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Harvard President Claudine Gay convenes antisemitism advisory board amid ‘resurgence of bigotry’ on campus

Claudine Gay: "Antisemitism has a very long and shameful history at Harvard."Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Harvard President Claudine Gay has convened a group of advisers to combat antisemitism at the university, weeks after she faced criticism for not immediately rebuking a student letter that placed all blame for the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and after some Jewish students alleged that anti-Jewish bigotry at Harvard is on the rise.

“As we grapple with this resurgence of bigotry, I want to make one thing absolutely clear: Antisemitism has no place at Harvard,” Gay said in a speech Friday at a Shabbat dinner hosted by Harvard Hillel, a Jewish campus group. “For years, this university has done too little to confront its continuing presence. No longer,” she continued, according to a copy of the remarks Harvard posted online.

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She said she had assembled a group of faculty, staff, alumni, and Jewish religious leaders “whose wisdom, experience, and counsel will help guide us forward.” Among the advisers are Martha Minow, a Harvard professor and former dean of Harvard Law School; Geraldine Acuña-Sunshine, a vice chair of Harvard’s board of overseers; Harvard College’s dean of students Thomas Dunne; and a Harvard undergraduate, Nim Ravid, who is from Israel.

Last week, Harvard created a separate task force to help students who have faced intimidation and harassment after being linked, sometimes falsely, to the letter.

Gay’s announcement came almost three weeks after the controversy erupted at Harvard in the wake of the Hamas terrorist attack that killed more than 1,400 Israelis. Similar controversies have played out at other elite universities, with dozens of colleges roiled by bitter debates over how students and university leaders should talk about the attack and Israel’s subsequent war against Hamas in Gaza that has killed untold numbers of civilians.

Within hours of the Oct. 7 attack, more than 30 Harvard student groups signed the letter that laid all blame for the attack on Israel and included no criticism of the killings.

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The letter from students, and the fact that Gay did not immediately rebuke it, infuriated some students, faculty, and prominent alumni, and led some donors to cut ties with the school.

As the initial criticism mounted, Gay and Harvard issued another statement. In the second one, on Oct. 10, Gay wrote, “[L]et there be no doubt that I condemn the terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas.”

She added: “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.”

In an Oct. 10 statement to the Crimson, the Harvard student paper, the Palestine Solidarity Committee, which released the letter, denied it was defending the Hamas attack in any way. “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.”

On Friday, after discontent over the university’s response had built for weeks, the president of Harvard Hillel appealed to Harvard Corporation, which oversees the school, to address what he described as escalating antisemitic speech by students since the Hamas attack.

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In an email, the Hillel president, Harvard junior Jacob Miller, wrote to the corporation that in recent weeks he and other Jewish students had “watched in horror as our classmates celebrated the most brutal attack against Jews since the Holocaust and started spreading antisemitic hate speech — largely online, and sometimes in person.”

He quoted online posts that he said had been made by Harvard students, including one that described accounts of antisemitism as a “Western scheme” and another that said “violence is the only answer” to colonial oppression. That is how some pro-Palestinian activists characterize Israel’s treatment of Gaza, the small territory controlled by Hamas that has been blockaded by Israel and Egypt since 2007.

Miller’s email was part of what Robert Trestan, a vice president of the Anti-Defamation League, described as a building outcry in the Harvard community over alleged antisemitic speech. “Alumni are coalescing and ... putting pressure on Harvard. It’s not just the affluent donors,” he said.

On Friday evening, Gay and her husband, Christopher Afendulis, went to Harvard Hillel to celebrate Shabbat. In prepared remarks, she denounced antisemitism and vowed to contend with it at Harvard, placing current antisemitism in the context of the university’s history, which included admissions quotas meant to limit the number of Jews on campus.

“Antisemitism has a very long and shameful history at Harvard,” said Gay, who became president July 1. She added, “As president, I am committed to tackling this pernicious hatred with the urgency it demands.”

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Some members of the advisory board, she said, were present Friday at the Hillel event. “I am enormously grateful for their conviction and generous spirit, and for the hope and high expectations for Harvard,” she said.

The other members of the advisory board are Kevin Madigan, professor of ecclesiastical history at Harvard Divinity School; Eric Nelson, a government professor; Dara Horn, a writer and former Harvard lecturer on Jewish studies; and David Wolpe, a rabbi and visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School.

In a statement on behalf of his organization, Miller said Sunday that Harvard Hillel applauds Gay’s remarks at the Shabbat dinner and that she “understands that antisemitism remains a reality at Harvard.”

“Friday’s speech represents a promising first step in a process that will undoubtedly take significant effort and a united front from our Harvard community, and we look forward to working with President Gay and the university administration with a common resolve to tackle Harvard’s antisemitism problem,” he said.


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