Fred Shahrabani

Harvard and systemic forms of racism against Jews

The attacks by Hamas along Israel’s border with Gaza on October 7 horrify. Children and babies bound, burned, and beheaded; women raped, teenagers axed, families with their hands tied behind their backs executed around their dining room table, the children as young as four or five. Forms of torture too shocking to describe were invented. When it was over, limbs torn from unidentifiable bodies lay on the ground or hung from tree branches.

However, responses from various sectors of the international community, including respected academic institutions, were eerily devoid of compassion. Many students and academics at Harvard, Columbia, and other institutions of higher learning offered muted justifications and, in some cases, outright support for the massacre.

Almost ten days after Hamas’ attack, dozens of prominent Israeli leftist intellectuals and peace activists, including author David Grossman and professor Eva Illouz, delivered a scathing response to proclamations from those institutions. This stark divide between Jewish progressive intellectuals and their American and European counterparts has left many Jews feeling isolated and betrayed.

The fundamental issue here is that such a barbaric attack against any other ethnic group in the world would have elicited immediate outrage. It is inconceivable that anyone would condone or dismiss the barbaric massacre of some 1,300 men, women, children, and babies if it were perpetrated against Americans, or Russians, or Arabs, or Chinese, or Europeans, or Nigerians, or ANY ETHNIC GROUP OR NATIONALITY APART FROM THE JEWS.

Despite the savage atrocities committed by Russia in Ukraine, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Ukrainian civilians and military personnel, no Western academician or institution would support the uninhibited murder of innocent Russian civilians.

Despite the genocide of 500,000 Syrians by forces loyal to the Islamic Republic of Iran, no Western academician or institution would support the torture of innocent Iranian women.

Despite the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda or Serbian Muslims in the Baltics, no one would excuse the murder of young Hutus or Serbian children.

Despite the genocide of 6,000,000 Jews, no Jew is entitled to rape a German woman, murder a German man, or kidnap a German child.

These “despites” could continue until the ink runs dry.

It is only natural that the world should react with fervent indignation and disgust in the face of such unspeakable horrors, including the heart-wrenching act of tearing a baby from a pregnant woman’s slit stomach. The one exception seems to be the Jew. Once again, the Jew, whether in the guise of an Israeli, a Zionist, or any other derivation, is demonized. Yet, if we were to remove self-identifying antisemites from among the endorsers and supporters of such terrorism in the Western world, we are left with individuals who perceive themselves as idealistic, ethically committed, principled, and compassionate people. What explains this paradox?

If the infliction of such horrors is deemed acceptable only for Jewish children or if there are efforts to rationalize these horrors against Jews by some of our current moral standard bearers, then surely it is crucial to investigate such a perplexing phenomenon.

The capacity to rationalize, condone, or support the perpetrators of this tragedy suggests the existence of an invisible form of racism – one that isn’t explicit but very much alive, and which can be partially explained by current theories of structural and systemic racism.

Systemic racism, traditionally defined, entails the systemic oppression of a specific racial group through the economic, educational, and political structures of society. While this oppression often manifests itself in evident disparities in areas such as education, finance, standard of living, and access to adequate healthcare, the racism itself remains concealed from plain view, with those who benefit from it often unaware. Thus, systemic racism is, by its very nature, invisible to the naked eye.

Over centuries, Jews in the Western world have largely overcome such structural and systemic manifestations of oppression. However, the concept of systemic racism hinges on its hidden nature, and like a virus, that invisibility may be continually evolving in order to remain fully cloaked.

Just as traditional systemic racism explains the concealed presence of racism within societal institutions, one could argue that, in a parallel fashion, equally vicious and perverse forms of racism may be deeply ingrained in the human psyche yet remain imperceptible to conscious awareness.

Therefore, this invisible form of racism should logically be integrated into the theory of systemic racism, as it might help explain why otherwise decent individuals go to such extreme and unbalanced lengths to demonize Israel.

The greater danger following the October 7 attack lies in the potential for this underlying racism, camouflaged as progressive thinking, to unleash a grave and horrible new ethic upon the world.

By allowing their ethical boundaries to erode due to these concealed biases, progressive students and professors may have unshackled a troubling cascade of consequences. Their unacknowledged prejudices led them to embrace and tolerate a new, disturbing level of cruelty that they would not have otherwise condoned. It may be impossible to put that genie back in the bottle.

It is said, often what is barely tolerated is eventually normalized. It started with the Jew, but it will not end with her. Institutions such as Harvard and Columbia have contributed to the legitimization of barbarism upon anyone and everyone. Any person who believes they have suffered racism, colonialism, or any form of oppression, whether personally or through their ancestors, whether 50 years ago or 500, has seemingly been granted the moral permissibility to purchase a pickaxe, hunt any innocent member of the offending race—man, woman, or child, disabled or elderly, tear off their limbs, and then mutilate them.

The best we can hope for is that those academicians and institutions that could not maintain moral clarity will be rendered irrelevant and outside the pale of progressive thinking. Yet, I fear, that is hoping for too much. Ali Khameini, President of Iran, stated he wished to “kiss the hands” of those Hamas operatives who orchestrated the atrocity. He’s got like-minded allies in the West. Joe Biden stated this week that Israel is the only country that will keep Jews safe despite the tragedy. Hamas and its western backers have proved him absolutely right.

About the Author
Fred was raised and educated in Tehran. He hails from a family of Iraqi Jews who fled Iraq, and subsequently, in the wake of the the 1979 Islamic Revolution, fled Iran. His parents spent formative years in Israel. As Arab Jews and Zionists who experienced the generosity of Moslem culture, and in particular the high spirit, hospitality, and graciousness afforded them in Iran, his perspective is formed by many of the historic events that engulfed the region.