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Harvard’s Legacy of Antisemitism

Annette Yoshiko Reed, Giovanni B. Bazzana, Benjamin H. Dunning, and
Mohsen Goudarzi teach at the Harvard Divinity School.
Annette Yoshiko Reed, Giovanni B. Bazzana, Benjamin H. Dunning, and Mohsen Goudarzi teach at the Harvard Divinity School. By Hayoung Hwang

Recent events at Harvard have shown just how pressing it is that our discussions of antisemitism remain rooted in history, learning, and conversation. We have seen first-hand what can happen when the discourse about antisemitism falls prey to the temptations to simplify and generalize: Accusations are all too easily instrumentalized for purposes other than the protection of Jews.

It is in this context that we write as faculty at the Harvard Divinity School who teach and research on the histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

In our view, the public discourse on antisemitism at Harvard risks becoming dangerously divorced from life on our campus. When outside voices claim to speak for all Jews at Harvard, they drown out the incredibly diverse range of opinions and experiences among our Jewish students.

Campus-specific situations have been forced into a national, pre-set narrative, as the real and persistent problem of antisemitism becomes elided with a politicized debate on the propriety of pro-Palestinian protests. In the process, those rightly concerned with rising antisemitism are pitted against those rightly concerned with rising Islamophobia.

As historians of religion, we know all too well the dangers that arise when abstracted polemics overshadow lived realities. Much of the tragic history of Christian anti-Judaism, for instance, has involved the instrumentalization of Jews in debates not really about Jews, often with terrible results for Jewish lives.

There is undoubtedly a pressing need to have conversations about antisemitism at Harvard. We feel as though much is lost, however, when the narrative is driven by social media outrage, political point-scoring, and outside forces rather than conversations within our own community.

And part of what is lost, in our view, is the importance of the classroom as space to foster such conversations.

From the public discourse on antisemitism at Harvard, one would have no idea that any relevant classes are even offered. But last semester alone at the Divinity School, students discussed antisemitism and related issues in classes on Jews and race, modern Jewish thought, and Jewish and German philosophy.

Difficult discussions about Christian anti-Judaism were central to courses like “Introduction to the New Testament,” and challenging questions about religious polemic and rivalry with Jews were addressed in courses on the Quran and Islamic history. The enduring impact of antisemitism was explored even within “Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion,” the only course required of all Divinity School students.

Harvard has a long history of antisemitism. But it also has a long history of faculty who spoke out against it — especially at the Divinity School. In the 1920s, George Foot Moore published “Christian Writers on Judaism” in the Harvard Theological Review — still among the most scathing rebukes of academia’s entrenched habits of Christian anti-Judaism. Moore was also among the few Christians at the time to emphasize the need for a view of “Judaism on its own terms.”

Many followed in Moore’s footsteps: Krister O. Stendahl, an expert in the New Testament who was Dean of Harvard Divinity School from 1968 to 1979, was among those on the forefront of Christianity’s grappling with its legacy of antisemitism after the Holocaust. And among Moore’s students was Harry Austryn Wolfson, Class of 1911, the first professor in the United States to serve as a chair devoted singularly to Jewish studies, who advocated for the central importance of the history of Jewish thought — not just for Jews, but for all students.

These are hardly obscure figures: They are giants in the field who shaped the academic study of religion at Harvard. They are often cited as exemplars of the Divinity School’s vision of academic excellence, historical rigor, and multireligious inclusion. They ensured the study of religion at Harvard must include difficult conversations about the past roots and present shoots of hatred.

In times of extreme uncertainty, it can be especially tempting to abandon the difficult work of learning, teaching, and communal conversation for the quick satisfaction of platitudes and polemics. Call-outs and caricatures attract instant attention on social media. But it is our hope that the new year will afford us space to recommit to the work that the best of our predecessors have modeled for us.

Those who decry the diversification of higher education often caricature its so-called “ideology” as a knee-jerk valorization of the oppressed. Such caricatures often cite an imagined binary between oppressor and oppressed, seemingly unaware of pedagogical settings — like the Divinity School — in which non-hierarchical understandings of difference are wrought in the slow, communal, hands-on work of learning and conversation.

What such outsider perspectives fail to recognize, however, is precisely an educational culture that is committed to the inclusion of excluded perspectives, knowing that understanding from only one perspective is not really understanding at all. This is the same culture that once empowered scholars like Moore and Stendahl to speak up for Jews, despite not being Jewish themselves and despite teaching at a time when the exclusion of Jews was taken as natural, if not meritocratic.

Needless to say, the Divinity School’s vision has not always succeeded. Our reality does not yet live up to our ideals. What many of us do believe, however, is that the hard work is worth it. Simplistic stories may win in the short term, and such stories are surely easier to tell if one ignores local and lived experience, avoiding conversation across differences.

Today, it seems as though there are few places where people across political divides — Jews and non-Jews alike — can engage in meaningful conversations about Judaism. Yet our learning spaces across the University remain among the rare places forged for conversations across religious, ethnic, political, and other differences. These spaces are crucial, in our view, for the slow work of tackling difficult topics like antisemitism in challenging times such as these.

Annette Yoshiko Reed is the Krister Stendahl Professor of Divinity. Giovanni B. Bazzana is the Frothingham Professor of the History of Religion. Benjamin H. Dunning is the Florence Corliss Lamont Professor of Divinity. Mohsen Goudarzi is an assistant professor of Islamic Studies.

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