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Harvard president addresses Israel-Hamas war after blowback over university’s response

Harvard President Claudine Gay.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Shock waves from the war between Israel and Hamas rippled through Harvard’s campus this week after student groups published an incendiary statement that appeared to justify Saturday’s terrorist attack on Israel that left more than 1,000 of its citizens dead.

The Saturday statement, cosigned by about 30 Harvard groups, put pressure on school president Claudine Gay to weigh in herself as students with ties to the region were absorbing devastating news about friends and relatives killed or fleeing violence.

When Gay eventually did speak on Monday evening, the joint statement she issued with other Harvard leaders angered Jewish and Israeli students for not including an acknowledgment of the barbarity of the attack, which included militants gunning down civilians in their homes. On Tuesday, Gay tried again, issuing a statement in her own name condemning Saturday’s attack as an act of terrorism and distancing the university from the student groups’ message.

“I condemn the terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas,” she said, in part.

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That new statement angered some pro-Palestinian students who saw it as Harvard siding with Israel in the decades-long conflict.

The war of words was an escalation of long-running tensions at Harvard, and many other American universities, where student bodies are sharply divided on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and university leaders have struggled to balance the interests, and speech rights, of bitterly opposed factions.

Harvard’s controversy began not long after news of the surprise attack reached the United States. As the dead were still being counted Saturday, Harvard’s Palestine Solidarity Committee posted a statement online cosigned by approximately 30 other student groups.

“Today’s events did not occur in a vacuum,” the statement said. “For the last two decades, millions of Palestinians in Gaza have been forced to live in an open-air prison.”

“We, the undersigned student organizations, hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence,” it added.

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On Saturday, Hamas militants killed hundreds of Israeli civilians, including children and the elderly, and also kidnapped or took captive more than 150 civilians and soldiers. The Israeli military responded with airstrikes that killed hundreds in Gaza.

When the statement was issued, some Harvard students with ties to Israel were fielding calls from relatives about massacres in their neighborhoods. Others were watching videos posted on social media of Israelis being murdered in their homes or kidnapped.

“The student group response was horrifying and deeply dismaying to me beyond words,” said Zebulon Erdos, a Harvard junior. “It’s unbelievable to me that my fellow students would blame the victims of terrorism for acts of terrorism.”

Another Harvard undergraduate, who is Israeli, said her cousin and young children had only avoided a massacre in their kibbutz, called Kfar Aza, near the border with Gaza, because they had been visiting an ill relative in Tel Aviv. “She’s been destroyed,” the student said of her cousin. “Everyone in that area, it’s unclear who’s alive.” The student requested anonymity because she is afraid for her safety.

After the student group statement, criticism poured in.

“In nearly 50 years of Harvard affiliation, I have never been as disillusioned and alienated as I am today,” former Harvard president and current professor Lawrence Summers wrote Monday on the X platform. “The silence from Harvard’s leadership, so far, coupled with a vocal and widely reported student groups’ statement blaming Israel solely, has allowed Harvard to appear at best neutral towards acts of terror.”

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On Monday evening, US Representative Seth Moulton, a Harvard graduate, said on the same social media platform that the student group statement was “morally repugnant.” At that time, around 6 p.m., Harvard still had not issued an official statement, and Moulton blasted the administration for the delay.

“The university’s silence is complicity,” he wrote.

Not long after, Harvard sent a message to thousands of students and staff. It was signed by Gay and Harvard’s top deans.

“We write to you today heartbroken by the death and destruction unleashed by the attack by Hamas that targeted citizens in Israel this weekend, and by the war in Israel and Gaza now under way,” the statement said.

Some Jewish students and advocates found it lacking.

“They seemed to be trying to find balance and a moral equivalence,” said Jonah Steinberg, the head of the Anti-Defamation League’s New England office and a former director of Harvard Hillel. But that Monday message, he said, was “wildly out of touch when students are attaching themselves to Hamas’s atrocities.”

In a statement to the Crimson, the Harvard student paper, the Palestine Solidarity Committee denied it was defending the attack. “To restate what should be obvious: the PSC staunchly opposes violence against civilians — Palestinian, Israeli, or other,” the group said.

“The statement aims to contextualize the apartheid and colonial system while explicitly lamenting ‘the devastating and rising civilian toll,’ ” the group added. “It is unacceptable that Palestinians and groups supporting them are always expected to preempt their statements with condemnation of violence.”

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At a pro-Palestinian rally near Cambridge City Hall on Monday, Mariam Markabani, a recent Harvard graduate who now works as a tutor in a Harvard dorm, repeated “Long live the Intifada,” meaning uprising or rebellion, into a megaphone. Video of those remarks soon circulated around campus, dismaying some Jewish and Israeli students, who understood it as a way to voice support for Hamas’s attack.

“The last two intifadas involved people killing individuals, killing Israelis,” said the Israeli Harvard student who requested anonymity. The more recent intifada, in the early 2000s, included suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians.

“They’re calling the killing of civilians an act of resistance,” the Israeli student said.

Markabani said in an interview Tuesday that she did not condone the killing of civilians in Saturday’s attack and that she does not support Hamas. But, she added, Hamas has been “left with no other solution. They feel like this is the only way that they can respond to Israel’s most recent attacks and also previous attacks against Palestine.”

Markabani said that, to her, intifada means “removing the apartheid system imposed on Palestine.” She added that her relatives are currently fleeing southern Lebanon for Beirut due to the risk of retaliation by the Israeli military after the militant group Hezbollah fired rockets into Israel from Lebanon.

On Tuesday, Gay issued the new statement, this one written under her name alone. Unlike Monday’s statement, it was not emailed widely to the Harvard community, but was posted on Harvard’s website and on X.

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In the statement, she condemned the Saturday attack as terrorism, writing, “Such inhumanity is abhorrent, whatever one’s individual views of the origins of longstanding conflicts in the region.”

“Let me also state, on this matter as on others, that while our students have the right to speak for themselves, no student group — not even 30 student groups — speaks for Harvard University or its leadership,” she wrote. “We will all be well served in such a difficult moment by rhetoric that aims to illuminate and not inflame. And I appeal to all of us in this community of learning to keep this in mind as our conversations continue.”

Several Jewish and Israeli students said the statement was a vast improvement over the first one and called it a “relief.” But Summers said some damage was already done.

“Given the delay and that the second statement appeared to be under duress there is much that Harvard will need to do to provide support for frightened students,” he said.

The fallout from Saturday’s statement continued later Tuesday. At least one group, the Harvard Undergraduate Nepali Students Association, withdrew its signature from Saturday’s controversial statement, as some pro-Palestinian Harvard student leaders reported receiving threats online for being associated with the message.

On Tuesday, at least one conservative news outlet published the names of leaders of several student groups that signed the statement.

Harvard is also facing backlash from some pro-Palestinian members of its community.

Nadine Bahour, a recent Harvard graduate who is Palestinian and now works for the university, said she was “appalled by Harvard’s lack of empathy” for Palestinians on campus, even as Israeli airstrikes have leveled buildings in Gaza in recent days.

“The world, Harvard, and its administration doesn’t seem to value the lives of Palestinians or even see the humanity in us,” she said.


Mike Damiano can be reached at mike.damiano@globe.com. Hilary Burns can be reached at hilary.burns@globe.com. Follow her @Hilarysburns.