At Harvard and Beyond, Some Students Blame Israel for Hamas Attacks

New York University School of Law
New York University School of Law, Nov. 6, 2021. (ajay_suresh via Creative Commons via

By Andrew Lapin

Hours after news broke that Hamas had murdered hundreds of Israelis in border towns near Gaza, students at Harvard University sat down to write a letter of protest.

The letter, titled “Joint Statement by Harvard Palestine Solidarity Groups on the Situation in Palestine,” does not mince words. It opens, “We, the undersigned student organizations, hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.”

Expressing no sympathy for the hundreds of Israeli victims, the dozens of student groups — including representatives of Palestinian, Arab, Black, Bengali, Pakistani, South Asian and Sikh student associations  — instead focused on Israel’s historic treatment of Palestinians and stated plans to retaliate against Hamas in Gaza.

“The apartheid regime is the only one to blame,” it reads, concluding, “The coming days will require a firm stand against colonial retaliation. We call on the Harvard community to take action to stop the ongoing annihilation of Palestinians.”

The student letter was joined by at least two others, at Columbia University and New York University, that targeted Israel for condemnation. Students at other schools made pro-Palestinian social media posts and held pro-Palestinian demonstrations this week, some linking Hamas’ actions to Indigenous Peoples Day.

Taken together, the activities — and the responses they generated — are a sign that the campus wars over Israel, already a lightning rod for controversy, are reigniting in the aftermath of Hamas’ attacks.

Antisemitism watchdogs say campuses are already a hotbed of anti-Israel activity, and a Palestinian culture festival at the University of Pennsylvania induced an early-in-the-semester flareup of debate last month.

Now, Students for Justice in Palestine, a national group with chapters at major universities across the United States, has declared Hamas’ operation to be “a historic win for the Palestinian resistance” and called for a “Day of Resistance” on Thursday.

The group is encouraging local chapters to hold demonstrations to “continue to resist directly through dismantling Zionism” and distributed a list of talking points that stated, “When people are occupied, resistance is justified,” declared that “settlers are not ‘civilians’ in the sense of international law,” and framed Hamas’ actions as “Gaza broke out of prison.”

Some Jewish students have expressed concern about the group’s plans. “Although these are all non-violent tactics, they raise the real possibility of creating a hostile environment for Jewish students, and the confrontational spirit that permeates the toolkit raises the concern that these actions could lead to acts of harassment or vandalism targeting Jewish students and organizations,” the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement about SJP’s “Day of Resistance.”

Whatever happens on Thursday, it’s clear that the attack on Israel has given rise to a new third rail in campus discourse about Israel, around who deserves blame for Saturday’s unprecedented violence against Israelis. Here’s what has happened at three universities where the third rail has already been touched this week.

At Harvard, administrators leave 30 student groups’ letter unanswered for days

Even as Harvard and other schools have held numerous vigils and demonstrations for victims of the attacks, the letter has quickly prompted widespread condemnation from campus Jewish groups, influential Harvard alumni and beyond.

“In nearly 50 years of Harvard affiliation, I have never been as disillusioned and alienated as I am today,” Lawrence Summers, the Jewish former Harvard president and former U.S. Treasury Secretary, posted on X Monday.

One Jewish group, Harvard Jews for Liberation, also signed the letter; the group, which originated out of Harvard Divinity School, calls itself a “spiritual and political space for anti-Zionist and non-Zionist Jews at Harvard.” A Jewish Telegraphic Agency request for comment to a student listed as one of the group’s lead organizers was not returned.

Harvard and Columbia’s presidents did not immediately issue official statements about the attacks. Harvard President Claudine Gay and 17 other senior officials released a statement on the attack on Monday, two days after the student groups’ statement. Gay, the school’s provost and top deans did attend events marking the attack, including a “solidarity dinner” at Hillel, according to a report in the Crimson, the student newspaper.

The statement said administrators were “heartbroken by the death and destruction unleashed by the attack by Hamas that targeted citizens in Israel this weekend, and by the war in Israel and Gaza now under way.” It added that the violence “hits all too close to home for many at Harvard,” and expressed the hope that “we can all take steps that will draw on our common humanity and shared values in order to modulate rather than amplify the deep-seated divisions and animosities so distressingly evident in the wider world.”

But this statement was also criticized by alumni, with Democratic U.S. Rep. Jake Auchincloss, who is Jewish, denouncing it as “word salad approved by committee.”

The issue was particularly potent at Harvard, which has recently served as a flashpoint for different facets of the Israel campus debate. Last year, a range of alumni and community members also denounced the Crimson’s endorsement of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel.

And earlier this year, the Ivy League school extended a fellowship offer to Ken Roth, a fierce Israel critic and former Human Rights Watch director, after receiving broad pushback for earlier denying his appointment, reportedly for his views on Israel. (Roth, who remains a fellow at Harvard while also accepting a visiting professorship at Princeton, has denounced the Hamas attacks on Twitter, calling them “an egregious war crime” and adding, “War crimes by one side never justify war crimes by the other. Is either side listening?”)

“I think a lot of us were disappointed that our peers at Harvard Law School would sign such a letter,” Erica Newman-Corre, co-president of the law school’s Jewish Law Student Association and a Harvard College alum, told JTA. “In law school there’s a lot of focus on nuance and conversation, and we felt that the letter wasn’t consistent with those values of law students.”

Newman-Corre does not typically use her phone on Shabbat but turned it on when she heard news of Israel because she has family currently visiting the country. Her family is now safe, but the campus climate over the issue has upset many Jewish students, she said.

“Over my years at Harvard there’s been some anti-Israel sentiment, but it’s never pervasive and it’s never felt like I can’t go about my daily life without experience or noticing it,” she said. “This is obviously a more extreme moment.”

Frustrated Jewish Harvard student groups and alumni circulated a statement of their own condemning the one by the solidarity group.

“The statement signed by the Palestine Solidarity Committee and dozens of other student groups blaming Israel for the aforementioned attacks is completely wrong and deeply offensive,” reads a “Joint Statement on War in Israel” signed by more than a dozen Jewish Harvard groups, hundreds of faculty and staff and thousands of other individuals including several alumni.

“There are no justifications for acts of terror we have seen in the past days,” the letter continues. “We call on all the student groups who co-signed the statement to retract their signatures from the offensive letter.”

Among the signatories: Harvard Hillel, Harvard Chabad, emeritus professor and prominent pro-Israel advocate Alan Dershowitz, divinity school visiting scholar Rabbi David Wolpe, novelist and alum Dara Horn, Newman-Corre, and dozens of Harvard Medical School professors. Some public figures who are not Harvard alums, including New York Democratic Rep. Richie Torres, also signed.

“It’s kind of shocking to know that we’re sitting in classes with peers who are blaming our people for our people’s own murders and rapes,” Jacob Miller, the student president of Harvard Hillel and an initial drafter of the open letter, told JTA. “And I would say that this is very antisemitic. I don’t know how Jewish students are going to handle this. I don’t know how Jewish students are expected to move forward living in this campus environment and attending classes with students who are so callous.”

Following the oppositional letter, Gay issued a second statement about Israel Tuesday, which Harvard published online but did not immediately email to students. In it, she specifically condemned Hamas.

“Such inhumanity is abhorrent, whatever one’s individual views of the origins of longstanding conflicts in the region,” Gay wrote. Then, referencing the initial letter, she added, “While our students have the right to speak for themselves, no student group — not even 30 student groups — speaks for Harvard University or its leadership.”

By late Tuesday, several of the student groups had removed their names from the initial letter, with leaders telling the Crimson they had not been made aware their organizations had signed on, and some saying they hadn’t read the statement. Others issued statements of their own condemning Hamas. The college also said that students involved in groups that signed the letter were seeing their personal information leaked online, while Jewish hedge-fund manager and Harvard alum Bill Ackman wrote on X that other CEOs want Harvard to release names of every group participant “so as to insure that none of us inadvertently hire any of their members.”

Student groups say Columbia’s support for Israeli students constitutes ‘discrimination against Palestinians’

Meanwhile at Columbia, a longer statement from student Palestinian solidarity groups said they would mourn “the tragic losses experienced by both Palestinians and Israelis” while also asserting, “The weight of responsibility for the war and casualties undeniably lies with the Israeli extremist government and other Western governments, including the U.S. government, which fund and staunchly support Israeli aggression, apartheid and settler-colonization.”

It adds, “If every political avenue available to Palestinians is blocked, we should not be surprised when resistance and violence break out.”

The letter goes on to call on Columbia to end its connections with Israel, including its center in Tel Aviv and partnership with Tel Aviv University, and criticizes university statements to students about the attacks as “discrimination against Palestinians” for only mentioning Israeli students. (One such email was sent to the university’s School of General Studies, which is popular among Israeli military veterans.)

Two dozen student groups had signed the letter as of Wednesday morning, representing Palestinians, women of color, South Asian law students and queer and trans people of color, among others. As in the Harvard letter, an anti-Zionist Jewish group, the Columbia chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, also signed. Emails sent to the group via a listed email address bounced back.

Without referencing the letter, the president of Columbia’s law student senate issued his own statement condemning the Hamas attacks.

Columbia’s president, Minouche Shafik, issued her own statement on the conflict Monday. “I was devastated by the horrific attack on Israel this weekend and the ensuing violence that is affecting so many people,” wrote Shafik, an Egyptian-born legal scholar and former World Bank executive who is in her first semester heading the university. The school hosted former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on a webinar Tuesday to discuss the situation in Israel.

A prominent NYU student leader blames Israel — and loses a post-graduation job offer

While the Harvard and Columbia letters were made up of smaller student groups, NYU’s originated with a more prominent student leader. On the front page of the law school student bar association’s newsletter this week, their president stated, “I want to express, first and foremost, my unwavering and absolute solidarity with Palestinians in their resistance against oppression toward liberation and self-determination. Israel bears full responsibility for this tremendous loss of life.”

Refusing to condemn “Palestinian resistance,” Ryna Workman instead provided a long list of other things they condemned, including “the violence of apartheid,” “the violence of collective punishment,” and “the violence in removing historical context.” They concluded, “Palestine will be free.”

Workman’s statement upset Jewish law students at NYU, with some exploring whether they can be removed from their presidency. “The SBA President’s statement was shocking,” current law student Nathaniel Berman told JTA. “I am hoping for a forceful response from the administration, but not holding my breath.”

David Friedman, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel under President Donald Trump and is an NYU law school alum, called on his fellow alumni to “cut them off” and not to hire “a single one of their students” over Workman’s letter. “If this is their takeaway from the Hamas massacre of 1000 Jews, let’s hope their next organization is called ‘The Idiot Unemployed Lawyers Association,” he wrote on X.

Late Tuesday, the law firm of Winston & Strawn, which had extended an offer of employment to Workman, announced in a statement that it had rescinded the offer.

“These comments are profoundly in conflict with Winstron & Strawn’s values as a firm,” the unsigned statement read. “Winston stands in solidarity with Israel’s right to exist in peace and condemns Hamas and the violence and destruction it has ignited in the strongest terms possible.”

The dean of NYU’s law school, Troy McKenzie, also condemned Workman’s letter in an email to students Tuesday afternoon. The message, McKenzie wrote, “certainly does not express my own views, because I condemn the killing of civilians and acts of terrorism as always reprehensible.”

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