More than 30 members of Harvard’s graduate student union have resigned since Thursday, criticizing the union’s response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and stating the union “repeatedly ignored” concerns raised by Jewish and Israeli members.
The resignations mark the latest in a series of conflicts over how the union should address the Israel-Hamas war and surrounding activism. The 33 members also raised concerns over the union’s delay in issuing a statement condemning antisemitism and further censured it for not explicitly denouncing Hamas’ attacks and for endorsing the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel.
Though the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers adopted a one-sentence resolution that the union “condemns anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and all forms of racism within and outside our union” at a general membership meeting Thursday night, the move did little to subdue the growing internal backlash over the union’s response to the Israel-Hamas war.
In a letter circulated on X, the graduate students wrote that HGSU-UAW had “repeatedly ignored and derided the concerns of many of its Jewish and Israeli members” and charged the union with neglecting “its stated mandate to support the needs of all student workers.”
“There are these concrete, tangible needs that our union has to be able to advocate for, and when foreign policy is getting mixed in with more local concerns, I fear that we are diminishing our ability to protect student workers,” said Jason Buxbaum, a Ph.D. candidate who resigned from the union last week.
In addition to the 33 resigning students, 75 Harvard affiliates signed the letter in support as of early Tuesday morning.
The union voted to sign two national union statements on Nov. 10 that called for a ceasefire in Gaza and endorsed BDS, a controversial global nonviolent movement that demands ending any support of Israel-affiliated organizations. Both statements passed with more than 60 percent approval.
HGSU-UAW Trustee Max G. Ehrenfreund said Thursday’s vote, which passed by unanimous consent, “reaffirms the union’s longstanding and fundamental commitment to combating racism in all its forms, including antisemitism.”
“These resignations are not merely symbolic, but materially limit the union’s capacity to advocate for its workers,” Ehrenfreund said. “For that reason, we will be reaching out to all of the resigning members to hear from them individually to understand how the union can better serve them and to figure out what we might be able to do to convince them to sign a card again.”
Zeke Benshirim ’19, a former union trustee, encouraged resigning members to stay in a letter Sunday, writing that they could “choose to continue engaging despite their disappointment in their fellow-workers, seeking to restore the promise of true labor solidarity from within the organization.”
During the Thursday meeting, a motion to introduce a code of conduct for members was referred to an internal committee and the union voted to eliminate the membership comment and review provision, which would have delayed votes on the controversial motions by two weeks.
Following Thursday’s vote, the union sent two longer additional statements, which separately condemn antisemitism and Islamophobia in greater detail, to the full membership for a virtual vote.
Both statements acknowledge “incidents of incitement and calls for violence” and state HGSU-UAW’s commitment to addressing discrimination. The statement against Islamophobia also calls for the creation of a multicultural center on campus to “provide a structural commitment to the inclusion and belonging of Muslim affiliates on campus.”
The sign-on vote is open until 9 p.m. Tuesday.
In a comment to members on the statements obtained by The Crimson, HGSU-UAW President Evan C. MacKay ’19 wrote that they encourage members to vote yes on both statements “even if it seems that both of these statements should be obvious without needing to be voted upon.”
“Events on and beyond campus have elevated the need for our union to publicly condemn Islamophobia and anti-Semitism,” MacKay wrote.
In another comment, the HGSU-UAW BDS caucus — an unofficial group within the union — urged members to vote against the resolutions, arguing that the shorter statement passed Thursday was sufficient.
“We are troubled by the ways in which the ‘Statement Condemning Antisemitism’ feeds into a right-wing narrative that paints the recent wave of protests and consciousness-building in the Palestinian struggle as ‘incidents of incitement and calls for violence against Jewish and Israeli students,’” the group wrote.
The caucus also wrote that the proposed condemnation of Islamophobia did not address “the centrality of active genocide against Palestinians” in Islamophobia.
While the union as a whole has not been actively organizing events on the subject, the BDS caucus began organizing rallies this month under the name Harvard BDS, including a protest outside Massachusetts Hall Monday. The group has repeatedly called on Harvard to reinstate a proctor indefinitely relieved of his duties following his involvement in a protest confrontation.
“We understand the sanctioning of this proctor and the wider suppression of pro-Palestine speech on campus to be a basic violation of our labor rights,” a caucus spokesperson wrote in a statement to The Crimson.
HGSU-UAW, which first endorsed the BDS movement in 2021, also voiced similar criticisms of the University over X, writing that Harvard had “abdicated its duty to protect its students and caved to backlash and lies.”
The proctor, Elom Tettey-Tamaklo, is a second-year student at Harvard Divinity School and is represented by HGSU-UAW.
Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on the statements, citing a policy against commenting on personnel matters.
Tensions within the union over its response to the Israel-Hamas war first came to a head following an Oct. 16 special membership meeting, where members submitted more than a dozen potential statements. Two days later, the union issued a separate statement condemning the wave of doxxing attacks against pro-Palestine students without commenting on the conflict at large.
Since then, controversy has only mounted within the union over what — and how much — to say.
“Certainly there is a lot of hurt right now within both the union’s group of BDS activists and for Jewish union members,” union member Jordan Jensen wrote in a statement to The Crimson. “As a Jewish HGSU member I identified with so much of the hurt Ari’s statement speaks to, while also deeply understanding the reasons HGSU BDS activists have felt obstructed over the last month and thus hurt by their union siblings.”
“I am staying a member of HGSU because I believe the work we do is really important for all student workers covered under our contract,” Jensen added. “I am not yet at the point of giving up on our shared union goals over these difficult conversations.”
A spokesperson for Harvard BDS wrote in a statement to The Crimson that the group rejects calls to leave the union over “disagreement with decisions made by the majority of the membership in a democratic vote.”
“We view our work with BDS as benefiting everyone who values safety, freedom, and justice both in our community and globally, and we are proud to stand with a majority of the membership that voted in favor of calling for the end of the ongoing genocide in Gaza and the suppression of pro-Palestine voices on campus,” the spokesperson wrote.
But Harvard affiliates outside of the union slammed HGSU-UAW’s recent endorsements.
Former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers, who has also been a vocal critic of the University’s response to the crisis, said the decision to sign the statements was antisemitic and ill-advised.
“I regret that an organization representing the people who are on the front line of teaching and grading students would take such a highly charged and problematic position,” Summers said.
In a letter, Harvard Hillel Rabbi Getzel Davis encouraged Hillel affiliates to sign onto the resigning members’ statement.
“I stood with students on the line calling for the creation of this union,” Davis wrote in an email to The Crimson. “I believe in organized labor and am terribly upset about the direction the union has taken.”
“By pushing this agenda, the union has weakened itself and delegitimized its place on campus,” he added.
Ehrenfreund, who received the letter, said “encouraging tacitly” resigning from the union was unproductive and called the letter a “hurtful and infuriating betrayal.”
“As a spiritual leader, the Rabbi has a duty to hear all the voices in our fractured community, including those of non-Zionists,” Ehrenfreund said.
After the sign-on vote closes Tuesday, the union will need to decide how it moves forward to reunite its membership.
“I think there will be a period of time where members need to heal,” Jensen said.