Celebrating a legacy of antisemitism at Harvard

Real dialogue must acknowledge that the problem is not confined to the pro-Palestinian university community, but applies to the entire pro-Palestinian movement around the world.

Memorial Church at Harvard University. Source: 365 Focus Photography/Shutterstock
Memorial Church at Harvard University. Source: 365 Focus Photography/Shutterstock
Andrew Getraer
Andrew Getraer is the immediate past managing director of Harvard Hillel.

When I first saw the headline of a recent article by the Harvard Crimson editorial board, I was optimistic. After 21 years of working on college campuses, I should have known better.

The title “The Antisemitic Cartoon Is Everything Wrong with Discourse on Campus” was a good start. Indeed, in its first two paragraphs, the editorial was unambiguous in its condemnation of an antisemitic image recently posted on Instagram by two campus pro-Palestinian groups. The editorial board called the image “unequivocally,” “reprehensibly” and “nakedly” antisemitic. They further stated that they found it mind-boggling that such an image could have passed through several hands and been approved for posting. They referred to “serious, condemnable recklessness by the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee and the African and African American Resistance Organization.”

I couldn’t agree more.

However, the board went on to defend “the vast majority of our peers [who] most certainly do engage in the garden-variety ignorance and callousness that falls short of outright antisemitism.” That’s where they started to lose me. Would they ever refer to “garden-variety ignorance and callousness that falls short of outright racism”? Or “outright Islamophobia”? I doubt it. More likely, they would just call it what it is. So, why make excuses for antisemitism?

Unfortunately, this was only the beginning. The Crimson proceeded to minimize and excuse the entire antisemitic incident in question. 

First, it dismissed the image as “just” an Instagram post, even though the post was seen by hundreds of thousands of people across various social media platforms and provoked a fierce response from Harvard’s Interim President Alan Garber. The Crimson then declared, without evidence, that the members of the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee and the African and African American Resistance Organization who posted the antisemitic image don’t represent what the groups themselves believe or what “the pro-Palestine coalition at Harvard believes.” They added, again without evidence, that the image “most assuredly does not tell us what the national pro-Palestine movement believes.” In fact, there is every reason to think that it does. Nor did the Crimson explain how it could possibly know one way or the other.

We cannot know what lies in people’s hearts and minds, but we can know how the organizations they choose to join present themselves. We can know what words they use and what images they share. That is the only objective basis on which to judge them.

These organizations, in the Crimson’s own words, chose to use “unequivocally,” “reprehensibly” and “nakedly” antisemitic imagery and messaging. In other words: There can be no excuses. They made a conscious choice and they are accountable for it. Ignoring such hatred and prejudice or, worse still, excusing it, is not just a critical and common mistake. It is a deadly one. If we have learned anything from the Oct. 7 massacre, it is to believe people when they tell you what they believe.

Harvard has publicly pledged to review the incident and to enforce applicable university regulations. It must do so to the fullest extent possible. 

The Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee and the African and African American Resistance Organization did, in the end, apologize. But the apology was, to use the Crimson’s language, “just” an Instagram post. Moreover, it was barely an apology at all.

They belittled the entire issue by describing the image as “antiquated,” as if that somehow made it less offensive. The image is from 1967, based on similar images from the Nazi era and the early 20th century, which are no less offensive now than they were then. The groups also refused to take responsibility for intentionally choosing and posting the image. Instead, they claimed that the post “was linked to our account,” as if it mysteriously appeared there by nefarious supernatural means. We didn’t do it, they seemed to be saying; it just happened.

Well, it didn’t just happen. Make no mistake: Someone from what the Crimson called “the pro-Palestine coalition at Harvard” searched for the antisemitic image, chose it because it reflected their hate-filled beliefs and chose to post it. There was no invisible hand. Yet those responsible, even though they acknowledged that the image was antisemitic, continue to deflect responsibility.

Moreover, their use of an antisemitic image from 1967 was no accident. It was the entire point. It sought to proudly celebrate a long legacy of antisemitism and declare solidarity with it. It succeeded. Antisemitism does indeed have a long and ugly legacy, and now these groups are part of it.

It appears that the Crimson hopes to use this incident to spur campus dialogue. Fine. But dialogue cannot start with excuses. Real dialogue can only begin by openly acknowledging that grossly antisemitic images and messages were intentionally chosen and amplified. It can only begin when it is also acknowledged that this problem is not confined to the pro-Palestinian student community, nor even to its collaborators on the Harvard faculty. It is part of the entire fabric of the pro-Palestinian movement around the world. Those responsible for celebrating and continuing this legacy of hate need to own it and take responsibility for it. If they do not, they will never move past it—and neither will Harvard.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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