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An Educator’s Obligation

More than 1,000 people gathered by the steps of Widener Library Sunday evening for a vigil to stand in solidarity with Israel and mourn the civilian deaths of the Oct. 7 invasion by Islamist militant group Hamas.
More than 1,000 people gathered by the steps of Widener Library Sunday evening for a vigil to stand in solidarity with Israel and mourn the civilian deaths of the Oct. 7 invasion by Islamist militant group Hamas. By Julian J. Giordano
By Julia B. Appel, Contributing Opinion Writer
Julia B. Appel graduated from Harvard College in 2004.

In Judaism, we have an ethical category called “tochecha” — “rebuke” in English. It is the idea that should you see someone committing an ethical or ritual violation, especially someone with whom you have a close relationship or to whom you are a mentor or teacher, you are responsible for telling them that they have strayed and urging them to correct their behavior.

President Claudine Gay, as the leader of an educational institution shaping the minds and actions of thousands of future world leaders, has the responsibility to issue tochecha to the community of students she leads whenever necessary. As a rabbi and Harvard College graduate, I am dismayed at President Gay’s continued refusal to publicly rebuke her students who signed on to the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee’s statement last week.

First, she has not truly guided these students about what it means to have freedom of expression. Harvard University says it prepares its students for success in the world outside the academy. This should include understanding that, while you are able to say what you like, you are also responsible for the consequences of your speech.

Those who “hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence” and say that Israel “is the only one to blame” for the autonomous actions of Hamas terrorists, who kidnapped children and elderly Holocaust survivors, tortured and raped people house by house, murdered entire families, burned people alive, slew more than 260 concertgoers, paraded the dead in the streets, and did unspeakably worse, accounting for more than 1,300 deaths that amount to the largest murder of Jews on a single day since the Holocaust — no one is required to befriend or support them, to hire them, or keep them on staff.

Freedom of speech means that the government does not imprison you or murder you for your speech. It does not mean that you are immune from criticism or consequence. President Gay must uphold her position as an educator by reminding the student signatories of this truth.

Perhaps more importantly, just because you can say anything doesn’t mean you should. Speech can cause great harm. A just society is not only one where people have freedom of speech; it is one in which individuals consider the impact of their speech on others.

I learned this from Harvard professor Michael Sandel as an undergraduate. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility. For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry his own weight, this is a frightening prospect.” These student signatories must grow up and carry the weight of what they have said. We are not only financially and socially responsible for our speech and its repercussions — we are also morally responsible.

Instead, President Gay has asked all students to “meet one another with compassion.” That is not possible when the other person appears to accept the murder, torture, rape, and kidnapping of your parents, siblings, cousins, and friends. I am astonished it needs to be said, but President Gay must guide the student signatories in understanding that they should not rationalize mass murder. That the student groups later walked back their statement by clarifying that they “remain staunchly opposed against violence against civilians” does not undo their original statement.

Instead, President Gay has characterized the horror many rightfully feel at the statement of Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee as “declaring the rightness of our own points of view and vilify[ing] those who disagree.” The signatories of this statement have vilified themselves by apparently justifying mass murder. President Gay has failed in her duties as an educator by not rebuking their position, for the sake of what is right, but also for the sake of the signatories themselves.

We do not rebuke in order to shame. We rebuke in order to open the door to personal reflection and change for the better. I would hope that Harvard University would still consider such a goal to be important.

Julia B. Appel graduated from Harvard College in 2004.

Editor’s Note: Readers should note that pre-moderation 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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