They allege that students took over buildings sometimes for days to pursue what the complainants view as an anti-Semitic agenda. It is also claimed that mobs of students harassed and intimidated Jewish students with impunity. Far from disciplining such mobs, on one occasion when a building was taken over, the university authorities provided the occupiers with sweets and burritos. The Jewish students even allege that some faculty staff cancelled classes specifically to enable such harassing behaviour to take place.

The Jewish students accuse Harvard of hiring professors and other faculty staff who call for the annihilation of Jews and who embed anti-Semitism in their teaching material. There are many examples of ways in which Harvard, in line with many other universities, has embedded woke ideas into its courses. Harry R Lewis, a former dean of Harvard, recently outlined how this has worked in an article in Harvard Crimson, the university’s student newspaper. He pointed to numerous courses which included words such as decolonise, intersectionality, liberation, oppression, social justice and white supremacy in their descriptions. These generally involved turning complex social and political histories into simplistic struggles between good and evil. In Lewis’s view these give an academic veneer of respectability to the idea of Jews as devious but successful.

The Jewish students also point to inconsistencies in the way that Harvard applies its anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies. They pointed to an example of a professor being chased out of the university simply for mentioning a disfavoured hypothesis which tried to explain the under-representation of women in the sciences (the professor even said he wanted the hypothesis disproved). By way of contrast repeated requests from Jewish students for action to be taken against those harassing and bullying them were ignored.

Finally, the Jewish students claim that the atmosphere at Harvard has led to a 60% drop in the number of Jewish students studying at the university (the number of those who had felt compelled to abandon Harvard courses they had undertaken might have provided an even more powerful statement as to the effect on Jews there). The complaint quotes an unnamed former president of Harvard as saying that Harvard has an “anti-Semitism cancer”.

The resignation of Claudine Gay as president of Harvard has not improved the situation regarding anti-Semitism there. If anything the situation has got worse. The Times of Israel reports  that an online platform called Sidechat has been flooded with anti-Semitic messages. The only people who can post on the platform are those with a Harvard email address. So this anti-Semitic content has to have come from either students or staff at Harvard. The lawsuit does not mention this, but no doubt this will feature in any court action. Given that Harvard’s  anti-bullying and anti-harassment policy makes it clear that generating an intimidating atmosphere constitutes a breach, the university will struggle to defend the case.

The action against Harvard is one of a growing number of lawsuits brought by Jewish students in America. Rutgers and the University of Pennsylvania are also being sued. 

The tendency to bring legal action against universities may well spread further. Six Canadian universities could face a class action relating to anti-Semitism on their campuses.

These lawsuits are significant on various levels. First, they mark a transition from Jewish students being passive victims. By initiating legal action they have taken ownership of the struggle against the anti-Semitism they experience. That is regardless of whether they go all the way to trial or settle out of court. Taking such an initiative might even facilitate some form of psychological healing.

Second, it means that the campaign against campus anti-Semitism will not be fought only by extremely rich donors suddenly withholding money. It is easy to portray the activities of such donors as bullying. From that premise the attempt by administrators to mend fences can be portrayed as shady and caving into pressure. Court proceedings bring a certain transparency to matters.

Third, they will, at least to some degree, prevent the issue of anti-Semitism being swamped by other culture war issues. For example, Claudine Gay was not forced to resign because of her ridiculous congressional testimony. She was forced out only after accusations of plagiarism received wide coverage in the press. These gave credence to the accusation that she was not appointed president of Harvard because of her academic standing. Instead she was given the position because of the effect of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives in universities. Many progressive Jews do support DEI initiatives. Their position is that anti-Semitic views should be expunged from them rather then scrapping them altogether. Whether this is possible is a moot point.

Finally, the number of lawsuits means that the scourge of campus anti-Semitism is likely to remain in the news. Coverage of incidents of anti-Semitism at Harvard have certainly had an impact. There was a 17% drop in applications for early admission even before Claudine Gay’s much-derided testimony at the congressional hearing. That said, the number of lawsuits is a sad indication of how far the rot has spread.

Inevitably questions of free speech have featured in this sorry saga and will continue to do so. Criticism of Israel cannot be silenced just because Jewish students and donors might find it uncomfortable.

A thoughtful consideration of this can be found on a Identity/Crisis podcast hosted by Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. In an episode entitled Defending liberal values on campus he deliberated on the idea of Jewish students considering anti-Israel activism through three lenses: productive discomfort, unproductive discomfort and threat. Threat is never justified and it is doubtful whether there is any real difference between threat and useless discomfort. Productive discomfort, however, leads to growth. It can also empower Jewish students to deal better with the complexities involved in the controversies surrounding Israel and its history.

It is likely the atmosphere on campus will not improve any time soon. If the war in Gaza goes on for a long while, or the conflict in the Middle East escalates, it may well get worse. It is vital that there is no let-up in the counterattack against anti-Semitic elements on campuses. For example, it would be better, even if potentially more stressful on those students, for lawsuits to go to trial. Administrators could feel exonerated if they are  settled out of court. Things will only improve if the costs of not tackling anti-Semitism are seen to exceed the costs of dealing with it as soon as it manifests.

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: "Harvard University - Eliot House" by roger4336 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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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