With the news of Harvard University president Claudine Gay’s resignation, I’ve been left in an awkward position. While many of my Jewish friends are celebrating, this “victory” feels hollow to me, if one can even call it a victory.
I first learned about Gay in the aftermath of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack. It was one of the darkest days of my life, and learning that student groups at Harvard had released a letter condemning Israel and claiming that the murders and rapes were entirely Israel’s fault was like salt in the wound. Many American Jews reached out to me at that time, terrified that colleges were no longer safe for their children or that they didn’t feel safe on campuses. Gay’s inaction most certainly fed into this fear, and I was far from the only person who had issues with how she handled things.
The backlash to her inaction prompted Congress to hold a hearing on Dec. 5, when they questioned Gay and two other university presidents about how they were handling antisemitism on campus. This hearing resulted in Gay famously saying that calls for the genocide of Jewish people did not automatically violate Harvard’s code of conduct and that “It depends on the context.” She issued an apology for these remarks, but the damage was already done.
Her job was to protect all of her students, and she failed at every turn to stand up for her Jewish ones. One would assume that I, an outspoken voice for Jewish civil rights, would be thrilled that she lost her job. Yet here I am, writing out my complicated feelings in an effort to work through them.
I think that at my core, I’m simply too much of an idealist to be happy with this result. Gay was more than her opinions on the conflict or the way that she dealt with the incredible tensions that mounted afterward. She is Harvard’s first black president and the second female president in the college’s extensive history.
Even though I obviously disagreed with a lot of what she did, I didn’t want her to lose her job over her reaction to antisemitism. I wanted her to start a dialogue with the Jewish community and find a way to make Jewish students feel safe without stepping on anyone’s right to free speech. I wanted her to understand the pain of her students and make changes to ease that pain. I honestly believe that she would have been happy with that, too. Unfortunately, that’s not a possibility anymore.
At the core of this fiasco, however, there is one fact we cannot overlook— the main motivation behind the resignation has nothing to do with antisemitism, but plagiarism.
Meaning, her statements and lack of real effort to support Jewish students and understand the fears of our community were not enough for Harvard to take real disciplinary actions. It had to be an academic misconduct. Can you imagine this happening with any other minority in this country?
Yet the news story is writing itself; a prominent black leader was forced to leave her job because of the Jewish community. This plays directly into antisemitic tropes which many neo-Nazis and other Jew-haters have tried to spread, which even some progressives fall for.
Our community cannot respond with celebration because there is really nothing to celebrate about this story. Gay will go on with her life, and the Jewish community will have another story stigmatizing us as oppressors for asking for a little bit of justice.
The only conclusion I can come to is that holding on to anger for mistakes or wrongdoings is ultimately worthless. I don’t want Gay punished. I want her to learn about antisemitism and the Jewish community; I want her to understand why we responded the way we did and how to avoid it in the future. I don’t want her to continue holding prejudice towards us.
Holding on to hate and prioritizing retribution over anything else does not lead to justice. Would we be in this mess in the first place if it weren’t for those very things? When I see Jews cheering at Gay’s resignation, I get it. I really do. But I also see a missed opportunity. We stand at a crossroads where choosing education and understanding over mere retribution could lead us toward a more inclusive future. The Jewish community should lead by example in advocating for dialogue and education. Our response to this situation can set a precedent for how minority communities address grievances and seek change.
In an ideal world, Gay’s resignation would have been a moment of introspection, an opportunity for Harvard and other institutions to deeply examine their policies and attitudes towards antisemitism and other forms of bigotry. It would have sparked conversations, not just about the rights of Jewish students, but about how we create environments that are truly inclusive and respectful of all.
Thus, while Gay’s departure from Harvard is laden with complexity, it should not be the end of the conversation. Rather, it ought to be a catalyst for us to advocate for constructive change and understanding, not only within Harvard but in educational institutions worldwide. It’s a call for us, and indeed all communities, to rise above the fray and be the harbingers of the empathy and understanding we so dearly need.
Originally published by The Jewish Journal.