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Harvard President Gay Announces Antisemitism Training, Condemns Pro-Palestine Phrase ‘From the River to the Sea’
Updated: November 10, 2023, at 1:49 a.m.
Harvard will work with its newly established antisemitism advisory group to implement antisemitism education and training for affiliates, University President Claudine Gay announced in an email Thursday afternoon.
“I affirm our commitment to protecting all members of our community from harassment and marginalization, and our commitment to meeting antisemitism head-on, with the determination it demands,” Gay wrote.
“Antisemitism has no place at Harvard,” Gay added. “We are committed to doing the hard work to address this scourge.”
Gay announced the establishment of the advisory group to combat antisemitism late last month during a speech she delivered at Harvard Hillel’s Shabbat dinner for the relatives of College freshmen and juniors over Family Weekend.
The new efforts to combat antisemitism announced by Gay came following enormous backlash against the University over its initial statement about Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Critics condemned the statement for failing to explicitly denounce Hamas and respond to a controversial joint letter by Harvard student groups in support of Palestine that called Israel “entirely responsible” for the violence.
Gay has also faced intense pressure from powerful Harvard alumni — including several major donors and former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers — to more forcefully condemn antisemitism on campus.
In her email, Gay explicitly condemned the use of the phrase “from the river to the sea” — a pro-Palestine slogan that prominent alumni have called “eliminationist” and antisemitic.
“Our community must understand that phrases such as ‘from the river to the sea’ bear specific historical meanings that to a great many people imply the eradication of Jews from Israel and engender both pain and existential fears within our Jewish community,” Gay wrote. “I condemn this phrase and any similarly hurtful phrases.”
The Thursday message stated that the antisemitism advisory group will be responsible for “examining how antisemitism manifests within our community and crafting a plan that addresses its complex history” at Harvard and developing training for students, faculty, and staff.
“As part of this program, we will provide education about the roots of certain rhetoric that has been heard on our campus in recent weeks, and its impact on Jewish members of our community, to help us all better recognize antisemitism in daily life and interrupt its harmful influence,” Gay wrote.
Gay pointed to anonymous hotlines for reporting bias and the continued presence of the Harvard University Police Department in monitoring “threats made against any members of our community.”
Gay also confirmed that the FBI and HUPD are investigating a video taken during the Oct. 18 pro-Palestine “die-in” protest at Harvard Business School depicting several protesters confronting a man and escorting him away after he filmed protester’s faces. The protesters shouted “shame” after the man, who other media outlets later identified as an Israeli student.
In addition to the broader efforts of the advisory group, some of Harvard’s individual schools will also be taking their own steps toward combating antisemitism, Gay wrote.
Gay also acknowledged “concerns from some about how this important work relating to antisemitism will bear on Harvard’s vital commitment to free expression.”
Brandeis University revoked the school’s recognition of a pro-Palestine student organization on Tuesday, prompting calls from some Harvard affiliates, including Harvard Chabad President Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi, for Gay to de-recognize the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee.
“Combating antisemitism and fostering free expression are mutually consistent goals,” Gay wrote. “We are at our strongest when we commit to open inquiry and freedom of expression as foundational values of our academic community.”
Gay’s decision to single out the phrase “from the river to the sea” — which is frequently chanted by the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee and other pro-Palestine student groups — almost immediately received backlash from some Harvard affiliates.
Kirsten A. Weld, a professor of History at Harvard, criticized Gay’s decision to denounce a specific phrase used by student activists.
“Can’t recall any prior instance of a contested phrase/idea receiving official condemnation like this, or having one singular ‘specific historical meaning’ imputed to it, in my 11 years on this campus,” Weld wrote in a post on X.
In a statement to The Crimson Thursday evening, a spokesperson for Harvard Jews for Liberation, a pro-Palestine student advocacy group, disputed Gay’s characterization of the slogan.
“As anti-Zionist Jews at Harvard, we understand the phrase ‘from the river to the sea’ to be a call for freedom from oppression for Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and within the Green Line,” a spokesperson for the group wrote. “We find the singular criticism of this phrase to be an unhelpful distraction from both the ongoing violence in Gaza and real antisemitism.”
Mo Torres — an assistant professor at the University of Michigan who obtained his Ph.D. from Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 2023 — shared a screenshot of an email on X responding to Gay, writing “the expression ‘from the river to the sea’ is not a call for the ‘eradication’ of Jews from Israel” and that “Harvard is on the wrong side of this issue.”
A University spokesperson did not immediately provide comment on these criticisms.
Gay wrote at the end of her email that Harvard “was founded to advance human dignity through education.”
“We inherited a faith in reason to overcome ignorance, in truth to surmount hate,” she added. “Antisemitism is destructive to our mission.”
Correction: November 10, 2023
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Kirsten A. Weld is an assistant professor of History at Harvard. In fact, Weld is a full professor.
—Staff writer Claire Yuan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on X @claireyuan33.
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