OpinionSchools & Higher Education

Where is the moral compass of the campus?

If Harvard cannot unequivocally condemn Hamas’s terrorism, we will know that it has abdicated its mission to preserve Western civilization.

A smartphone showing the logo of Harvard University. Credit: g0d4ather/Shutterstock.
A smartphone showing the logo of Harvard University. Credit: g0d4ather/Shutterstock.
Juliana Geran Pilon
Juliana Geran Pilon
Juliana Geran Pilon is a senior fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. Her latest book is An Idea Betrayed: Jews, Liberalism, and the American Left (2023). She has taught at the National Defense University, the Institute of World Politics, American University, St. Mary’s College of Maryland and George Washington University.

The photos, the videos, the babies’ screams can never be erased from memory. Not even the ideologically inoculated, the brainwashed and the cynical can be entirely immune to human empathy. That Hamas’s Oct. 7 atrocities were all committed with ostentatious audacity, even panache, surpasses reason: Weren’t the perpetrators concerned that the brutality might backfire? Apparently not. The psychopaths videotaped their crimes complete with a soundtrack of satanic laughter.

It’s payback time. By committing atrocities so nonchalantly and on such a scale, the Islamist Iranian proxy has likely signed its own death warrant. Their spree of war crimes may well prove to have been a suicide mission, like so many before.

More than 300,000 IDF soldiers were instantly mobilized. Hundreds returned by air, sea and land from around the world—soldiers on leave or retired and ordinary people alike, all determined to help. Israelis are united as never before. They won’t rest until their rabid enemy is wiped off the map. Every family in Israel, the tiny Jewish haven, the only country they can call their own, is mourning. After this pogrom, no one will ever be the same. All are prepared to give their all. Determined to defy extinction once again, they share a sacred promise: The Holocaust will never be repeated.

But Israel was not the only target of the hate-filled hordes. So was every human worthy of the name. Hamas meant to sow universal fear. Now it falls to each of us to reveal who has the moral compass and who does not. It’s about us.

Above all, it’s about our “best and brightest.” The scare quotes are deliberate, for our brightest have turned out to be anything but the best. Most disappointing, but entirely predictable, has been the one institution whose purported mission is the preservation, nurturing and advancement of Western civilization, the most prestigious university in the world—Harvard.

First came the letter signed by over 30 Harvard Palestine Solidarity Groups on the Situation in Palestine (HPSGSP) denouncing Israel as “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” 

Harvard Hillel reacted immediately, issuing a statement blasting this monstrous statement as “completely wrong and deeply offensive. There is no excuse for the terror we have seen over the weekend.”

Hillel pledged to “stand unwaveringly behind Israel and the Jewish people in these unprecedented times.” It was joined by 18 other organizations, most of them Jewish, and a few others such as the Harvard Ice Hockey Club, the Harvard College Polish Society, the Harvard Behavioral Strategy Group and the Harvard Business School’s Conservative Club, plus 330 faculty and staff (out of 19,639).

A day later, President Claudine Gay finally weighed in, saying she was “heartbroken by the death and destruction unleashed by the attack by Hamas that targeted citizens in Israel this weekend, and by the war in Israel and Gaza now underway.” She then called on Harvard “as an academic community to deepen our knowledge of the unfolding events and their broader implications for the region and the world.”

Her letter contained no reference to HPSGSP’s anti-Israel, pro-terrorist letter.

When an uproar followed, Gay and her administration backtracked. Her revised statement, published by The Harvard Crimson, urged restraint: “We will all be well served in such a difficult moment by rhetoric that aims to illuminate and not inflame. And I appeal to all of us in this community of learning to keep this in mind as our conversations continue.”

She expressed her hope “that, as a community devoted to learning, we can take steps that will draw on our common humanity and shared values in order to modulate rather than amplify the deep-seated divisions and animosities so distressingly evident in the wider world. Especially at such a time, we want to emphasize our commitment to fostering an environment of dialogue and empathy, appealing to one another’s thoughtfulness and goodwill in a time of unimaginable loss and sorrow.”

There was still no condemnation of the pro-terrorism letter and its signatories.

This prompted a second letter to Gay signed by 350 faculty members. It urged the administration to send another, more “important message to the Harvard community and beyond that the university rejects any support of terrorism or false equivalences between the targeted killing of civilians and collective self-defense.”

Other prominent individuals connected with Harvard expressed their outrage through media, personal letters and other means.

Only one student organization denounced the administration’s timidity: The Harvard Club of Israel, whose 1,400 members are alumni of Harvard’s schools and executive programs currently in Israel. They work in a variety of professions, including business, academia, government and civil society. Their letter, sent on Oct. 11 and signed by its 15-member board, declared simply that the administration’s backpedaling was “too little, too late. In the face of evil, Harvard must proclaim that pro-terrorism statements like those published by the student groups on Sunday have no place in civil discourse at Harvard or elsewhere. If Harvard wishes to be a moral leader for the world, its administration must speak out immediately and forcefully. Anything less than full support for Israel’s right to defend itself and its citizens and unequivocal denunciation of this terrorism is unacceptable and is wholly inadequate for an institution of Harvard’s caliber.”

Yet another statement, a third retraction, followed later that day on video. “Harvard University rejects terrorism,” said Gay. She conceded that this “includes the barbaric atrocities perpetrated by Hamas,” but hastened to add that there was plenty of blame to go around. She pronounced, “The University rejects hate—hate of Jews, hate of Muslims, hate of any group of people based on their faith, their national origin or any aspect of their identity.” 

What about all the other students? Several eventually signed the Hillel letter, some 5,000 by Oct. 14, 25,000 all told. The Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics Student Advisory Committee considered issuing a statement condemning Hamas’s attacks, but since fewer than a fifth of its members favored adopting a statement of any kind, the initiative failed. This prompted the group’s chair and two co-chairs to resign.

“To say we are disgusted is an understatement,” their resignation letter stated. “Silence is complicity. Silence is irreconcilable with the principle of moral conviction. Silence is why many students do not feel safe at Harvard right now.” 

They have good reason not to feel safe. It’s hard to feel safe at a school whose speech climate has just been rated “abysmal” by the nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). Harvard’s score, lower than all other colleges by far, actually fell below zero—it was -10.69.

According to FIRE’s findings, “Just over a quarter of Harvard students reported they are comfortable publicly disagreeing with their professor on a controversial political topic; only roughly a third think it is ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ clear the administration protects free speech on campus; and an alarming 30% think using violence to stop a campus speech is at least ‘rarely’ acceptable, an increase from the 26% of Harvard students who felt this way last year.”

Where is Harvard’s moral compass? It should be found before it is too late. If it is not, we will know who is really preserving, nurturing and advancing Western civilization. And we will know that Harvard is not among them.

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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