NEW YORK — Nearly 500 pro-Palestinian protesters, some carrying noisemakers, some banging drumsticks on buckets, walked out of class and marched across Harvard University on October 26. On the same day, in California, UCLA students gathered in Bruin Square, chanting “Resistance is justified when people are occupied.”
It is these kinds of protests that have spurred high-profile donors to revolt over the way several elite universities responded to the Hamas terrorist attack in Israel. US Senator Mitt Romney, hedge fund manager Seth Klarman and three other Harvard Business School alumni wrote an open letter dated October 23 in which they rebuked Harvard for allowing Jewish students to be intimidated and harassed.
“Given that Harvard has been vocal in its advocacy for the rights of students from other religious, racial and ethnic groups, this silence, amidst the meteoric rise in antisemitism, is deafening,” reads an excerpt from the letter.
Aside from calling for a semester-long course that would teach students about “debate through reasoned inquiry,” the letter also urged Harvard to prohibit demonstrators from covering their faces. (Full disclosure: Klarman is a co-founder of The Times of Israel.)
Several CEOs, donors, and politicians have castigated their alma maters, both for not clearly condemning Hamas and for not supporting Jewish students, since the Israel-Hamas war began three weeks ago. On October 7, under the cover of thousands of rockets fired at Israel, some 2,500 terrorists from Gaza poured into southern Israel through a ruptured barrier. They overran IDF posts and communities, killing 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and taking over 230 captives into Gaza. Israel immediately declared war on Hamas, which rules the Strip, and vowed to eliminate it.
Avi Gordon, executive director of the non-profit Alums for Campus Fairness, (ACF), which aims to combat antisemitism, understands where these donors are coming from.
“Alumni are rightfully angry with their alma maters,” Gordon told The Times of Israel. “Universities don’t fully comprehend the impact of their actions and inactions. Jewish students expect support from their administrators for the massacre against Israel on October 7 by Hamas terrorists.”
“When anti-Israel groups like Students for Justice in Palestine are chanting ‘From the river to the sea,’ Jewish students recognize this means the destruction of Israel. Administrations need to speak out against this hate speech in order to regain the support of alumni,” Gordon said.
Free expression advocates said that the lack of strong condemnations could have unintended consequences, including the further erosion of public trust in higher education.
“It plays into the narrative that has been out there for years that universities are brainwashing the next generation of snowflakes instead of showing moral and sympathetic imagination, and that we need to take back our universities,” said Lynn Pasquerella, head of the American Association of Colleges and Universities.
She cautioned that donors withholding sums in protest of university inaction will cause ripple effects — but not necessarily at those institutions that are the worst “offenders.”
“While Harvard’s $51 billion endowment will likely not be impacted, [donor revolt] could impact all universities and result in the further corporatization of higher ed,” she said.
As Pasquerella explained, universities have become increasingly intertwined with wealthy donors; many have buildings, institutions, and programs named for them.
For example, philanthropist Ronald Lauder announced he would pull funding from The Lauder Institute at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. (The school’s director of media relations Ron Ozio declined to comment.)
‘Harvard has an antisemitism problem’
Leslie Wexner, the founder of Limited Brands, announced last week that he was pulling funding from Harvard. According to the group’s fiscal 2021 tax filing, the Wexner Foundation donated nearly $1.8 million to Harvard in fiscal 2021.
This is welcome news to Congressman Jake Auchincloss (Democrat-Massachusetts), a Harvard alum who publicly criticized Harvard over its initial response to the terror attacks.
“Everybody with influence should be picking up an oar to row in the same direction, and where we need to be headed first is a cold, clear acknowledgment that Harvard has an antisemitism problem and then direct actionable steps to address that,” Auchincloss said.
Counting himself among the ranks of Jewish students and Jewish alumni who have grown increasingly concerned about how “antisemitism has sprouted and grown” on campuses nationwide, Auchincloss said he found it “morally appalling” that it took Harvard president Claudine Gay so long to explicitly condemn terrorism and Hamas.
Adding to his anger was the fact that one day after the massacre, over 30 student organizations signed a letter written by the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee and Harvard Graduate Students for Palestine saying they “hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.”
The Harvard letter was echoed in similar public statements released by several chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). For example, in an Instagram post, an SJP chapter at Ohio State said about the massacre that “[a]n unprecedented but historical series of events has taken place, led by our heroic resistance in Gaza who have shown the world yet again that the spirit of the Palestinian people cannot and will not be trampled.”
Harvard’s spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment but shared messages issued by Gay and other Harvard University officials, including an October 9 statement by Gay that “expressed heartbreak” about “the death and destruction unleashed by the attack by Hamas that targeted citizens in Israel this weekend,” and her October 12 video statement in which she condemned terrorism and Hamas.
Meanwhile, at New York’s Columbia University, students have been spotted on the quad holding signs that read “Columbia doesn’t care about Jewish students” in front of Low Library, where President Minouche Shafik’s offices are located. SJP also sponsored a walk-out on October 25, demanding that Columbia cancel plans to open a Global Center branch in Tel Aviv.
No one from Columbia University was available to comment, said Samantha A. Slater, a university spokesperson.
Lean in, not out
Part of the problem — at least when it comes to statements — is that presidents and trustees, who have a fiduciary responsibility, make themselves even more vulnerable to outside pressure, said Kenneth Stern, director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate.
“I understand why people are upset and angry, and philanthropists have a right to do what they want with their money,” Stern said. “But I’d like to see less of ‘I’m taking my ball and going away,’ and more investing in campus.”
“If we’re truly concerned about what’s happening on campus, there are creative ways to address it. I’d like to see more effort spent on how to build campuses that have a better understanding of human hatred,” he said.
Instead, Stern said, universities should hew more closely to the 1967 University of Chicago’s Kalven report and strive to remain neutral on political and social matters.
However, there can be no discussion about free expression until universities squelch antisemitism, insisted Liora Rez, founder and executive director of StopAntisemitism.org.
She cited as an example that on October 24, SJP activists projected messages, including “Glory to our martyrs,” on the Gelman Library at George Washington University before the police shut them down.
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” Rez said. “The violent acts we saw should be catastrophic to any sane human being. Yet, these SJP clubs are not only defending terrorism, they are promoting it while universities just sit there under the guise of free speech. We’re so relieved that donors are finally starting to act and these university presidents need to resign or be fired.”
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