubling when the target of these attacks is a small and vulnerable population within the university. Many Palestinian and Muslim students, groups that already often feel alienated, now believe that Harvard is openly hostile to them.

We believe the students made a poor choice. But those of us with powerful positions and years of experience should use a mistake as a teachable moment, not an opportunity to intimidate.

Why not counter what is perceived as offensive speech with more speech by engaging in dialogue to seek a deeper understanding of points of difference and agreement? It is incumbent on us to recognize the humanity in all people, especially our community members. Recognizing this humanity means we acknowledge that people make mistakes, come from different backgrounds and perspectives, and share common grief and even anger when violence befalls people we love.

As a university that values the diversity of its student body, we must take special care to protect vulnerable students. We can all recognize that when violence occurs, it may touch some of us very deeply. For both Palestinian and Israeli students at Harvard, this is an experience with which they are tragically familiar. These students need our support and protection.

For faculty members and others with the privilege of a large platform, offering an open ear, a supportive presence, and perhaps guidance on the best way to express ourselves during difficult moments, may be a healthier way to support our community.

In our view, the students were misguided in the release of their statement, but they were not wrong in seeking a deeper discussion of the roots of Israeli-Palestinian violence. That discussion will require a mutual recognition that members of our community have different — and legitimate — perspectives that are informed by profoundly different life experiences. It will require recognition that terrorism like that committed by Hamas is never acceptable; but it also requires recognition that this violence occurs in the context of decades of dehumanizing occupation.

None of this is easy. But reasonable people can debate the roots of violence and conflict. And as a university that claims “Veritas” as our goal, we should be working to create the conditions in which such a debate is possible. If thoughtful discourse cannot prosper here, where can it?

Melani Cammett is the Clarence Dillon Professor of International Affairs in the Department of Government. Ryan D. Enos is a Professor of Government. Steven Levitsky is the David Rockefeller Professor of Latin American Studies and a Professor of Government.

Editor’s Note: Readers should note that premoderation has been turned on for online commenting on this article out of concerns for student safety.

—Cara J. Chang, President

—Eleanor V. Wikstrom and Christina M. Xiao, Editorial Chairs

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