Harvard Yard on the university’s campus in Cambridge, Mass. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Harvard Yard on the university’s campus in Cambridge, Mass. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
featureSchools & Higher Education

Ivy League absent from university presidents’ condemnation of Hamas

Yeshiva University President Ari Berman marshaled his colleagues to sign a declaration denouncing the terror group.

Stung by their colleagues’ half-hearted condemnations of Hamas and by on-campus anti-Israel protests in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist group’s Oct. 7 massacre, more than 100 presidents and chancellors of U.S. colleges and universities appended their names to a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal (Oct. 28-29) condemning Hamas in no uncertain terms.

However, not a single Ivy League school signed onto the statement.

This, as student chants of “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”—an eliminationist slogan calling for the destruction of Israel—echo in every Ivy League courtyard.

At Dartmouth and Princeton, students chanted, “Israel is a terror state.” Yalies4Palestine justified Hamas’s massacre in an Instagram post, saying, “Breaking out of a prison requires force.” Thirty Harvard student groups held Israel as “the only one to blame” for the pogrom.

Nor has such sentiment been heard only from students. At Columbia, 144 faculty members signed an open letter justifying Hamas’s rampage as a “military action.” A Cornell professor told students that he found the attacks “exhilarating” and “energizing.” A Columbia professor called the attack “awesome” and “astounding.” A Yale professor said that “Palestinians have every right to resist through armed struggle.”

Meanwhile, Jewish students on these campuses say they don’t feel safe. At Cornell, a student was arrested for threatening to shoot up the school’s kosher dining hall. At Columbia, a student was beaten.

The reaction of Ivy League leadership has been notable for its limpness. Special ire has been directed at the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania.

Alumni donors have threatened to pull their funding over what they view as their schools’ failure to condemn the Oct. 7 attack, noting that these schools were quick to weigh in on other political issues.

Billionaire hedge fund manager and major Harvard donor Bill Ackman wrote an open letter to Harvard President Claudine Gay decrying the school’s weak-kneed response to the Hamas attack, and to campus antisemitism.

In the Nov. 5 letter, Ackman describes visiting with Harvard law school students, Jewish and non-Jewish. He found Jewish students had been “bullied, physically intimidated, spat on” and assaulted.

“While on campus, I heard a constant refrain from non-Jewish members of the Harvard community: Why are Claudine and the administration doing nothing about this?” he wrote. “I have heard from many members of the Harvard community that Harvard’s Office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging (‘OEDIB’) is an important contributing factor to the problem.”

Ackman also asserted that Harvard has amplified antisemitism, noting that its first action was to create a task force to support students who were doxxed for signing an antisemitic letter.

Campus antisemitism has become a national issue. According to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, “The response(s) by a lot of these university administrators have been absolutely pathetic, particularly in places like the Ivy League.”

The Wall Street Journal ad condemning Hamas was organized by Rabbi Ari Berman, president of New York’s Yeshiva University.

(Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, a U.S. nonprofit seeking to uphold liberal arts education standards, who organized a second similar initiative, dropped his as Berman’s gained traction.)

Berman, who formed Universities United Against Terrorism, has spoken with hundreds of college presidents, adding that he’s only at the start of the campaign. He said college presidents who hesitated to sign on generally offered two reasons: 1) They fear roiling their campuses still further (they say no issue has so upended their campuses in recent memory), and 2) They say universities shouldn’t make political statements.

Rabbi Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University

To the first excuse, Berman argues that condemning Hamas lays down a strong moral foundation that would actually help calm campuses. To the second, he says what happened on Oct. 7 transcends politics. This is an issue of “truth,” “intellectual integrity” and “moral clarity,” he told JNS, and “the purpose of the university is to seek the truth.”

Condemning Hamas would both reassure Jewish students and help pro-Palestinian students distance themselves from Hamas, he said.

“So we created a statement that had two unifying elements. One is that Hamas is a terrorist organization. And two is that the Palestinian people are not represented by Hamas. In fact, they’re being harmed by Hamas,” said Berman.

Many college presidents responded with “warmth and support,” Berman added, describing some of the conversations over the last two weeks as “among the most inspiring I’ve had.” The more than 100 college presidents who have signed make up an “unprecedented, broad-based coalition … ranging from major public and private universities, faith-based universities across denominations and historically black colleges.”

Although the Ivy League isn’t represented, he said that “the leadership of higher education is much broader than the Ivy Leagues,” adding that some of the giants in the academic world affixed their signatures to the statement, like Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, Linda Livingstone, president of Baylor University and Julio Frank, president of the University of Miami, among others.

Peter Wood of the National Association of Scholars applauded the Wall Street Journal ad, which he said, “demonstrated that higher education is not speaking with just one voice on these matters.”

While it’s true that “the leadership of American higher education is not limited to the Ivy Leagues, or a bunch of fairly elite liberal arts colleges,” Wood told JNS, saying the elite list includes about 200 of the 3,000 or so colleges in the country, “the heads of those [other] institutions are for the most part not well-known public figures. If the president of Middlebury College says something, it’s not really headline material.”

“The presidents of the Ivy League, for better or worse, command a level of public attention that no one else does,” he continued. “And even among them, people will perk up when they hear Harvard, Yale and Princeton mentioned.”

Wood said the reason these college presidents, who are supposed to be setting a high moral tone for their institutions, fail to do so is that they are no longer chosen for their scholarship, but rather for their commitment to the woke agenda.

“I think they’ve been picked because they have demonstrated their eagerness to lead the transformation of their institutions in the direction of wokeness. Nowadays, they are advocates for various ideological causes.”

Most were focused on U.S. racial divisions in recent years. However, such people also “owe a kind of allegiance” to the other groups swimming in the same woke pool. “Those are their people,” said Wood.

“President Gay at Harvard, she first issued a very anemic statement that didn’t even name Hamas and basically said, ‘There’s violence on both sides,’” noted Wood. As college presidents are also fundraisers-in-chief, the threats from donors are likely what prompted them to issue firmer statements, he said, though in the case of Harvard “even the second statement was in my view wholly inadequate to the situation.”

“They really do not want to put themselves in the role of critics of their radicalized students,” said Wood.

The student type characteristic of the Ivy Leagues also explains the higher degree of anti-Israel activism found on those campuses, he said. The students see themselves as “great achievers” dedicated to “doing something meaningful.”

“I think the concentration of [anti-Israel activity] at places like Columbia and Harvard comes about because those are the colleges that attract the most ambitious, not always the smartest but certainly the most driven students—the ones who are most in want of a commanding purpose in their life,” explained Wood.

When those students reach the elite schools, they find a disdain for Western institutions. They don’t have the option to take pride in Western civilization as a meaningful choice, as what is emphasized is the oppressor vs. the oppressed, he added. “Students naturally want to side with the victim. … Their teachers are ready to supply them with ideologies that set the boundaries.”

Naming the Jews as an oppressor “pulls on a longstanding thread that was always there” though quiescent in recent decades, he said. “I think it felt quite natural for a lot of Ivy League students who have been denied any other meaningful narrative to adopt narratives of antisemitism.”

On the question of whether the growing Muslim student population plays a role in the pro-Hamas scenes that have shocked the general American public, Berman and Wood disagree.

“My instinct is that it’s not [key],” said Berman, pointing instead to a combination of antisemites and a student population that wants to side with those it sees as “vulnerable.”

Wood, on the other hand, says Muslim students are “very much a factor,” having formed groups like Students for Justice in Palestine, whose national leadership praised Hamas for its “resistance.” He said these Muslims are “highly influential” in raising the “temperature and intensity” among woke allies.

“No one wants to get left out. We’re seeing that play out on these campuses where the students who are supporting Hamas are by no means limited to Muslim students,” he said.

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