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In Gay’s Fall, a McCarthyist Tragedy

In October, a billboard truck displaying Harvard students' faces circled campus, labeling them antisemites.
In October, a billboard truck displaying Harvard students' faces circled campus, labeling them antisemites. By Julian J. Giordano
By Guillermo S. Hava, Contributing Opinion Writer
Guillermo S. Hava ’23-’24, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is a Government and Philosophy concentrator in Winthrop House. He joined the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee as an organizer in the fall of 2023.

There is little love lost between most pro-Palestinian students and outgoing President Claudine Gay — even if we might come to miss her.

Gay’s short-lived tenure will be remembered for many a miscalculation; few proved as egregious or went as unremedied as her abandonment of Palestinian and pro-Palestinian students. Her presidency featured the noble creation of a committee against antisemitism, undermined by its slanted exclusion of Harvard’s own academic experts on the subject matter and her failure to create a counterpart for Palestinian and Arab students despite the well-recorded attacks they’ve faced.

Unlike Yale University or University of California, Berkeley, Harvard, under Gay’s leadership, couldn’t even bring itself to explicitly name and condemn the “doxxing trucks” that harassed her students. Gay herself abdicated any claim of impartiality by following congressional Republicans’ example with her condemnation of the slogan “from the river to the sea,” while opting for silence as pro-Palestinian students were called “cockroaches” on national television.

Still, as Representative Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.), billionaire Bill A. Ackman ’88, and far-right provocateur Christopher F. Rufo giddily throw kindling on her sacrificial pyre, Harvard’s history-making first Black president should be offered what she never afforded her own students: A proper defense against bad-faith attacks, despite our ideological differences.

To her attackers, President Gay was the arch-villain of the play, the witch to be hunted, a warning against affording leniency to pro-Palestinian speech or trying to rise professionally as a Black woman in America.

To state the obvious: No one involved in Gay’s ouster gives half a damn about academic integrity or the nuances of proper etiquette for scholarly attribution. Political parties that care about meritocracy in university hierarchies don’t stuff their bureaucracies with loyalists and have their biggest funders appoint outgoing senators as heads of university systems.

Gay’s track record as an administrator, infinitely more pertinent for her administrative role than her scholarly record, remains impeccable. The plagiarism accusations against her, of variable but mostly limited worth, were weaponized and promoted by far-right actors with the explicit, stated intent of eliciting enough outrage to topple her.

Gay’s downfall wasn't triggered by miscitations but by her refusal to identify chants intentionally mischaracterized as genocidal as a violation of Harvard policy in an obtuse congressional hearing. Months of donor appeasement and punching down on students bought her no goodwill.

In that viral moment, Gay didn’t hold back on genocidal language because it is tolerated on campus but, I would argue, because she knew that the chants — if controversial and of debatable utility — were not genocidal, as has been pointed out by Jewish faculty, and made evident by organizers’ explicit rejection of violence against civilians, bigotry, and the expulsion of any ethnic group from the region.

Her unfortunate mistake was stumbling in the face of vilification, nodding her head and expressing her personal distaste for what she deemed “abhorrent” language, seemingly to avoid having to agree with or challenge Stefanik's inflammatory premise that Harvard students do in fact mean to call for genocide when they say phrases like “from the river to the sea.”

Gay erred precisely because she refused to call out the McCarthyist undertones of a hearing that began with the bizarre demand that she — a university president uninvolved in any kind of foreign policy decision-making — swear under oath that she believes in Israel's right “to exist as a Jewish nation.”

But the doxxing trucks, as we now know, would come for her too. Acquiescence rarely halts self-appointed Torquemadas.

Gay’s identity certainly helped fuel the attacks: As the University’s corporation has damningly admitted, she was the victim of “racist vitriol” and heinous personal slander. The fact that such sordid pressure still succeeded marks the nadir of one of our University’s most shameful chapters.

Now Stefanik — a cynical hypocrite who just a year ago endorsed a Hitler-praising candidate — has fattened her political resume as she continues to claw her way to a higher office. Her ascent, as Jewish commentators have pointed out, is no more a win for Jewish safety than Gay’s fall a victory for academic integrity.

Not that it matters — that was never the point.

Gimmicks and misdirection, that is what it all came down to. Falsely accuse students of calling for genocide long enough that Ivy League schools will garner more coverage than Israeli cabinet ministers’ actual calls for ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Throw misquotations at the wall until the charge of plagiarism taints a Black woman’s reputation and derails her career. Engage in bad-faith attacks in the hopes that good-faith opponents will take you at your word, and drag them down with you when they concede an inch of the discursive terrain.

It’s a McCarthyist playbook. It’s a tactic that Gay fell for the day she refused to defend her students as they were smeared and demonized, the minute she decided condemning political slogans mattered more than calling out doxxing trucks.

But that didn't save her from the same tragic fate, and it won’t help spare anyone else. Stefanik and her far-right allies have now burned two victims at their stake. Failing to state so bluntly — to call out the current madness for what it is, to speak up, to join protests, and to march like you might be banned from doing so by Gay’s Ackman-approved successor — will only increase the toll of our blazing crucible.

And in the background, buried under headlines from the ivory tower, bombs and bullets will keep raining on Gaza, sowing grief and loathing for generations to come, bringing safety to exactly none. Slaughtering a people, and painting the Strip with their blood.

Guillermo S. Hava ’23-’24, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is a Government and Philosophy concentrator in Winthrop House. He joined the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee as an organizer in the fall of 2023.

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