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Truth-telling at Harvard

Truth-telling at Harvard

The president of Harvard speaks out against the spread of anti-Semitic actions on elite campuses.


When Lawrence Summers became the president of Harvard last year, not even his greatest admirers predicted how resolutely he would make the university's motto -- "Veritas" -- his own. Almost from the day he was inaugurated, Summers has insisted on speaking unpopular truths: about the disrespect shown to Americans in uniform, about the rot of grade inflation in Harvard's classrooms, about the absence of "mainstream values" among "coastal elites" -- even about the failure of a celebrity professor like Cornel West to do serious academic work.

Last week, voicing another unpopular truth, Summers spoke out against the spread of Jew-bashing -- not only in Europe and at UN conferences, but at American universities.

"There is disturbing evidence of an upturn in anti-Semitism globally, and also... closer to home," he said on Sept. 17. "Profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities. Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent."

Actually, even anti-Semitic intent can be found on American campuses these days. At San Francisco State University, for example, pro-Palestinian demonstrators recently confronted supporters of Israel with signs reading "Jews = Nazis" and chants of "Hitler should have finished the job." Earlier this month, anti-Israel rioters at Concordia University in Montreal smashed windows and hurled furniture to protest a scheduled speech by Benjamin Netanyahu.

Fortunately, such naked Jew-hatred is still rare in academia. What Summers had in mind was something less blatant but no less disgraceful.

"Some here at Harvard and some at universities across the country," he said, "have called for the university to single out Israel among all nations as the lone country where it is inappropriate for any part of the university's endowment to be invested. I hasten to say the university has categorically rejected this suggestion."

The divestment campaign Summers was referring to demands that Israel be treated as a pariah, a country so toxic that American universities shouldn't even own stock in companies that do business there. It is modeled on the anti-apartheid movement of the 1970s and 1980s, and its planted axiom is that there is no important moral difference between Israel -- a free and tolerant democracy at war with dictatorial enemies bent on genocide -- and the former white-ruled South Africa. That is a position only a moral idiot could endorse.

Supporters of the divestment effort at Harvard and elsewhere were quick to condemn Summers for his "McCarthyesque" attack. "This is the ugliest statement imaginable," fumed John Assad, a neurobiology professor at Harvard's medical school, "to paint critics as anti-Semitic."

But Summers didn't "paint critics" as anti-Semitic or anything else; he characterized their actions as "anti-Semitic in their effect." He was not ascribing base motives to those who support the divestment campaign. He didn't presume to read their hearts. Rather, he was pointing out the impact of their behavior. One who supports a campaign that singles out Israel for demonization and obloquy is taking an anti-Semitic action, whether he intends to or not.

It is not "criticism" to accuse Israel of apartheid, when it is the Arab world that preaches "Kill the Jews!" and dances in the street when terrorists do so.

Are Israeli policies fair game for criticism? Of course. But it is not "criticism" to falsely smear Israel as racist -- not when the Arab world seethes with a hatred of Jews more rabid even than the Nazis'.

It is not "criticism" to portray Israel's lawful presence in Gaza and the West Bank as an illegal occupation, yet never murmur a word of objection to China's occupation of Tibet, or Syria's of Lebanon, or Turkey's of Northern Cyprus, or Russia's of Chechnya.

It is not "criticism" to lay the blame for the violence of the Middle East at Israel's doorstep while ignoring the immense risks that Israel has taken and the sacrifices it has made in pursuit of peace with the Palestinians.

It is not "criticism" to accuse Israel of apartheid, when it is the Arab world that preaches "Kill the Jews!" and dances in the street when terrorists do so.

This is not criticism -- it is calumny. It butchers the truth and subjects Israel to an outrageous double standard. It abets the cause of the world's foremost Jew-haters -- people whose explicit goal is the liquidation of the Jewish state. A professor who signs his name to something so grotesque is committing an anti-Semitic act.

"In our own day," Norman Podhoretz once wrote, "Israel has become the touchstone of attitudes toward the Jewish people, and anti-Zionism has become the main and most relevant form of anti-Semitism." Anti-Semitism used to express itself in demanding that good Aryans boycott Jewish shops. Today it demands that good universities boycott the Jewish state. It may look different on the outside, but it's the same old poison underneath.

A Challenge to House Master Hanson

By Alan Dershowitz

September 23, 2002

In my 38 years of teaching at Harvard Law School, I don't recall ever writing in praise of any action by a Harvard president, but this time I must congratulate President Lawrence H. Summers for his willingness to say out loud what many of us in the Harvard community have long believed: namely, that singling out Israel, among all the countries in the world, for divestment, is an action which is anti-Semitic in effect, if not in intent.

A recent open letter by one of the signatories made it clear that he regards Israel as the "pariah" state, a word historically used by anti-Semites to characterize the Jewish people. As an advocate and practitioner of human rights throughout the world, I can confidently assert that Israel's record on human rights is among the best, especially among nations that have confronted comparable threats. Though far from perfect, Israel has shown extraordinary concern for avoiding civilian casualties in its half-century effort to protect its civilians from terrorism. Jordan killed more Palestinians in a single month than Israel has between 1948 and the present.

Israel has the only independent judiciary in the entire Middle East. Its Supreme Court, one of the most highly regarded in the world, is the only court in the Middle East from which an Arab or a Muslim can expect justice, as many have found in winning dozens of victories against the Israeli government, the Israeli military and individual Israeli citizens. There is no more important component in the protection of human rights and civil liberties than an independent judiciary willing to stand up to its own government. I challenge the proponents of divestment to name a court in any Arab or Muslim country that is comparable to the Israeli Supreme Court. Israel is the only country in the region that has virtually unlimited freedom of speech. Any person in Israel whether Jewish, Muslim or Christian can criticize the Israeli government and its leaders. No citizen of any other Middle Eastern or Muslim state can do that without fear of imprisonment or death.

Israel is the only country that has openly confronted the difficult issue of protecting the civil liberties of the ticking bomb terrorist. The Israeli Supreme Court recently ruled that despite the potential benefits of employing non-lethal torture to extract information, the tactic is illegal. Brutal torture, including lethal torture, is commonplace in nearly every other Middle Eastern and Muslim country. Indeed, American authorities sometimes send suspects to Egypt, Jordan and the Philippines precisely because they know that they will be tortured in those countries. Nor is Israel the only country that is occupying lands claimed by others. China, Russia, Turkey, Iraq, Spain, France and numerous other countries control not only land, but people who seek independence. Indeed, among these countries Israel is the only one that has offered statehood, first in 1948 when the Palestinians rejected the UN partition which would have given them a large, independent state and chose instead to invade Israel. Again in the year 2000 Palestinians were offered a state, rejected it and employed terrorism.

There are, of course, difficult issues to be resolved in the Middle East. These include the future of the settlements, the establishment of Palestinian self-governance and the prevention of terrorism. These issues will require compromise on all sides. Members of the Harvard community must be free to criticize Israel when they disagree with its policies or actions, as they criticize any other country in the world whose record is not perfect. But to single out the Jewish state of Israel, as if it were the >worst human rights offender, is bigotry pure and simple. It would be comparable to singling out a black nation for de-legitimation without mentioning worse abuses by white nations. Those who sign the divestment petition should be ashamed of themselves. If they are not, it is up to others to shame them.

Among those who signed this immoral petition was Winthrop House Master Paul Hanson. I wrote to Prof. Hanson challenging him to debate me in the Common Room of Winthrop House about his decision to sign the petition. He refused, citing "other priorities." I can imagine few priorities more pressing than to justify to his students why he is willing to single out Israel for special criticism. Accordingly, I hereby request an invitation from the students of Winthrop House to conduct such a debate, either with Hanson present or with an empty chair on which the petition which he signed would be featured. Universities should encourage widespread debate and discussion about divisive and controversial issues. A House master who peremptorily signs a petition and then hides behind "other priorities" does not serve the interests of dialogue and education. I hope that Hanson will accept my challenge, and that if he does not, that I will be invited by his students to help fill the educational gap left by the cowardice of those who have signed this petition and refuse to defend their actions in public debate. >

Let me propose an alternative to singling out Israel for divestment: let Harvard choose nations for investment in the order of the human rights records. If that were done, investment in Israel would increase dramatically, while investments in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Philippines, Indonesia, the Palestinian Authority and most other countries of the world would decrease markedly.

Alan M. Dershowitz is Frankfurter professor of law at Harvard Law School.

September 28, 2002

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 12

(12) Richard Garcia, August 20, 2003 12:00 AM

Yasher Koach to Lawrence Summers

Academia needs more of the ilk of Lawrence Summers. It is refreshing to find a university president who is not afraid to confront injustice even when doing so in some cases is not "politically correct" and alienates him from a (sadly) huge number of his faculty members. While I was no big fan of Bill Clinton, I have to give him some credit for having at least one person with backbone and principles in his cabinet.

Of course, Israel (and to a lesser extent the U.S.) is the last country that it's safe to hate. Many in academia have such a knee-jerk impulse to support the underdog - don't they realize that since the majority (vocal, anyway) of those in academia are against Israel, Israel is once again the underdog.

Somehow I don't think that they appreciate the irony.

(11) Gary Selikow, June 15, 2003 12:00 AM

The perfidy of the hard left

It is clear to see that those forces who oppose the modest claims of the Jewish people to a small homeland , are the same forces who oppose democracy and freedom throughout the world.
today it takes the form of the battle There is a battle for the soul of the world between the believers in Judeo-Chrisitan/Western/democratic values on the one side and the hard left/Islamic alliance ,whose ultimate aim is the total destruction of Judeo-Christian and Western civilization , on the other.
The recent 'anti-war marches' in the West where organized by the Workers World Party, which supports suicide bombings against Jewish women and children, as well as supporting every brutal dictatorship on this planet.
The United Nations is dominated by a lobby of nations who are a collectivity of every brutal dictatorship on this planet. They support totalitarianism as a principle and are always the most vociferously anti-Israel
Throughout the world the universities are dominated by these same forces who justify every tyrant regime and terrorist organization as part of the battle against the cardboard bogeys set up by the left : 'colonialism' , 'imperialism' and 'globalization'.
Thus they will use the struggle against ‘colonialism’, 'imperialism' and 'globalization’ to justify and encourage the killing of Israeli women and children, and totalitarian brutality in regimes such as Red China, Cuba, Libya , Syria , Zimbabwe , Venezuela etc.
It is no wonder that these forces which have no respect for human life will terrorize students on campus who don’t conform to their sick and twisted ideas.

(10) Sharon Spicka, October 14, 2002 12:00 AM

Finally a moral and informed voice from the academic world.

As a result of living in a media-controlled, agenda-driven world of misinformation, the moral and informed voices are often drowned out. Thank you for people of such stature as the president of Harvard who is not remaining silent at the sight of injustice and hypocrisy.

(9) Menachem Ben Yakov, October 3, 2002 12:00 AM

Reply to Ms.Rootenberg

This "conference of antisemites" ( a rally calling for Israels destruction ) , will be allowed to convene as scheduled by the University of Michigan on Oct.12.
Despite the forewarning major jewish organisations have taken little action. Anyone who writes a check to any jewish organisation should contact them and demand they respond with actions, not words,
I understand that there is an Aish chapter reunion scheduled for that same weekend at the U of M.
I know of many people who would be happy to get on a bus in NY and join our brothers and sisters in a counter demonstration.
Perhaps Aish will step up to the plate.
eMails to subscibers and space on the website would go a long way in helping.
This trend to antisemitism on campus will produce one thing for sure...antisemetic voters.
The time to act is now.

(8) Geoff, October 2, 2002 12:00 AM

Glad that Harvard is dealing with a persistent problem

I thank the author and the President of Harvard for highlighting a difficult issue. Here in the UK campuses around the country are staging anti-Israel rallies and disguising these as non anti-semitic. That is a flagrant violation of the truth. Jews have an inherent right to self-determination. Any challenge to that from Arab quarters across the globe from Hamas to the alleged "intellectuals" on campus is unambiguously and unequivocally anti-semitic.

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