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Dissent: There is No Palestine Exception

By Frank S. Zhou
By Jacob M. Miller, Crimson Opinion Writer
Dissenting Opinions: Occasionally, The Crimson Editorial Board is divided about the opinion we express in a staff editorial. In these cases, dissenting board members have the opportunity to express their opposition to staff opinion.

When it comes to conversations about free speech on campus, reason often takes a back seat to narrative as the words “academic freedom,” “accountability,” “doxxing,” and “intimidation” get jumbled and lose their definition.

But the uproar over the College Administrative Board’s decision to suspend students who organized the pro-Palestinian encampment has brought the discourse around speech to a new, unprecedented low.

Scores of faculty and affinity groups — and now, this newspaper’s Editorial Board — have denounced Harvard’s disciplinary decision as a “Palestine exception to free speech.”

The logic goes something like this: In response to previous protests, Harvard’s administration exercised restraint, avoiding suspending the students involved. Now that activists have taken up the mantle of Palestinian liberation, they are being unfairly subjected to punitive sanctions that threaten their speech.

The Editorial Board’s conclusion that the University is cracking down on protest in a non-content-neutral manner is indeed supported by historical evidence: Students who disrupted University affairs to demand a fair wage for school workers or divestment from fossil fuels were apparently never punished as harshly as those facing suspension today. And protesters are certainly right that such uneven enforcement of University rules erodes Harvard’s commitment to vigorous debate of contentious issues.

But their argument makes one stunningly obvious leap: Enforcement of the rules in a non-content-neutral manner is not tantamount to a “Palestine exception.”

Comparing the University’s responses to different protests is impossible due to a whole array of confounding factors, and therefore intelligently determining the Ad Board’s true motivation is a hopeless task.

The most obvious of these confounding factors is the offensive nature of the speech itself: For three weeks, students sat in the middle of Harvard Yard declaring themselves part of the “student intifada” — or successors to two waves of terrorism that collectively killed hundreds of Israeli civilians.

Their insistence that “intifada” refers to peaceful resistance might have been slightly entertainable were it not for a statement many of them signed expressly excusing Hamas from its culpability in the Oct. 7 attacks. And any lingering doubt about the protesters’ true intentions can be quickly eviscerated by translating one of their Arabic chants: “From the water to the water, Palestine is Arab,” they forcefully declare, endorsing an antisemite’s eliminationist dream.

To my knowledge, no one in the fossil fuel divest campaign called for the death of gas and oil executives, nor did activists in the living wage campaign condone violence against employers who failed to adequately compensate their workers.

And, regardless of what pro-Palestinian protesters actually intend, the fact remains that many students — and frankly, the nation as a whole — have judged their rhetoric to be deeply offensive, making this protest distinct from earlier ones.

Viewed in this context, the University’s disciplinary ruling is hardly a “Palestine exception to free speech” — it is, more aptly, an “antisemitism exception.”

None of this is to say that the suspensions are necessarily fair or that they’ll do anything to heal our University’s broken speech culture. Nor is it particularly appropriate to punish speech simply because it is hateful — I would enthusiastically choose the liberty of free speech over institutional protection from repugnant rhetoric any day.

In fact, despite the satisfaction that comes with seeing the University finally take its long-existent antisemitism problem seriously, I am disappointed by Harvard’s uneven enforcement of rules governing speech, which I worry sets a bad precedent for debate on this campus.

I may be wrong — there is no way to test the theory that protesters’ odious rhetoric was the key factor triggering unusually stringent sanctions. For all I know, the University’s disciplinary decisions were indeed a Palestine exception to free speech. But we can never know — the absence of evidence makes drawing a conclusion either way impossible.

The explanation based on antisemitism is just as coherent and equally untestable as the argument put forth by the Editorial Board, which hastily jumps to conclusions, ignoring other plausible reasons for Harvard’s behavior. As such, I must dissent.

But I dissent not only because their argument is unfounded; I dissent because their argument is a choice.

It is a choice to view the University’s actions as a Palestine exception to free speech — a choice that brushes under the rug the long-festering antisemitism that has plagued Harvard’s pro-Palestinian movement.

I walked past the encampment almost every day when I was on campus. I know people — well-meaning people — who participated in it. But willing their antisemitism into nonexistence will not work.

Only condemning it will suffice.

Jacob M. Miller ’25, a Crimson Editorial chair, is a Mathematics concentrator in Lowell House.

Dissenting Opinions: Occasionally, The Crimson Editorial Board is divided about the opinion we express in a staff editorial. In these cases, dissenting board members have the opportunity to express their opposition to staff opinion.

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