Judy Halper
Left is not a dirty word

An open letter to Prof. Claudine Gay

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Dear Prof. Gay,

Since you in America have little compunction about pronouncing on events here, many of which you (Americans, in general, and undergraduates, in particular) clearly do not grasp, please allow me to weigh in on an issue that was widely covered in the US news – your resignation as president of Harvard University.

The opinions were all over the spectrum, from explaining why your resignation was necessary to trying to convince me you were being persecuted.

I skimmed those, but read your opinion piece in the New York Times. And I must say, I found it fairly self-serving.

If I wore a hat, I would take it off to you: I have nothing but respect for those who admit to their mistakes and take the consequences. Resigning is a noble act that I would love to see emulated here. And I am not qualified to assess your academic record, to decide whether you were appointed to your position because of appearances or because you were genuinely the best candidate for the job. I imagine the answer is some of both, but we will never know. The truth is, one can be a mediocre researcher but an excellent university president, and vice versa. The requirements barely overlap.

I was disappointed because you referred to your failings to protect Jewish students, to admit that Hamas is a terrorist organization and to denounce the events of Oct 7 in my country as mere “mistakes.” To us, your mistake was to state in a public hearing that in some cases, it is allowable to call for genocide. There was only one right answer to the question you were asked – no matter who was asking or why – and that answer was: No. That is the test you failed. It was a test of your abilities as the leader of a renowned university. All you had to do was answer no to a simple question.

As a potential subject of said genocide, I’m still a bit puzzled. After telling me you should have done more to protect Jewish students and to state the obvious about the brutal attack here, you still left me with an open question: Why? Even if it was a mistake, what made you say that in some cases it is acceptable to call for genocide?

I find your response especially puzzling in light of the fact that you claim to investigate diversity and the ways that opening the doors of power to marginalized minorities can strengthen American democracy. Can you write that with a straight face while ignoring the doors that marginalized Jews fought to open just two generations ago? Can you explain to me: In what cases should someone get to decide that an entire people should be erased from the face of the Earth?

I agree with you that the problem is larger than you, but it is also older than you. Many years ago, when I was a student at a progressive California university, the issue was neither Gaza nor Palestine, but South Africa. The Jewish students’ organization on campus dove into the uprising, silk screening shirts and printing pamphlets. Until we were abruptly told by the protest organizers that we were not welcome to join, because Israel, at that time, sold arms to South Africa. Avowals from the non-Zionists, Maoists and Leninists among us had no effect.

That event stayed with me – the underlying racism dressed in cliches, supported by a large segment of the university population. It played a role in my decision to immigrate to Israel and make my home here.

Academic freedom is clearly crucial, and it is clearly under attack in parts of the US. The universities, themselves, are losing their relevance – especially wealth-based ones like Harvard. But I am disturbed by the specter of these centers of higher learning becoming sources of disinformation and rising hatred. Rather than giving rise to rational discussion, inclusiveness and openness, they are currently drawing lines and urging students to take increasingly extremist positions.

Maybe the question should not even have been whether it is legitimate to call for genocide on a university campus, but, rather, how things got to the point in which such calls were sounded in the first place. Where did American education falter, and who was responsible for directing that right to free speech – setting limits that might have enabled dialogue rather than demonization, and speaking to one another, rather than shouting inane slogans? The blame for that does not rest solely with you, Professor Gay, but you enabled it.

I am hoping, as you return to your research, that you manage to turn this debacle into a “learning experience.” I am hoping more minority women take positions of leadership, even in bastions of white rule like Harvard. You were not hounded because you were a Black woman heading an old moneyed institution, but because you appeared to take a side when you should have been above the debate, ensuring it stayed civil.

About the Author
Judy Halper is a member of a kibbutz in the center of the country. She has worked as a dairywoman, plumber and veggie cook, and as a science writer. Today she volunteers in Na'am Arab Women in the Center and works part time for Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom.
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