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Harvard Law student’s remarks to Israeli decried

A Harvard Law student called former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni“smelly” during a recent forum, drawing a broad condemnation of anti-Semitism from administrators, faculty, and a Jewish student group.

The student, who school officials have not identified, made the statement last Thursday during a question and answer period following a panel discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict organized by the school.

Harvard Law Dean Martha Minow decried the incident as offensive and said it “violated the trust and respect we expect in our community,” in an e-mail sent to faculty and students on Tuesday.

The remark was an “ad hominem attack in the form of a ‘question’ to our Israeli guest,” Minow wrote in the e-mail, which a school spokeswoman provided to the Globe on Wednesday.


She described the question in detail.

‘My question is for Tzipi Livni — how is it that you are so smelly?” The student added, “It’s regarding your odor — about the odor of Tzipi Livni, very smelly,’” the e-mail stated.

“Many perceive it as anti-Semitic, and no one would see it as appropriate,” Minow wrote.

“It was an embarrassment to this institution and an assault upon the values we seek to uphold. ... I urge all members of this community to treat all others as they wish to be treated themselves and to respect the dignity and feelings of all, even those with whom they disagree most strongly on any given issue. The legal profession expects nothing less of its future members.”

The e-mail did not say if the student would be disciplined.

Livni, a prominent Israeli leader still serving in the Knesset, the country’s legislative body, did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment on Wednesday night.

She has held several Israeli government positions, including minister of foreign affairs, acting prime minister, minister of justice, and head of the Israeli team in the peace process negotiations with the Palestinians in 2008 and 2013, Harvard Law said in promotional materials prepared for the event.


Minow urged the school community to reflect on the incident.

“This is a moment for each of us to pause, and perhaps ask, “Who am I?” — and, more importantly, “What kind of person do I wish to be? And what kind of community can we make together?”

Michelle Deakin, a spokeswoman for Harvard Law, would not identify the student, or any potential discipline.

The incident, first reported in the Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, drew widespread criticism from Jewish authorities.

Yehuda Yaakov, consul general of Israel to New England, said in a phone interview that the incident at the Law School forum is “just another in a sea of incidents that we’ve been seeing in which our detractors show that being anti-Israel and anti-Semitic are the same.”

The Harvard Jewish Law Students Association, an organizer of the event, blasted the attack in a letter posted on the website of the Harvard Law Record, an independent newspaper affiliated with the school.

“We are writing to condemn what we view as blatantly anti-Semitic rhetoric,” the association leaders wrote.

“We demand a public apology to Ms. Livni, the Jewish students of HLS, and Harvard Law School at large. Further, we demand respectful behavior from students at our events in the future.”

Nancy Gertner, retired federal judge who teaches at Harvard Law, said the student’s remark “resonated as anti-Semitic with everyone who read it and heard it.”


“There’s really no set of facts that would justify making a comment like this at all,” said Gertner, who did not attend the forum. “No set of facts.”

Robert Leikind, Boston regional director of the American Jewish Committee, issued a statement Wednesday night denouncing the attack.s

“This kind of (comment) has been a feature of anti-Semitic thinking for more than two centuries, during which the suggestion that Jews smelled was used to suggest that they are an inferior people, who are worthy of contempt,” Leikind said in a statement.

“We are witnessing a decline in civility and an incapacity of some to engage in serious discourse about difficult ideas.”

Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.