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Rabbi David Wolpe: ‘I am hopeful that Harvard is not a lost cause’

The Harvard Divinity School visiting scholar stepped down from the university’s Antisemitism Advisory Group.

Rabbi David Wolpe. Credit: Courtesy.
Rabbi David Wolpe. Credit: Courtesy.

David Wolpe, rabbi emeritus of Sinai Temple, a conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, joined Harvard University’s Antisemitism Advisory Group in the hopes that he could persuade the school to make some serious changes.

“I wanted immediate, visible action,” he told JNS. “In fact, what I saw was that the anti-Jewish agitation on campus was getting worse, not better.”

Earlier this month, the Anti-Defamation League’s inaugural rabbinic fellow, named by Newsweek as the most influential rabbi in the United States, publicly quit the Harvard group. (He remains a visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School.)

“It was clear to me that I was hoping for changes that were not happening,” he told JNS. “Since I also felt like my name gave the panel a certain amount of credibility and yet I was not able to make any changes, I really had no choice.”

‘A deep cultural problem’

Harvard president Claudine Gay’s recent testimony to a U.S. House of Representatives committee—that it wouldn’t necessarily violate the school’s policies to call for genocide against all Jews—was “one more indication of how much things were not moving in the direction that I had hoped,” Wolpe told JNS.

The presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who testified at the hearing “seemed as though they believed that what they were there for was to give carefully structured, legally unobjectionable answers,” he said. “I thought what they were there for was to show their indignation, passion and leadership.”

Wolpe is less concerned about organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voices for Peace, which some universities have banned, than with actions.

I wanted to see the actions that clearly violated Harvard policies be sanctioned, and I didn’t see them being sanctioned,” he said. He thinks there is “a deep cultural problem,” which extends beyond Harvard.

“Right now, all the universities have to make a major statement that cultures of intimidation will not be permitted—that free speech is guarded, intimidation is not,” he said. “You can’t go into people’s classrooms while they’re conducting class and yell. You can’t go into the library when people are studying and protest. You can’t tear down posters that other people put up.”

Universities should be expected to enforce their own standards, said Wolpe, and “they have to do it now.” 

Academic institutions must undertake a major focus on educating students about Judaism and Jew-hatred because their students are “convinced by misinformation, false information and deliberate lying. Just as they would if there were a movement afoot on campus to deny the reality of slavery.”

‘Identify as Jewish on campus: Publicize it’

Although Wolpe told JNS that it is fine to criticize Israel, he noted that there are some 50 Muslim states and just one Jewish one.

“No other state in the world has ever been called to be dismantled, no matter how badly it behaves. Nobody ever said that Russia shouldn’t be a state or Germany shouldn’t be a state, or China shouldn’t for its treatment of Tibet,” he said. “That makes the overlap between anti-Zionism and antisemitism so considerable that it’s a pretty safe default assumption, even though it is not 100%.”

“I wanted immediate, visible action. What I saw was that the anti-Jewish agitation on campus was getting worse, not better.”

Rabbi David Wolpe

His advice for students who experience antisemitism is to report it. “Don’t in any way diminish your Jewish activities or pride, and let people know: Publicize it, make people aware of it,” he said. “It’s unacceptable. You shouldn’t stand for it, and so the world has to know about it.”

He also believes that young people should tout their heritage. “The more Jewish students identify as Jewish on campus, in numbers, the stronger they will be,” he said. “Hiding does nothing but weaken you.”

“I am hopeful that Harvard is not a lost cause. That’s why I’m still talking to people, still there. I’m talking to the administration. I’m talking to other faculty. I’m talking to alumni,” Wolpe said.

He hasn’t given up on Harvard because it is “an extraordinarily important institution.”

“It matters a lot, and so I would not want to take the chance of giving up prematurely on a place where, if we can get it right, it can have a sort of leadership position in other institutions,” he said.

For now, Wolpe is acting like “a kind of middleman” or “conduit,” he noted.

“People send me material that they’re afraid to send to any channel that might in any way look badly at them or retaliate against them,” he said. “They send it to me, and I’m able to forward it to the administration, to the responsible parties.”

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