Larry Summers: Antisemitism Comes to Harvard, in Both Intent and Effect

by May 6, 2022Education

Apart from raw animus against the Jewish State, how could any thoughtful person today regard Russia and Israel on the same plane when Russia is waging a war of aggression?

The campus of Harvard University at Cambridge, Massachusetts. AP/Elise Amendola, file

During my presidency of Harvard 20 years ago I warned that “serious and thoughtful people are advocating measures that would be antisemitic in their effect if not their intent.” 

In light of the recent exhibition by the Palestinian Solidarity Committee in Harvard Yard and the resounding endorsement of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions by the Harvard Crimson, it is clear to me that antisemitism is being practiced in both intent and effect.

To be clear at the outset, free expression must be sacrosanct in an academic community. The PSC and the Crimson have every right to express their view no matter how upsetting it may be to others. Academic freedom, though, does not mean freedom from criticism or the right to have contemptible views treated with respect. It is no shield against moral bankruptcy.  

This has long been recognized at Harvard as, say, when Drew Faust was president and deemed a student-led Black Mass — a ritual performed by satanic cults to parody the Catholic Church — to be abhorrent and a fundamental affront to academic values of inclusion even as she ruled out any suggestion that event be banned. 

Likewise when controversial conservative scholar Charles Murray was invited to speak at Harvard, a variety of communications were sent to students labeling him a practitioner of racist pseudoscience.

So there is nothing “anti-First Amendment” about calling out antisemitism. Indeed not identifying and attacking antisemitism in our midst would be a major moral failing, especially when it comes in conjunction with proposals to instrumentalize the university by having it engage in antisemitism.

The question that remains is whether the BDS agenda enthusiastically embraced by the PSC and the Crimson is in fact antisemitic. The Crimson and other BDS proponents ​​condemn antisemitism and note that there are people of Jewish descent who support BDS. That is true.

It’s also true that President Trump asserts firmly that he is not racist and can point to prominent African-American supporters and to having received more than a million votes from African Americans. At Harvard we don’t consider such assertions “arguments.”

It is, of course, wrong to suggest that criticism of Israeli policy or of the circumstances of Israel’s founding are per se antisemitic. Many who are appalled by the Crimson’s embrace of BDS have themselves been fiercely critical of Israeli settlements policy and Israel’s approach to its Arab population.

Where then does BDS cross the line? By singling out the world’s only Jewish state for opprobrium in a way totally disproportionate to its deficiencies. How many members of the Crimson’s Editorial Board are aware that the BDS website points up “Western Academy’s Hypocrisy: Sanctions Against Russia but not Israel?”

Apart from raw animus against the Jewish State, how could any thoughtful person today regard Russia and Israel on the same plane when Russia is waging a war of aggression, murdering civilians, bombing maternity hospitals, and creating 5 million refugees?

BDS hypocrisy does not end there. Compare the safety of Arab residents in Israel with that of Jews in the West Bank. Compare the incidence of terrorist bombings in Israel with military action against the Palestinians. Widen the aperture beyond Israel and the occupied territories. The perspective changes dramatically, and not in favor of the boycotters.  

In a world where women are stoned for showing their faces, where professors are jailed for teaching the wrong materials, where Muslims are placed in concentration camps and genocides continue, what can justify singling out only Israeli academics for boycott?

These issues are of course not new and have been extensively considered by the government of the United States and the international community. The United States State Department, along with 31 other nations comprising the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, define antisemitism and include examples of antisemitism.

These include:

  • Drawing comparisons of current Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
  • Applying double standards to Israel not expected of other democratic countries.
  • Claiming that the State of Israel is a racist endeavor. 
  • Validating Holocaust deniers as legitimate participants in historical debates

In these cases and more, BDS has unquestionably shown itself antisemitic. If the centerpiece of the BDS agenda is an academic boycott of Israel, how does this square with the First Amendment values the Crimson editorialists profess to embrace? 

If speech should not be silenced because views are problematic, how can it be right to stop scholars from publishing or teaching because they hold the passport of a country whose government is pursuing problematic policies? 

The further irony is that the majority of Israeli academics have opposed aggressive Israeli policies in the occupied territories. 

I hope the Crimson will see how wrong its editorial is and withdraw it. At a minimum I hope its anonymous authors will take responsibility for the views they have expressed. 

I call on all members of the Harvard community, including its current leadership, to make clear their righteous opposition to BDS’s antisemitism and those organizations who support it.

 President Summers was the 27th president of Harvard University. He served in the Clinton administration as the 71st United States treasury secretary.

Opinion piece was originally published in the New York Sun



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