Nancy Katz

Antisemitism at Harvard started long before Claudine Gay

Offensive slurs, blindness to Jews' history of oppression and anti-Israel bias aren't new, but one thing is different today
Statue of John Harvard on the Harvard University campus (Harvard University / InSapphoWeTrust / via Wikipedia)
Statue of John Harvard on the Harvard University campus (Harvard University / InSapphoWeTrust / via Wikipedia)

Harvard’s antisemitism problem started long before Claudine Gay. Now it’s attracting public outcry, with alumni and donors severing ties. For me, though, it’s an old story.

I joined the Kennedy School faculty in 1998. At that time, being Jewish was easy. Twenty-five percent of the faculty was Jewish. Every building on the K-School campus bore the name of a Jewish benefactor.

Jewish practice was normalized. No one expressed concern when I canceled class on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. During Passover, cafeteria staff placed a box of matzah on the lunch counter for Jews to help themselves. Okay, some years the box of matzah appeared a week before the holiday and some years a week after, but why quibble? It was a thoughtful gesture.

I savored this sense of belonging. Growing up, I heard my father’s stories of antisemitism in academia. My dad was a professor at Boston University Medical School back when it was a Protestant institution. He said he was the first Jew to be appointed a full clinical professor of medicine, but “far from the first Jew to deserve it.” He was responsible for selecting each year’s crop of interns and residents. The dean used to call my father into his office and reprimand him for the number of Jews he selected, sputtering that B.U. risked becoming known as “a Jewish school.”

The first hint of trouble arose in 2002 at a faculty cocktail party. The topic of discussion was whether the US should topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq. An esteemed colleague revealed he had penned an op-ed arguing against invasion. He said he’d like the piece to run in the Wall Street Journal, but that wouldn’t happen because the newspaper was “controlled by the Jews.”

I was stunned. A prominent Harvard faculty member was a conspiracy theorist? His comment was so bizarre that I didn’t know what to do with it. I simply made a mental note to give him a wide berth.

A couple of years later, another warning shot. More serious this time, because it involved an institutional mindset rather than individual prejudice. I wanted to bring Natan Sharansky to the K-School, to address the Institute of Politics (IOP). He had just published a highly acclaimed book, The Case For Democracy.

The IOP declined my request because “we already had one Israeli speaker in the past year.” Nonplussed, I responded that two Israelis in one year was not disproportionate representation. The IOP hosted at least 30 speakers annually.

They countered: Sharansky could speak, but not alone. He had to be paired on stage with a Palestinian for “balance.” I argued that Sharansky was an international hero worthy of stand-alone billing. Furthermore, his book wasn’t about the Palestinian conflict.

Ultimately, the IOP relented and Sharansky appeared alone. The event was a success, but the process was sobering. I gained insight into the IOP’s view of Israelis, and it felt like a caricature. They saw Israelis exclusively through the lens of the Palestinian conflict.

My unease escalated in 2006 when I was appointed faculty representative to the Diversity Committee. At our first meeting, the students listed target populations: African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, women, gays and lesbians, and the physically handicapped. I suggested they consider adding Jews. No, the students said. Religion was outside their scope.

I pointed out that Judaism is not just a religion but also a race. The students demurred. Even if Jews are a race, they said, Jews do not qualify as a historically marginalized one. I pushed further, but the students wouldn’t have it. Jews, they insisted, are more than adequately represented among the elite, and belong to “the oppressor class.”

The students’ ignorance of history was appalling. Also, it was chilling to realize how they saw me. I thought of myself as an ally, but they felt my boot on their neck. I realized the DEI framework could marginalize, even demonize, Jewish students.

My relationship with Harvard was shifting from identification to alienation. Then came the coup de grace. An essay entitled “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy” appeared on the Faculty Research Working Papers website. In it, my old boss Stephen Walt and his co-author from the University of Chicago, John Mearsheimer, asserted that American Jews twist US foreign policy to serve Israel’s interests. A Jewish colleague observed that the paper “read like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

“The Israel Lobby” felt like a personal assault. It painted me, a supporter of Israel, as an enemy of the public good.

I asked my boss, the academic dean, to move the paper to Walt’s personal page at the K-School. Featuring it on the shared page appeared to give Harvard’s imprimatur to antisemitic conspiracy theories. The dean refused.

As a social psychologist, I didn’t feel knowledgeable enough to dismantle Walt’s argument. I reached out to pro-Israel political scientists at the K-School, hoping they would draft a rebuttal. They declined, explaining that the US–Israel relationship was not their specialty and they didn’t want to “look stupid.” Of course, the US-Israel relationship was not Walt’s specialty either, as his focus was security studies, yet that hadn’t stopped him from speaking as an authority. My Jewish colleagues were no braver than I was – we kept our heads down.

I longed to hear the dean condemn Walt’s antisemitism publicly. Or at a faculty meeting. Or in a private meeting. I never heard it. Feeling utterly demoralized, I realized it was time to move on.

The paper was later published as a bestselling book. Did anyone suffer repercussions? Walt told me he was showered with approval from non-Jews, and even some Jews. He described the experience as deeply affirming.

The K-School took a fundraising hit of some $30 million, according to insider estimates. But within a few years Jewish benefactors were back to making large gifts, including a new building. It seemed nothing was learned.

Which is why I see a bright spot in the current mess. At least this time Jews are exercising their rights with impact. It might backfire, it might wound innocent bystanders, it might serve outside interests. But finally Jews are drawing a red line in the sand regarding antisemitism, and insisting “no more.”

About the Author
Nancy Katz (B.A. Harvard 1984, Ph.D. Harvard 1998), is a former professor of public policy at Harvard.