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For over a century, a red oak stood on Harvard Divinity School’s campus.
In 2018, it was announced that the tree would be chopped down. Enraged and impassioned, students of all backgrounds came together and protested the decision for months.
When the decision to cut it down became final, dozens of students from different religious communities came together in a mourning ritual for the tree. They shared its stories, recited poetry, joined in song, and — in its final days — mourned. On the day of the tree’s removal, they returned to say a final goodbye to their beloved friend.
The life and death of this oak can teach us two important lessons about our capacity for empathy, as individuals and within our communities.
The first lesson concerns the preservation of our own humanity through recognition of others’. Harvard students could empathize with a tree but, if recent campus events are anything to go by, can’t extend the same empathy to their human peers.
As we protest wars across the world — from the Middle East to Ukraine — some students forget that many of their peers, myself included, experience these conflicts on a deeply personal level. We go to bed praying that our friends and family will still be alive tomorrow, and when we open our eyes the next day, we rush to our phones, hearts in our throats, to dispel our worst nightmares.
All those affected by these tragedies deserve unconditional empathy, regardless of their views or nationality.
As a Jewish-Israeli student, the past few months on Harvard’s campus have been some of the most difficult I’ve ever had to endure. As I experienced grief like never before for the roughly 1,200 of my people killed on Oct. 7, many of my classmates, even ones I considered friends, turned their heads the other way in what they saw as acts of political protest.
They forgot that I am not my government or my country, but a person who has never needed a hug more.
One of my classmates refused to look at me and, I later learned, was happy to hear of my departure from our course, which I left because it had become a hostile environment. After I interviewed on Israeli national television about the state of antisemitism on campus, another student posted the following on Sidechat: “Blondie pro-doxing, pro-genocide sophomore really thinks she is the shit for going on israeli media a couple days ago. She looks just as dumb as her nose is crooked.”
This hatred is, of course, as ironic as it is offensive and false. For speaking publicly about the antisemitism I had experienced at Harvard, I was met with even more blatant antisemitism. In acknowledging my struggle to be safe and accepted on Harvard’s campus, I have been pushed further away.
The second lesson we can learn from the tree regards our ability to come together as a community when we experience loss. If campus turmoil over the past few months has revealed anything, it’s that our student body is fragile and easily divided.
In times of strife, we must resist the temptation to become further entrenched in our beliefs and grow further divided. Instead, we must strive to support each other, find solidarity in our mutual grief, and endure together.
Rather than denying others' experiences of bigotry, we need to fight all forms of hatred together.
Our dearth of empathy results from — and exacerbates — our unwillingness to even listen to opposing views. We espouse the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion but let them fall by the wayside when it comes to those we disagree with. We avoid these conversations because they would make us confront the reality that the person on the other side is a human just like ourselves.
Just like that, nuance disappears: One side is made wholly right, and the other wholly wrong; one side is deemed deserving of mercy, while the other must accept pain.
When we view individuals as nothing more than their religion, politics, or ethnicity and rush to mark them as the enemy, we forget that pain is not a competition and grief is not mutually exclusive.
The only path forward is to step outside of the comfort of our echo chambers and truly talk to one another. Ask someone you think you will disagree with to grab a meal and receive their views as well-meant and sincerely-held, just as you doubtless view your own. You might not leave the conversation as friends, but such an experience will serve as a reminder of a truth too easily forgotten: We are all human and deserve empathy, especially when we’re hurting.
If we hope to leave here as the leaders Harvard claims to produce, we must commit to an education that extends beyond the classroom. The poems we analyze or equations we solve will not serve us unless we learn the value of empathy, humility, and critical self-reflection.
The unfortunate truth is that, until then, Harvard’s students will continue to work tremendously hard to achieve academic excellence, all while failing to meet a basic standard of human decency.
I am only left to hope that, one day, students on this campus will be treated with the same empathy and care as a tree.
Maya Shiloni ’26, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a double concentrator in Government and Economics in Mather House.
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