‘Those days are behind us’: Jewish alumni decry ‘softly, softly’ approach to rising anti-Semitism at Harvard

The first Jewish alumni association in the history of Harvard University, the HCJAA was formed over the last month in response to the Oct. 7 Hamas pogrom.

By Dion J. Pierre, The Algemeiner

More than 1,200 Jewish alumni of Harvard University have signed a letter to the university’s president and dean declaring that they will no longer walk delicately around the college administration when it comes to the issue of antisemitism on campus.

“We write to you in anticipation of ready collaboration and a reasonable discussion of our concerns. But this does not mean we will tread lightly in this existential moment,” the letter from the Harvard College Jewish Alumni Association (HCJAA) to university president Claudine Gay and dean Rakesh Kumar, dispatched on Thursday, stated.

“For centuries, the posture of Jewish people has been one of conciliation, nursed by the hope that if we show the non-Jewish majority that we are conciliatory, we may escape harm, persecution, and extermination,” the letter continued. “Those days are behind us.”

The first Jewish alumni association in the history of Harvard University, the HCJAA was formed over the last month in response to the Oct. 7 Hamas pogrom in southern Israel and the wave of antisemitism around the world that has accompanied it.

The timing of its letter to Gay and Kumar coincided with the release of a video showing a mob of Harvard students, some of them clad in Palestinian keffiyeh scarves, jostling and harassing a Jewish student as he walked across the campus. Among the mob was Ibrahim Bharmal, the editor of the prestigious Harvard Law Review — a publication whose past editors include former US President Barack Obama.

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“Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!” the mob screamed in a call-and-response chant directed at the Jewish student, who was forced to duck and weave through the crowd to free himself from the cluster of bodies encircling him.

Bharmal is also the co-president of the Harvard South Asian Law Students, a student group that signed a statement by the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee claiming that “Israel is the only one to blame” for the Hamas atrocities. The university has yet to issue a statement on the abuse of the Jewish student by Bharmal and his cohorts, or to clarify what, if any, disciplinary proceedings will be taken against Bharmal.

It is in this vexed climate that the HCJAA is seeking an urgent meeting with Gay to discuss “concrete plans to ensure the protection of Jewish students on campus.”

“Even before the current wave of antisemitism on campus, there had been a steady uptick in reported incidents of harassment, including physical assaults, verbal abuse, and graffiti of Hillel and other Jewish spaces,” the association pointed out. It also seeks an unambiguous condemnation of the Hamas pogrom from the university’s leadership, something so far conspicuous by its absence.

“There are deep concerns among the alumni about the destructive tone of conversation the university encourages by not swiftly and unequivocally condemning the terrorist attacks by Hamas,” Rebecca Claire Brooks, a co-founder of the HCJAA, told The Algemeiner in an interview on Thursday.

In the wake of Hamas’ atrocities, Harvard University has lost financial backing and faced sharp criticism for refusing to disavow students who signed the widely condemned letter that carried Bharmal’s signature. The controversies startled business and philanthropic leaders and prompted allegations that Harvard does not regard antisemitism as a significant issue.

According to Brooks, it is vital that the university establishes “whether or not there is a toxic culture at Harvard that allows a peddling of antisemitic discourse that calls all Jews colonizers, that calls for resistance by any means necessary, and that promotes very slanted views about the state of Israel.”

She stressed that HCJAA seeks “a fundamental shift in the campus culture in which students are able to have informed debates, to engage in critical thinking, to engage in moral reasoning without bullying and antagonism [from other] students.”

So far, Harvard has neither recognized nor agreed to hold a meeting with the HCJAA, which, Brooks said, is keen to discuss its “reasonable reforms.”

Other Jewish alumni cited in an HCJAA press release voiced similar concerns to Brooks.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Peter Bronstein, who graduated from Harvard in 1965. “The University has accomplished twin moral failures: allowing the widespread glorification of Hamas terrorism by its students and abandoning its responsibility to teach students how to express their ideas without resorting to violent discourse.”

Adrian Ashkenazy, who graduated from Harvard in 1996, said he had become a co-founder of the HCJAA for “my father, who survived the Holocaust.” He added that “Harvard takes pride in being seen as a moral leader in the world, and I’m glad President Gay has recently spoken at Hillel about the problem of antisemitism. We hope to work with her and her new advisory council to translate these statements into actions.”

Sabrina Goldfischer, who graduated from Harvard this year, said the atmosphere on the campus was “terrifying.”

“I wrote my senior thesis, ‘The Death of Discourse: Antisemitism at Harvard College,’ about the systemic normalization of
misinformation about Jewish people and the state of Israel on campus,” she said. “This problem has been brewing at Harvard for a long time.”

In addition to a meeting with Harvard’s leadership, the HCJAA called on the university to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, already endorsed by hundreds of governmental and private organizations, stamp out hate speech, and form a commission to study the roots of antisemitism on the campus.