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From the Antisemitism Task Force: How to Repair a Fractured Harvard

By Julian J. Giordano
By Jared A. Ellias and Derek J. Penslar
Derek J. Penslar is the William Lee Frost Professor of Jewish History. Jared A. Ellias is the Scott C. Collins Professor of Law. They are the co-chairs of the Presidential Task Force on Combating Antisemitism.

Four months ago, interim President Alan M. Garber ’76 appointed a presidential task force to consider how antisemitism has reshaped aspects of life at Harvard University.

Since receiving our charge, the Presidential Task Force on Combating Antisemitism has heard from several hundred Harvard affiliates across all of the University’s campuses and professional schools.

As its co-chairs, we decided that our first step must be to open channels of communication in non-confrontational settings, providing opportunities for community members to talk, listen, and share their concerns about a very difficult year on our campus and beyond.

This work has taken time, causing some of our students and alumni to be disappointed with what they thought was the slow pace of our work. But, if we are going to help make positive, lasting changes, we need to do things right.

We spoke with students, faculty, staff, and alumni in both private conversations and over 40 group listening sessions. We also carried out joint sessions with the Presidential Task Force on Combating Anti-Muslim and Anti-Arab Bias. While many of the individuals we have spoken to were Jewish and/or Israeli, a number were of different faiths and national backgrounds.

What we found in these conversations was often appalling.

We have spoken with students and faculty who love Harvard deeply and have spent years here. Still, many of these same people have told us that something important that once characterized their time at Harvard is missing today.

Though Harvard is home to Jewish students, staff, and scholars who are delighted and proud to be a part of this great institution, the Jewish community — while itself diverse in backgrounds and opinions — largely feels under siege.

As has been the case at other universities over the past several months, the pressures felt by Jewish students have been manifest in both interpersonal relationships and the classroom. We have heard from Jewish and Israeli students who believe that their Jewish identity has regularly come between them and full participation in Harvard’s educational program and social life. Students have shared stories of lost friendships, shunning, and doxxing.

We have heard from many Jewish students that their peers demand they take a public position on Israel or the Israel-Hamas war. In such situations, an unpopular answer can end present friendships or prevent future ones. Even worse, we have heard from many Israeli students that they are not even given a chance to express a public position before their peers, avoiding joining certain clubs for fear that they will face social sanction for supporting Israel’s right to exist.

In today’s Harvard, students seem less likely to seek to build lasting relationships with those whose backgrounds differ markedly from their own. Political disagreements that might have once been set aside or talked through have become hard barriers to any kind of human relationship. Social media has vastly amplified the expression of hateful views. Jewish students, and their relationships with their peers, suffer from all these changes.

We have also heard from students who were derided by their instructors or did not take certain classes because they believed the instructor would treat a Jewish or Israeli student unfairly.

These different forms of exclusion have left Jewish and Israeli students feeling disconnected from a community that appears to be unable or unwilling to provide space for their grief and pain. Divides within the diverse Jewish community compound this effect, leaving some students feeling completely alone.

It is not only Jewish students who are feeling isolated. We have also met non-Jewish students — including those who identify as Arab and Muslim — who are bewildered by how global politics has transformed our campus and separated them from their Jewish friends and roommates.

A lot of energy has gone into debating if certain phrases or behaviors are antisemitic. Some of what the task force has observed clearly falls within the rubric of antisemitism, understood as identity-based bias against Jews irrespective of their national origin or personal beliefs. Our observations have emphasized a pressing need for greater awareness of the kinds of words and deeds that cross the line into antisemitism.

Still, one does not have to argue about fine points of definitions to know that shunning, excluding, and intimidating students is wrong regardless of their identity or beliefs. It flouts the core values of our broader community and may well violate existing University policies.

In order to get a deeper understanding of the campus climate the task forces have just launched a survey, and we will shortly submit preliminary recommendations designed to deal with the most urgent problems affecting our students based on its results.

Over the summer, the task force on antisemitism will delve deeper into the Jewish experience at Harvard, both past and present. In doing so, we will build on our own observations from both listening sessions and documentary research to date as well as the work of former President Claudine Gay’s Academic Advisory Group on Antisemitism. We plan to include the widest array of sources and to take them into account as we propose final recommendations via a substantial public report in the early fall.

We appreciate that some may find this schedule frustrating, but we aim to bring to the challenge a body of research, policy proposals, and thoughtfulness that is proportionate to the dimensions of the problem, and that necessarily takes time.

Although our task force focuses on Jews and antisemitism, the reforms we will be proposing aim to improve conversations and interactions across lines of difference within Harvard as a whole. We need to create an atmosphere of inclusion and respect that will foster informed conversation about controversial subjects.

Healing our fractured community will require time and effort. Recognizing the distinct ways in which Jewish and Israeli students have been hurt is an essential part of that process.

Derek J. Penslar is the William Lee Frost Professor of Jewish History. Jared A. Ellias is the Scott C. Collins Professor of Law. They are the co-chairs of the Presidential Task Force on Combating Antisemitism.

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