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“Smelly Jews” and Harvard
Rabbi Benjamin Blech

“Smelly Jews” and Harvard

The student’s offensive remark was not only anti-Semitic, it violated the sanctity of all human beings.


It isn’t just Jews who should have been horrified by what happened at Harvard. The story was far more than an illustration of vile anti-Semitism at one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the world. It demonstrated the profound failure of our contemporary educational system to include as one of its most important concerns the goal of civilized behavior.

The Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, co-sponsored by the Jewish Law Students Association and Harvard Hillel, hosted a conversation between former Israeli Minister Tzipi Livni and American Diplomat Dennis Ross. After the presentation of alternate views on the political situation between Israel and the Palestinians, a question-and-answer period followed. This was an opportunity for Harvard’s “best and the brightest” to address their concerns and to share their insights. One of the students indicated he had a question for the Israeli representative.

“My question is for Tzipi Livni – how is it that you are so smelly?”

When his question induced puzzlement, he followed up: “It’s regarding your odor – about the odor of Tzipi Livni, very smelly.”

“How was it that you are so smelly?” was regarded as offensive by many of those present because it was viewed as a specifically anti-Semitic barb. Jeremy Salinger, Jacqueline Wolpoe, and Jonathan Gartner, the current co-presidents and immediate past president of the Jewish Law Students Association, made clear the direct links between the “smelly Jew” accusation and stereotype of the Jew for centuries as “smelly and dirty.”

While the identity of the law student who was the source of this inflammatory “question” was concealed for a number of days by Harvard University, it subsequently became known , and the young man, Husam El-Qoulaq, was adamant in his own defense in insisting that he had no previous knowledge of this particular insult’s history of anti-Semitic overtones.

And that, remarkably enough, made Husam certain that he did nothing wrong and his behavior was perfectly justifiable.

Following in the vein of today’s non-apologetic apologies, Husam then publicly wrote a disclaimer: “I am writing to apologize, as sincerely as I can via this limited form of communication, to anyone who may have felt offended by the comments I made last week.” He writes to apologize if anyone may have felt offended – which Husam clearly doesn’t believe they should feel. “To be very clear, as there seems to be some confusion, I would never, ever, ever call anyone, under any circumstances, a ‘smelly Jew’. Such a comment is utterly repugnant, and I am absolutely horrified that some readers have been led to believe that I would ever say such a thing.”

Lack of civility makes impossible the very existence of civilized society.

Of course the whole thing started because that’s precisely what Husam did say – but take the soon-to-be graduated Harvard lawyer’s word for it that he would never ever, under any circumstances, call anyone a “smelly Jew” – except maybe Tzipi Livni who for some reason doesn’t count in his supposed confessional.

Sure enough, eleven Jews at the university wrote an open letter criticizing those who condemned Husam for his outburst. His supporters are appalled that he is “a victim of a vicious smear campaign.”

What amazes me is the fact that the focus has consistently emphasized the anti-Semitic aspect of this outrageous incident, as if only racism warranted our disapproval. His obnoxious and uncivilized behavior has remained free from criticism and condemnation. Rudeness, insolence, disrespect and discourtesy violate the sanctity of all human beings, not merely against a specific group. Lack of civility makes impossible the very existence of civilized society.

Jewish tradition powerfully makes the point by way of the way in which we observe the days preceding Shavuot, the holiday commemorating the divine gift of the Torah to the Jewish people. These days should have been marked by joy and happy anticipation. Instead they have become a time of sadness and mourning. That is because in Talmudic times a plague struck the students of Rabbi Akiva, during which thousands of them died. The rabbis, in their wisdom, however knew the cause of this tragedy. It was because the scholars, with all their learning, “did not show respect one to another”. Their behavior belied their intellect. Their insensitivity canceled out the blessing of their scholarship. And that is a lesson that needs very much to be understood in our times.

Common courtesy, what in Hebrew is known as derech eretz, precedes even Torah. How tragic that Harvard has somehow been unable to transmit that idea and ideal to its brilliant scholars.

May 14, 2016

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Visitor Comments: 60

(56) CHARLIE, September 5, 2017 1:52 PM


The blacks used to be considered "smelly" not so long ago. As for the "jewish" defenders of the obviously antisemite muslim who insulted "unknowingly" the smelly definitely applies to them. Their disgusting defense of the "innocent" muslim does not augur well for their future career.

(55) Asher, May 7, 2017 8:40 AM

Smelly is a well known and growing anti-semitic perjury

In modern and current anti-Semitic conduct, describing (verbally or non-verbally) Jews as smelly is prevalent in the UK, Europe and elsewhere. It started in medieval times and is linked to Jews being poor, begging, wandering in rags etc. Like lots of anti-Semitic canards, it is the opposite of the truth since observant Jews have always practiced standards of cleanliness and hygiene far in excess of gentiles. Washing in morning, after bathroom and before meals, mikvah and weekly erev Shabbat. Not to forget the annual Pesach cleaning etc. While actually saying 'you are a smelly Jew' to ones face is rare, non-verbal forms are common. For instance the well-timed sniff as people walk past. Also holding or touching of the nose. In some cases people wrap a scarf or hanky across nose and mouth. These are all increasingly common and socially acceptable amongst gentiles

(54) Deborah, June 9, 2016 3:47 PM

Definitely Anti-Semitic

If a white person asked me why I was so smelly, I would be well within my rights to pronounce that a racist comment, as this slur has been used against black people for centuries. So I can understand the rage against this comment. It was anti-Semitic and his feigned innocence is disturbing.

(53) Anonymous, May 25, 2016 10:22 PM

What Jews forget

It is a Jewish halacha law that Esau hates Jacob.

They need no reason. It is impure hate. It will never stop.

Jews must comport and conduct themselves so that these swine do not even think of approaching them.

Unfortunately Tzipi Livni does not adhere to authentic Jewish religious tradition.

If she did this treif animal would have had fear and trepidation to approach a Jewish women in anything but the most respectful manner.

(52) Thom McCann, May 25, 2016 10:12 PM

Answer to anti-Semites

Tzipi Livni should have asked him outright ,"How come you are an anti-Semite?"

These seemingly small slights to Jews add up to the blatant anti-Semitism that grew like a cancer in Nazi Germany.

It took a few years but the tactic worked as the language was used to dehumanize Jews as roaches that could be murdered without a second thought by a brainwashed German nation.

This slander and calumny should be stopped dead in its tracks—especially on campuses—because it has already deteriorated into vile hatred and violence against Jewish students.

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