Harvard student groups blame Israel for Hamas attacks, face safety threats; university addresses legacy of antisemitism

Harvard University – Eliot House | source: Roger W

A Harvard Palestine solidarity group and 33 other student groups released a statement expressing that they held “the Israeli regime entirely responsible” for the Oct. 7, 2023, terrorist attack killing more than 1,400 people. Intense uproar followed: amid a divided campus, students affiliated with the groups were doxxed, Israeli and Palestinian students feared for their safety, and powerful outside groups and influential graduates exerted pressure on university leadership to address antisemitism on campus.  

Key Players

Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC), a student organization that advocates for Palestinian rights, believes that “true peace will be reached only when self-determination and equality are guaranteed to Palestinians.” 

Claudine Gay, the new president of Harvard University, stated that the student signatories of the statement did not reflect the position of Harvard.

Accuracy in Media (AIM), a conservative group that “uses citizen activism and investigative journalism to expose media bias, corruption, and public policy failings,” sponsored a truck to drive around Harvard with the faces and identifying information of people whose organizations signed the statement. 

Further Details

On Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas, a militant Palestinian liberation organization, wisely designated as a terrorist group, engaged in an armed assault throughout southern Israel, killing more than 1,400 Israelis and kidnapping about 240. The attacks, which included instances of extreme cruelty against babies, children, young adults attending a music festival, and elderly kibbutz residents, came after decades of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians over territorial claims that hold religious, ethnic, and cultural significance. 

A day after the Hamas assault, the PSC released a statement blaming the crisis on the past actions and policies of Israel. 

“[Oct. 7] events did not occur in a vacuum,” the statement reads. “For the last two decades, millions of Palestinians in Gaza have been forced to live in open-air prison.” 

The statement went on to say that “Israeli violence has structured every aspect of Palestinian existence for 75 years,” and that “Palestinians have been forced to live in a state of death, both slow and sudden.”

Immediately, the declaration drew backlash throughout the Harvard community, with many professors and students speaking out against it and condemning it as inflammatory. It highlighted an atmosphere of resurgent antisemitism at one of America’s leading universities.

The PSC statement “falsely blames Israel for Hamas’s vicious and cruel attacks on Israeli civilians and ignores the unbearable pain of the heinous murders, rapes, and kidnapping of Israeli men, women, and children,” Harvard Hillel, the university’s Jewish student organization, stated, adding that it “expect[s] the Harvard community to do better.”

“In nearly 50 years of @Harvard affiliation, I have never been as disillusioned and alienated as I am today,” tweeted Lawrence H. Summers, the former president of Harvard and one-time U.S Treasury Secretary under former President Bill Clinton. Summers was Harvard’s first Jewish president.

Additionally, Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer and his wife Batia Ofer, who served on the board of Harvard Kennedy’s School of Government, resigned in protest, accusing the university of not having an adequate public response to the Hamas terrorist attack. 

“Unfortunately, our faith in the University’s leadership has been broken and we cannot in good faith continue to support Harvard and its committees,” the couple told CNN.

On Oct. 10, two days after the PSC’s statement, Gay denounced the coalition’s message in a statement posted online. “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,” the statement said.


Conservative group doxes students associated with statement, safety respects follow

A new round of controversy arose at Harvard and elsewhere after Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza, intended to destroy the infrastructure of Hamas. There were many civilian casualties. According to Gaza’s Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health, as of Nov. 6, 10,022 Palestinians had been killed, and 25,408 wounded by Israeli strikes in response to the terrorist attack. 

A few days after the PSC statement, a truck sponsored by AIM drove around campus and through Cambridge, with a digital billboard displaying the faces and personal information of various students who were associated with PSC and the 33 other groups that signed the statement. 

“Harvard’s Leading Antisemites,” the words on the truck read. 

The doxxing incident caused many students to fear for their safety. One student told The New York Times that she threw up in Harvard Yard, the central quad of the university with its buildings dating back to 1636, after learning that her face and personal information was on the truck. 

AIM stood behind its actions. Adam Guillette, president of AIM, told The Times, “It’s ironic that students on the campus where Facebook was invented are shocked that their names are publicly available. We’re merely amplifying their message.”

In response to the truck and various other threats to students, Harvard released a statement on Oct. 11, saying, “the University takes seriously the safety and wellbeing of every member of our community. We do not condone or ignore intimidation. We do not condone or ignore threats or acts of harassment or violence.” The statement provided resources for students who feared for their safety.

Threats to future employment

Beyond threats to student safety, many critics online called on Harvard to release the names of students associated with the organizations that signed the original letter. 

On Oct. 10, Bill Ackman, a billionaire hedge fund manager and graduate of the university, took to X, formerly known as Twitter, calling on Harvard to release the names of students associated with the letter “to [ensure] that none of us [other CEOs] inadvertently hire any of their members.”  Many of the signatories of the original statement, some of whom had apparently not read it closely, began to withdraw their names.

Davis Polk, an influential law firm, reportedly rescinded job offers to students associated with the statement. “These statements are simply contrary to our firm’s values and we thus concluded that rescinding these offers was appropriate in upholding our responsibility to provide a safe and inclusive work environment for all Davis Polk employees,” Neil Barr, a managing partner at Davis Polk, wrote in an internal email. 

Gay responds, again

On Oct. 13, following mounting criticism that the university had not taken a strong enough stand, Gay released a statement on YouTube. 

“People have asked me where we stand, so let me be clear. Our university rejects terrorism, that includes the barbaric atrocities perpetrated by Hamas. Our university rejects hate — hate of Jews, hate of Muslims, hate of any group of people based on their faith, their national origin, or any aspect of their identity. Our university rejects the harassment or intimidation of individuals based on their beliefs. And our university embraces a commitment to free expression. That commitment extends even to views that many of us find objectionable, even outrageous. We do not punish or sanction people for expressing such views.”

The video reiterated Harvard’s commitment to neutrality and maintaining an open dialogue. “It’s in the exercise of our freedom to speech that we reveal our characters,” Gay said.

Free Speech experts weigh in

The situation at Harvard was a microcosm of a larger debate across the country as universities tried to walk the fine line between showing empathy for those impacted by the conflict, while simultaneously protecting Free Speech.

Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional scholar and the dean of the University of California, Berkeley’s law school, told The New York Times that he thought AIM’s doxxing of the students was “despicable,” but did not believe the actions had prevented anyone from expressing their views. AIM might have caused tensions to rise, but “you can’t express your views and then say, ‘Those who criticize me are chilling my speech,’” he said.  

For Laurence Tribe, a legal scholar at Harvard, the truck was reminiscent of the mob mentality of McCarthyism. “We shouldn’t repeat the McCarthy era’s excesses in the interest of moral clarity,” Tribe told CNN

Nadine Strossen, a Harvard alumna, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), and a former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the PSC statement “deplorable,” but shared a similar sentiment to Tribe, telling The Times that collecting student names was “a throwback to McCarthy-era blacklists,” and that threatening student’s career prospects was “an overreaction.”

Pressure continues to build on Gay; she launches effort to eradicate a legacy of antisemitism at Harvard, which once had strict quotas on Jewish students

Gay, with her reputation seemingly at stake, abandoned her tone of neutrality – and some said indifference – in yet another statement she issued on Nov. 9:

Antisemitism has no place at Harvard. While confronting any form of hatred is daunting, the challenges we face tackling antisemitism are made all the more so by its pernicious nature and deep historical roots. But we are committed to doing the hard work to address this scourge.

She went on to announce a new structure of advisory groups and governance mechanisms to deal with the issue.