‘Disrespectful of Jews’: 70 Harvard faculty reject student paper’s BDS endorsement

Leading professors, including former US Treasury secretary Summers, a Crimson editor, and prominent alumni blast the newspaper for supporting ‘anti-Jewish’ boycott movement

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: Students walk near Widener Library in Harvard Yard, at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, August 13, 2019. (AP/Charles Krupa, File)
Illustrative: Students walk near Widener Library in Harvard Yard, at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, August 13, 2019. (AP/Charles Krupa, File)

Seventy Harvard-affiliated faculty have condemned the university’s student newspaper for endorsing the boycott movement against Israel 10 days ago, a move that whipped up a firestorm of controversy and was seen as a possible omen of changing sentiment toward Israel on campuses.

An editor at the newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, and at least eight former staffers also condemned the editorial board’s endorsement of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement on April 29.

The faculty statement released on Monday was signed by leading scholars including Steven Pinkner, Ruth Wisse, Jesse Fried, Gabriella Blum, and Lawrence Summers, who is also a former president of the university and was the US secretary of treasury under former US president Bill Clinton.

“As members of the faculty of Harvard University, we are dismayed by The Crimson Editorial Board’s enthusiastic endorsement of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel,” the statement said.

“In seeking to delegitimize Israel through diplomatic, economic, academic, and cultural isolation, and by opposing the very notions of Jewish peoplehood and self-determination, BDS is disrespectful of Jews, the vast majority of whom view an attachment to Israel as central to their faith identity,” the faculty said.

The statement said the signatories were “deeply concerned” about the endorsement’s impact “on the morale and well-being of Jewish and Zionist students at Harvard.”

The faculty voiced support for continued ties with Israel, and acknowledged students’ right to support BDS, but said they were “firmly opposed to this movement” that “contributes to antisemitism.”

BDS seeks to turn the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict “into a caricature that singles out only one side for blame with a false binary of oppressor versus oppressed,” the statement said.

The movement denies the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, and is against coexistence and dialogue, the statement said.

The professors called on The Crimson’s editors to better educate themselves about Jewish identity, Israel, and antisemitism, and to reach out to Jewish students on campus.

“Our doors are always open,” they said.

The statement was organized by the Academic Engagement Network, a pro-Israel non-profit group. The petition will remain open through the end of the week, and will be presented to The Crimson, Harvard’s president, and other university officials.

BDS activists in New York City, May 15, 2021. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

One current editor of The Crimson and several prominent alumni of the paper also blasted the BDS endorsement.

Natalie L. Kahn, a Crimson editor and the head of Harvard’s Hillel, in a response published by the Crimson on Wednesday, said the endorsement was one-sided and anti-Jewish.

“This editorial is part of a larger trend of singling out Jews, conveniently neglecting our half of the story — and by extension our right to self-determination — while claiming to ‘oppose antisemitism,’” she wrote.

“This editorial does not even affirm support for Jewish self-determination. Does the Editorial Board believe Israel even has a right to exist? Because, if so, that line is coincidentally missing,” she said.

“Dialogue is not the goal of BDS or student anti-Israel groups, who have refused conversation and rely instead on substanceless platitudes,” she said. “Their goal is demonizing Israel and delegitimizing its right to exist.”

Dara Horn, an author, prominent writer on antisemitism and Jewish life, and a former editor at The Crimson, rejected the BDS endorsement in an op-ed published Sunday in the outlet Common Sense.

Horn noted that The Crimson’s BDS endorsement cited a pro-Palestinian display on campus as inspiration, but did not mention any changes in the Middle East behind the decision. The newspaper rejected BDS in the past.

Harvard’s Palestine Solidarity Committee put up the display as part of its annual “Israel Apartheid Week.” Some of the images appear to be related to antisemitic or conspiratorial talking points, including by blaming Israel for US police brutality and health care discrimination, and portraying Palestinians as Holocaust victims. The editorial said The Crimson was “broadly and proudly supportive” of the effort.

The faculty statement against the Crimson called the display “shameful,” especially since it was displayed during the Passover holiday. “We call out this rhetoric for what it is: anti-Jewish hate speech that is antithetical to the values of any academic institution,” they wrote.

Horn said the mural did not contain any facts or statistics, but generic images and the slogan, “Zionism is racism settler colonialism white supremacy apartheid.”

A view of Harvard Yard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons)

“Facts are for losers. That the Harvard Crimson’s editors fell for this regime-approved propaganda says something rather damning about the collapse of critical thinking in America,” Horn said.

She tied the anti-Israel mural to recent harassment against Jewish students in New Jersey during Holocaust Remembrance Day last month, for the second year in a row.

“None of this is actually about Israel. It is about the Jewish students down the street,” Horn said.

Ira Stoll, a journalist and former president of The Crimson, said he was “disgusted” with the editorial.

In a letter to The Crimson, he argued that a boycott of Israel would harm Harvard itself, and called the newspaper’s position “laughably obsolete.”

Another six alums of The Crimson said on Monday, “Your editorial in support of the BDS movement is as unpersuasive as it is wrong.”

“You have endorsed a movement which is not a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it is quite simply an accelerant of antisemitism,” they wrote.

Alan Dershowitz, a prominent pro-Israel lawyer and Harvard professor, said in a letter to The Crimson that its stance was “ignorant, discriminatory and deceptive.”

Dershowitz said editors at The Crimson had accepted an initial op-ed, then reversed course and rejected it, then hemmed and hawed for several days, before publishing a shortened letter to the editor.

Anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian activists in New York City, May 15, 2021. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Harvard Jewish groups, including Chabad and Hillel, also condemned the anti-Israel activity on campus and the editorial.

The Crimson’s president responded to the backlash on Monday. Raquel Coronell Uribe said the newspaper was committed to “journalistic integrity, freedom of the press, and freedom of expression.”

“The Crimson strives for diversity and inclusivity in all respects, from diversity of identity to diversity of opinion,” she said. “The Crimson rejects discrimination, including antisemitism, in all its forms — both among our staff and in our pages.”

Another former Crimson president, Dan Swanson, wrote in to support the BDS endorsement.

The Crimson endorsed BDS at the end of Israeli Apartheid Week on the campus, which included events featuring anti-Israel speakers Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein.

“We are proud to finally lend our support to both Palestinian liberation and BDS — and we call on everyone to do the same,” the Crimson’s editorial board wrote.

The paper opposed BDS in the past, as recently as 2020, when the editorial board said the movement did “not get at the nuances and particularities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” That op-ed expressed ambivalence about BDS and expressed concern over antisemitism in the movement.

“We regret and reject that view,” the board said, due to “the weight of this moment — of Israel’s human rights and international law violations and of Palestine’s cry for freedom.”

The board said it did not consider the Apartheid Week “Wall of Resistance” to be antisemitic. “We unambiguously oppose and condemn antisemitism in every and all forms,” the editorial said.

The board said pro-Palestinian journalists were shunned in US newsrooms, and noted Palestinians killed by Israel in the past year, without mentioning Israeli casualties or terror attacks. The screed came amid a wave of terror attacks in Israel, and was published one day after Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The BDS campaign advocates boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israeli businesses, universities, and artists. Supporters say BDS is a non-violent movement for Palestinian independence, but Israel and Israel supporters say the campaign aims to delegitimize the Jewish state and seeks its destruction, and it has been condemned by many as antisemitic.

Last year in the US, at least 11 student governments passed BDS resolutions, out of 17 that were considered.

As at most newspapers, the Crimson’s editorial board is separate from its news division. Its 87 members meet three times a week to debate and decide on positions to take, and editorials reflect a majority view, but not a complete consensus.

The Anti-Defamation League, which also denounced The Crimson editorial, said last month that reported antisemitic incidents in the US are at an all-time high.

JTA contributed to this report.

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