Kent Osband

A Simple Test for Harvard

As a Jewish Harvard alum, I am puzzled by President Gay’s stance on calls for genocide of Jews. On the one hand, she assured Congress three times that this could be protected speech at Harvard, depending on context. On other hand, in the context of subsequent uproar, she blamed the Congressional context for undue reference to context and proclaimed “Calls for violence against the Jewish community […] are vile, they have no place at Harvard.” I am eager to learn the underlying truth, or as Harvardians like to say, the veritas. Fortunately, there’s a simple test: Should the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” have a place at Harvard?

“Free” has abundant meanings. Its primary usage points to “free of charge”. For example, protestors might demand that music festivals near Gaza be free, which would help explain paragliders sailing in getting incensed about their need for tickets. However, this does not justify their mass rapes and slaughter of ticketholders. So let us examine more political interpretations.

Does free mean “free of autocracy or censorship”? If so, why focus on freeing up what is by far the freest country in the region?

Perhaps free means “free of discrimination against minority ethnic groups or religions”. Israel is far from blameless there. However, how is its treatment of Arab citizens or even of Arabs in the occupied West Bank remotely as bad as the displacement of Jews from Muslim-run states or their mistreatment of Kurds, Yazidis, and Christians?

If free means “free migration for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank”, why focus only on Israel’s restrictions? Lebanon has kept most Palestinian residents stateless for generations, as has Syria. Jordan has blocked Palestinian refugees for over 50 years. Egypt blockades Gaza and threatens war if Gazans move into thinly populated Sinai.

If free means “free return of the descendants of peoples displaced after WW II”, why no attention to the roughly 15 million Germans displaced from central and eastern Europe? This was the largest single ethnic cleansing in recorded history. Poland’s Gdansk was German Danzig. Russia’s Kaliningrad was German Konigsberg. Kaliningrad isn’t even contiguous to the rest of Russia. Why no liberation cries to return it?

Given the English-language ambiguities of “free”, let’s look for corresponding slogans in Arabic. The original and best-rhyming Arabic version is reportedly not “Palestine will be free” but “Palestine is Arab”. Another reportedly favored Arabic version is “Palestine is Islamic”. Those sentiments are enshrined in Hamas’s charter. It seems Islamophobic not to acknowledge that.

Let’s cut to the chase. The only long-standing, consistent, panlingual meaning of “Palestine will be free” is “free of Jews”, as in the Nazi aims of “Judenfrei”. Gazan experience after Israel’s withdrawal in 2005 demonstrated that. No Jews were allowed to stay. Every sign of Jewish presence was destroyed.

To be clear, many sloganeers wish this were not so. They aspire for peace, love and understanding. They want Israel to remove its fences, lay down its arms, and spread its bounty of prosperity, human capital, and human rights to millions of Palestinians. They want Israel to melt hate through unrestricted immigration and perpetual appeasement. They dismiss genocidal calls as rhetorical excess, not to be taken seriously.

Those are beautiful fig leaves, which I too once cherished. But October 7 has stripped them away. The attacks brought a trifecta of brazenly genocidal aims, unapologetic live-streamed savagery, and boastful pledges to repeat whenever possible. If even 10% of Gazans and West Bankers condone terror and genocide – when Palestinians’ own polls indicate a commanding majority – few Israeli Jews will survive and none will live in peace. And the would-be victors have made no secret of their desire to “globalize the intifada” and extend their Jew-free realm.

That leaves only one way for the slogan to reclaim a non-genocidal interpretation, namely, to call for a Palestine free of Jew-haters. However, that would make it synonymous with “From the river to the sea, Israel will be free”. Increasing numbers of Israelis proclaim that too, with the twist that they would expel Jew-haters to Sinai, Jordan and beyond. Not genocide, but mass displacement, which the sloganeers consistently reject. And what most goads Israelis toward that? The calls to rid the region of Jews. It makes no sense to blame Israel for Palestinian bloodthirst without blaming the bloodthirst for Israel’s reaction.

In short, a Harvard that has no place for genocide of Jews should have no place for the “river to the sea” slogan. Its associations and thrust are far more life-threatening than “all lives matter”, “be color-blind”, “build the wall”, or “women don’t have penises”—phrases that would cast their utterers beyond the Harvard pale. Stop pretending otherwise. We can tolerate a huge range of disagreement about Israel, its neighbors, and our own society without exulting in thinly veiled threats of genocide.

Granted, many in the Harvard community disagree. To them, Liberation trumps Genocide and might even require it. Fine, give them their say. Host a long, fair, respectful debate about the slogan and livestream it to the world. Let Harvard brainiacs trumpet their reason, their distortions of reason, and their flights from reason. As Orwell said, there are some ideas so stupid only intellectuals can believe them.

l too would prefer a public debate to impromptu cancellation. The latter will be spun as Jewish assault on free speech and will prompt a treasure hunt for euphemisms. Worse, it would leave most Harvard students and faculty near-clueless about the points I raised above. I want them to realize what the slogan implicitly calls for and how unfairly it targets one nation. That’s bound to encourage more genuine compassion, however Harvard opts to package it.

Of course, students and faculty elsewhere aren’t much better informed than Harvard’s, even if they’re less arrogant about their ignorance. I hope campuses everywhere will host similar debates. I ask Jewish students and faculty to especially press for them, partly to defend Israel’s right to exist, but even more to defend  Enlightenment values that all humanity needs.

About the Author
Kent Osband graduated Harvard magna cum laude and received a PhD in economics from UC Berkeley. He worked for major financial institutions including the IMF, the World Bank, and Goldman Sachs, with primary focus on early warnings of major crises and recovery efforts after. He has published three books on financial risk analysis and one book on calculus for kids.
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