The controversy surrounding anti-Semitism at Harvard shows no signs of subsiding. A congressional committee has subpoenaed  three top Harvard officials in relation to its investigation into the allegations. The inquiry was opened after the then Harvard president, Claudine Gay, declined to say unequivocally that calls for the genocide of Jews breached university policy.

Harvard has in fact already begun to take measures aimed at tackling anti-Semitism on its campus. After Gay resigned in early January the interim president, Alan Garber, wrote with other senior administrators to Harvard affiliates to clarify the university’s position on speech codes. Action by unrecognised groups was prohibited and protests could not interrupt the normal running of the university. In addition, the university reaffirmed its policy that protesters cannot prevent invited speakers from participating in debates or members of an audience hearing them. This policy on speakers was first introduced in the aftermath of anti-Vietnam war protests on campus.

In mid-January Garber  announced the creation of two task forces. One will focus on combatting anti-Semitism and the other on combating Islamophobia and anti-Arab bias.

On 1 February the Harvard Crimson, a student newspaper, reported that Garber is particularly concerned  that Jewish students should not experience “social shunning”. Nor should they feel the need to self-censor during debates on Israel.

Warnings about the form protests can and cannot take are timely given recent incidents on other Ivy League campuses. For example, at Columbia a Jewish student was attacked, by an anti-Israel demonstrator. In addition, two Israeli students sprayed some Palestinians protestors with a chemical called skunk causing some to require medical attention. These incidents were themselves part of a broader anti-Semitism controversy at Columbia.

However, even if Harvard manages to prevent violent attacks, its anti-Semitism taskforce looks bound to be dogged by controversy. Many objected to the appointment of Derek Penslar, a Harvard professor of Jewish history and director of Jewish studies, as its head. They accused him  of being an apologist for anti-Semites and those who want to see Israel destroyed. 

Penslar’s defenders point out his latest book, Zionism: An Emotional State, was a finalist in the Jewish Book Council’s award for modern Jewish thought and experience. In 2022 he received a lifetime achievement award  from the Association of Israel Studies.

In the febrile atmosphere following the 7 October atrocities all public comments made by anyone connected to the Harvard task force will be closely scrutinised. The right looks set to examine whether they have been critical of Israel while the left will consider whether it regards them as critical enough. This situation might be manageable, but it might have been better to have been guided by the example of Goldsmiths, University London. There an independent senior lawyer was appointed to investigate and make recommendations on how to tackle alleged anti-Semitism on its campus. Goldsmiths cannot be accused of marking its own homework whereas Harvard can.

From the perspective of many Jewish students such measures may be too little too late. CNN reported that Jewish students are cancelling applications to some Ivy League universities.

Liel Leibovitz, editor-at-large at the Tablet magazine, has even gone so far as to suggest American Jews should abandon the American scene altogether. In an article entitled entitled "Get Out" he claimed that they are no longer welcome on campus. He went on to argue that the education offered at American universities has become debased by identity politics and woke ideas. It is therefore not worth having. Leibovitz added that blue chip companies such as Apple, Bank of America, Google and IBM do not require college degrees from job applicants. In his view many other top companies are bound to follow suit.

Liebovitz’s position is somewhat extreme. For example, those wishing to go into medicine will still need a degree. Nor will the prestige of a college degree vanish overnight, at least not among the American public at large. Still Harvard has hardly helped its cause by making the congressional committee feel it necessary to subpoena material. 

Even if Harvard suspends students who contravene its policies there are probably limits on the extent to which it can control events on its campus. The atmosphere looks unlikely to change any time soon. Like other American universities it is paying the price for allowing anti-Semitism to fester for so long.

Guy Whitehouse is a member of the Academy of Ideas and the Free Speech Union. His views do not necessarily reflect those of those organisations.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Radicalism of fools project.

PHOTO: "Derek Penslar" by Derek Penslar is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The aftermath of the 7 October Hamas pogrom in Israel has made the rethinking of anti-Semitism a more urgent task than ever. Both the extent and character of anti-Semitism is changing. Tragically the open expression of anti-Semitic views is once again becoming respectable. It has also become clearer than ever that anti-Semitism is no longer largely confined to the far right. Woke anti-Semitism and Islamism have also become significant forces.

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