Outspoken Jewish Students

A chilling undercurrent of anti-Semitism surfaced this spring on the Harvard campus. On the morning of April 2, nearly 80 first-year Harvard Law students received fliers in their mailboxes bearing a swastika and anti-Semitic statements. “I hope you all rot [in] hell with your yamukas [sic],” the flier reads, reported Stephanie M. Skier in The Harvard Crimson.

Although there is no direct connection between this flier and criticism of Israel, many Jewish students, particularly those coming from predominantly Jewish high schools and communities, were shocked by both the anti-Semitism and the growing anti-Israel sentiment. Departing African-American studies professor Cornel R. West drew unfavorable comparisons between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Jewish Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers. A Crimson op-ed piece published April 11th by second-year law student Faisal Chaudhry raised similar issues. Chaudhry’s description of “Israel’s racist colonial occupation” received responses from numerous students, including Harvard’s resident on-screen royalty, Natalie Portman. Portman replied that “most Israelis and Palestinians are indistinguishable physically. . . Israelis and Arabs are historically cousins.”

West’s and Chaudhry’s statements comparing Israelis to racial oppressors seem to represent surging campus opinion. An art exhibit entitled “Innocence under Fire” was mounted at Harvard in March. Sponsored by the Society of Arab Students and organized by the Chicago-based Palestinian arts council al-Phan, the exhibit featured drawings by Palestinian children of heavily armed Israeli soldiers attacking unarmed Palestinian youth. The exhibit was well advertised on student e-mail lists and posters around campus.

In May, 39 Harvard faculty members signed a divestment petition, which Chaudhry helped organize, calling for Harvard to drop investments in Israeli companies and U.S. firms selling weapons to Israel. Soon, other Harvard faculty, students and alums e-mailed Harvard’s president protesting the divestiture proposal.

In the face of these rising sentiments. Harvard Hillel has been busy. Hillel members have been engaged in productive conversation with opposing contingents. One discussion group of Arab and Jewish students has met regularly to “listen to each other, respect each other’s right to hold a different opinion, and in that way increase our understanding about the complexity of the situation through a repeated, personal exchange,” writes Eli Kramer, the group’s coordinator.

While acknowledging different viewpoints, Hillel on the whole shows strong support for Zionism. Israel Independence Day celebrations went on as planned. And a large contingent of students, organized by Hillel staff, traveled to Washington, D.C., for the April rally in support of Israel. Non-Hillel affiliates have also shown their support for Israel through responses published in The Crimson. Anti-divestment op-eds have been published, and protest letters circulated. But the question remains whether Harvard’s non-Jewish population will be drawn into the anti-Israeli rhetoric or will resist it. The campus at the close of the term is teetering between fierce but open political discussion and skewed polemics.