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Harvard President Garber Slams ‘Pernicious’ Campus Antisemitism

Garber said students self-censoring in the face of anti-Israel attacks is the “most disturbing of all” in his first interview as president.

Interim University President Alan M. Garber '76 expressed concerns about students self-censoring their pro-Israel views during a Wednesday interview.
Interim University President Alan M. Garber '76 expressed concerns about students self-censoring their pro-Israel views during a Wednesday interview. By Marina Qu
By Emma H. Haidar and Cam E. Kettles, Crimson Staff Writers

Interim University President Alan M. Garber ’76 pledged to tackle “pernicious” antisemitism on Harvard’s campus, saying he is most concerned about self-censorship in the face of anti-Israel attacks in an interview Wednesday — his first since assuming office on Jan. 2.

“What I have found the most disturbing of all are situations or experiences students describe where they have felt they could not speak in class because there are attacks on Israel or maybe Israelis,” Garber said. “They feel unsupported in contradicting them.”

Garber did not answer repeated questions about whether his administration would consider instituting a speech code for Harvard classrooms. But in a follow-up statement, Garber wrote that he did not support speech codes.

In the interview, Garber said he “strongly favors free speech,” but added that there “needs to be a discussion about what are the limits.”

“Can antisemitic attacks take the form of attacks against Israel?” Garber asked. “The answer is yes, that is possible.”

Controversy surrounding free speech and antisemitism featured prominently in the last three months of former Harvard President Claudine Gay’s tenure. In her widely criticized Dec. 5 congressional testimony, when asked if calling for the genocide of Jewish people would violate Harvard’s code of conduct, Gay said it depended on the context.

Garber’s remarks stand in contrast to some of Gay’s answers last semester about antisemitism on campus and suggest the current administration could take a markedly different approach to addressing antisemitism.

The University recently clarified its policies on speech and dissent in a Jan. 19 email to Harvard affiliates. The email made clear that protests in libraries, dining halls, residences, and classrooms without prior reservation violated Harvard’s policies. Outdoor protests were permitted provided that they don’t block pedestrian walkways or interfere with the University’s operations.

Garber said that a “prominent manifestation” of antisemitism on campus for the newly-formed task force to address is “social shunning.”

“You can’t necessarily just apply techniques of preventing violence or vandalism,” he said. “It’s a different set of issues.”

The University is currently under investigation for its response to antisemitism by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. The investigation launched in the immediate aftermath of Gay’s congressional testimony, but House Republicans vowed to continue investigating Harvard even after Gay’s resignation.

The committee requested a large list of formal documents and informal communication — including meeting notes from Harvard’s governing boards and communications from top University administrators. Chairwoman Virgina Foxx (R-N.C.) called Harvard’s submission — which only included publicly available documents — “woefully inadequate” and suggested the committee would subpoena the University.

Garber said the University would “comply fully with the process” of the investigation.

In the interview, Garber also addressed his newly appointed presidential task forces to address antisemitism and Islamophobia, which have both been celebrated as even-handed and critiqued for being an extension of Gay’s now-disbanded antisemitism advisory group.

Garber said that Gay’s advisory group largely accomplished its mandate — setting the foundation for another task force.

“A big part of their responsibility was to help guide what a longer term task force would do,” he said.

Garber said Gay’s advisory group had provided recommendations for the new presidential task force and implored critics to withhold judgment until after the task force makes its recommendations, noting that the group has not even convened yet.

Beyond the co-chairs leading the task forces, its members have not been announced, and a deadline for recommendations has not been established.

“They should judge us based on what these task forces produce,” Garber said, adding that the twin task forces have ”an ambitious set of goals.”

History professor Derek J. Penslar, Garber’s pick to co-lead the presidential task force on antisemitism, faced intense criticism — including from former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers — for past remarks that suggested reports of antisemitism at Harvard were exaggerated.

Garber, however, did not directly answer whether he agreed with Penslar’s past assessment of antisemitism on campus.

“I think Derek would agree with me that we have a very serious problem,” he said. “One of the most important goals for the task force is to come up with interventions that will effectively deal with the problem we’re facing today.”

—Staff writer Emma H. Haidar can be reached at Follow her on X @HaidarEmma.

—Staff writer Cam E. Kettles can be reached at Follow her on X @cam_kettles or on Threads @camkettles.

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