Jay Rappaport

On Israel and Hamas, Harvard Gets a Failing Grade

The responses of Harvard University and its Kennedy School to Hamas’ terrorist attacks on Israel slouched from bad to worse last week. The first public response from the Harvard community came when three dozen student groups announced they “hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” The Harvard administration stayed silent while the leaders of the France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States released a joint statement that “condemned … the terrorist actions of Hamas.” Finally, thirty-six hours after Hamas begin its attack, recently inaugurated Harvard University President Claudine Gay issued a statement. President Gay was “heartbroken,” and she encouraged members of the university “to deepen our knowledge of the unfolding events.” Noticeably absent from President Gay’s statement were the words “terrorism,” “Jew,” or “anti-Semitism.”[1]

Then Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)—the university’s flagship graduate school of government and public policy—got involved. HKS Dean Doug Elmendorf issued a statement to the HKS community offering “empathy” with all those impacted by the crisis and noting that “[b]ecause different people are affected by these events in different ways, [he] d[id] not think that a single School-wide gathering would be effective.” Like President Gay, Dean Elmendorf failed to mention “terrorism,” “Jew,” or “anti-Semitism.”

Last year, after Russia invaded Ukraine, the HKS administration hung screens from nearly every wall in the school to livestream Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s personal address to the HKS community. Last week, after Hamas kidnapped, murdered, raped, and beheaded Israelis, the HKS administration could not host a single all-school event.

However, Dean Elmendorf did advertise that the HKS Middle East Initiative, a faculty-student conglomerate “dedicated to advancing public policy in the Middle East,” would hold a panel on the crisis this Friday, October 13 at 6:00pm.

Here’s another problem: Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, is observed from Friday night to Saturday night, and that Friday, Shabbat began at 5:48pm in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Therefore, observant Jews could not attend the only school sanctioned event about the crisis engulfing the only Jewish state in the world.

Dean Elmendorf then rescheduled the panel to 4:00pm on Friday to accommodate “some people’s religious observance.” But again, Dean Elmendorf overlooked his Jewish students. Shabbat 1000, the largest annual event for the Harvard Jewish community, was already scheduled for that Friday at 4:30pm.

The decision to schedule the panel during Shabbat and campus rituals inflicted particular pain this month. Hamas launched its attacks around 6:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, October 7, during Shabbat. Furthermore, these attacks bore striking similarities to the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which occurred fifty years and a day before Hamas initiated its ongoing assault. Jews were observing a different holiday, Yom Kippur, when Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in 1973.

Disquieting backlash is underway on Harvard campus. Several students have been accused of anti-Semitism and had their personal information spread online when they did not know a campus organization with which they affiliate currently—or did so years prior—signed the student organizations’ statement condemning Israel for Hamas’ attacks. Events for Jewish and Muslim student life have both faced physical threats. Additionally, several high-profile billionaire donors have severed their long-standing philanthropic relationships with the university in general and HKS in particular due to the administration’s porous response. Threats to students safety and condemnation from alumni filled the void in leadership left by the administration.

President Biden and other world leaders have demonstrated moral clarity in their rebuke of Hamas’ terrorism. Harvard’s administration has not, though they are improving. Their statements have become more forceful denunciations of terrorism, and President Gay has spoken at multiple campus Shabbat dinners. However, Harvard is supposed to train the next generation. Their students will fill halls of government. Leadership means acting properly and courageously during crisis, and on that score, the initial responses of the university to the Kennedy School’s motto “ask what you can do” left much to be desired.

[1] Note: the public version of the statement has been updated to include “terrorism.”

About the Author
The author is a joint JD/ MPP (law and master in public policy) student at Georgetown University Law Center and the Harvard Kennedy School, class of 2024. He currently lives in Cambridge, MA and lived in Washington, DC for the past four years. He is originally from New York, NY.
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