Jon Whitman

Thousands of Miles Away at Harvard

“Our Choices”—that was the subject line of an e-mail message that was sent to me and other Harvard alumni this month by the President of Harvard University, Professor Claudine Gay.  The message provided a link to a video from President Gay, in which she commented on “the unfolding tragedy thousands of miles away.”  Given the dismaying “choices” made by the Harvard leadership after the savage mass murder by Hamas in Israel, I chose to send a letter to President Gay.  The following is the complete text of the letter (except for the formal e-mail signature).  The deeply disturbing “choices” made at Harvard and a host of other universities during this crucial period do not just affect the current crisis.  Those disquieting choices, made “thousands of miles away” from Israel, are part of the crisis itself.


October 22, 2023

Dear President Gay,

It was saddening to see the video (“Our Choices”;, sent by you to me and other Harvard alumni) in which you commented on “the unfolding tragedy thousands of miles away.”  I have no doubt that your opening words about “pain and grief” were sincere.  But in watching the video in Israel, where I live, I could not help but feel that at Harvard, “thousands of miles away,” what was “unfolding” was an acute breakdown in its own right, a breakdown marked by dismaying “choices” made at Harvard itself.

The choice of whether or when or how a university should issue an official statement about a moral outrage is not simple.  Even after the hideous slaughter by Hamas of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of Israeli civilians, including babies, children, the elderly, women, and others—burned alive, decapitated, raped, mutilated, savagely murdered—some may argue that the initial choice of the Harvard leadership not to speak at all was correct.  But when the leadership finally did choose to speak—long after a statement signed by over thirty student organizations at Harvard had proclaimed that Israel was “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence”—it was essential that it speak with a clearly articulated, resolutely ethical voice.

From “thousands of miles away,” I understand that the university leadership has spoken officially about the matter three times to Harvard students and faculty at large.  By now perhaps few in the Harvard community wish to be reminded of the first statement (October 9)—an abject public pronouncement that blurred the distinction between the deliberate massacre of civilians and the casualties of war, that failed even to mention the notorious declaration by Harvard students in defense of depravity, and that required numerous members of the Harvard faculty to demand greater conceptual and ethical clarity.  It appears that the second and third statements—your brief note of October 10 (“let there be no doubt”) and your follow-up video on October 12 about “Our Choices” (“let me be clear”)—were efforts to provide such clarity.

Anyone who has read your public statement in 2020 as Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences about the grotesque killing of George Floyd knows how vigorously and expressively you can condemn a moral outrage.  You referred then pointedly to the “callous and depraved actions of a white police officer,” the “heartbreak and outrage of this moment,” the “brutality of racist violence in this country.”  But no matter how hard I have tried, I have been unable to find in your video about “Our Choices” such an intense feeling of pervasive revulsion regarding the calculated butchery of hundreds of persons in Israel.  Scarcely was there a brief reference in the video to the rejection of terrorism—which “includes the barbaric atrocities perpetrated by Hamas”—before the reference was diffused into a set of general pieties, including the rejection of “hate” and of “intimidation or harassment.”  As for views that “many of us find objectionable, even outrageous”—apparently an oblique reference to the student statement blaming Israel for the horrific murder of its own citizens—you assured your audience that not sanctioning or punishing people for such views is “a far cry from endorsing them.”  But to what degree might the Harvard leadership nonetheless speak explicitly about such views?  If a public statement signed by over thirty student organizations at Harvard had proclaimed in 2020 that the black community itself was “entirely responsible” for the murder of George Floyd, would you have been content to assure your audience that Harvard’s approach was “a far cry from endorsing” it?  “It’s in the exercise of our freedom to speak,” you declared in the video, “that we reveal our characters,” and “we reveal the character of our institution.”  Your individual and scholarly life is one that speaks eloquently and powerfully for humane causes.  But it is radically unsettling if the public speech of the Harvard leadership during this crisis reveals the character of the institution.

Some ten days after the savage onslaught in Israel—and days and days after Harvard’s early official equivocation had been sharply decried in heartfelt protests inside and outside the Harvard community—you sent a specific response to one of the protests, from the Harvard Club of Israel.  In your message you indicated that you “strongly and unequivocally condemn the horrific and barbaric terrorist atrocities committed by Hamas.”  There was still no explicit reference in the message to the incendiary declaration originally signed by over thirty student organizations.  But perhaps some of the viciousness raging on campuses at Harvard and elsewhere would have been more effectively countered if the university leadership had spoken “strongly and unequivocally” from the start—not in the words of a belated message for alumni “thousands of miles away,” but in a clear institutional statement for the Harvard community at large.

“People have asked me,” you indicated in the official video made available to that community—long after the day marked by the most massive slaughter of Jews since 1945—“where we stand.”  For me, it is not because Harvard stands “thousands of miles away” that I have felt it to be so distant in its response to the massacre in Israel.  Still more distant is the distance between the leadership’s long silence and the appalling slaughter, between its initial, blurred attempt at speech and basic intellectual and moral standards, between its later generalizations and the individuals whose bodies and lives were torturously mangled.  The death of every innocent is a cause for grief, but the deliberate and sadistic murder of infants and their families demands a special, urgent response.  For as the “tragedy unfolding thousands of miles away” continues to unfold, it is not determined by fate.  It is broadly affected by the acts of speech chosen by individuals and institutions around the world—including Harvard and a host of other universities.  I earnestly believe that personally you aim to promote fundamental norms of humanity.  I deeply hope that in the institutional “choices” made at Harvard, the university leadership will reduce the disturbing distance between the values it officially professes and the ways it publicly speaks.

With best wishes,
Jon Whitman
(GSAS ’78)

About the Author
Prof. Jon Whitman received his B.A. (summa cum laude) from Columbia University; his B.Phil. from the University of Oxford; and his A.M. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. Long affiliated with the English Department of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he is now emeritus, he directed for many years the University’s Center for Literary Studies.
Related Topics
Related Posts