The Anguished Fallout from a Pro-Palestinian Letter at Harvard

Early on Saturday, October 7th, as Harvard’s campus awoke to news of the Hamas attack on Israel, a Palestinian American student whom I’ll call Yasmeen rushed to her friend’s apartment, still in pajamas, to compose “an emergency statement” on behalf of Palestinian allies on campus. Yasmeen and her friend, who asked to be called Nadia

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Early on Saturday, October 7th, as Harvard’s campus awoke to news of the Hamas attack on Israel, a Palestinian American student whom I’ll call Yasmeen rushed to her friend’s apartment, still in pajamas, to compose “an emergency statement” on behalf of Palestinian allies on campus. Yasmeen and her friend, who asked to be called Nadia, opened a blank Google document and shared the link in an existing group chat with leaders from about a dozen student organizations. Together, the group began composing a draft. They highlighted lines, added statistics, left comments. They debated how much historical detail to provide about the Palestinian people and the conditions in the Gaza Strip. “It was originally so long,” Yasmeen recalled. “But then we were, like, ‘Cut the stats. Cut the numbers. It has to be punchy.’ ” The final letter began, “We, the undersigned student organizations, hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” That evening, it was issued on Instagram by the Harvard Graduate Students for Palestine and the Palestine Solidarity Committee (P.S.C.), with signatures from more than thirty other campus organizations.

Palestinian activist groups at Harvard routinely release statements condemning Israeli policy, to little notice. This time—for once, it seemed—the conflict in the Middle East had the world’s attention. But the student letter did not have the intended effect. By Monday, it had spread far beyond campus. Many were outraged that it didn’t acknowledge Hamas’s responsibility for the violence or express any sympathy for the Israeli victims. In a thread on X (formerly Twitter), the onetime Harvard president Larry Summers castigated administrators for their “failure to disassociate the University and condemn this statement.” Harvard had previously spoken out about the murder of George Floyd and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Summers added; why did it have nothing to say about this?

The university’s new president, Claudine Gay, was inaugurated in September, the first Black leader in Harvard’s history. Now, less than two weeks later, she was faced with trying to mollify both outraged donors and anguished students on all sides. On Monday evening, she did release a statement, but its careful, somewhat convoluted first words—lamenting “the death and destruction unleashed by the attack by Hamas”—did little to quell the uproar. “The statement from the student groups is morally depraved,” Jake Auchincloss, a Harvard alumnus and Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, told Politico. “The statement from Harvard’s leadership is moral cowardice.”

What has followed at Harvard is a particularly harsh and far-reaching episode of the campus free-speech wars, unfolding against—and, some would say, distracting from—the carnage in the Middle East. Early last week, several conservative Web sites, including a short-lived “College Terror List” (since censored by Google), were publicizing the personal information of students in the signatory groups. The billionaire hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman, a Harvard alumnus and donor, called on the university to release individual names, so that C.E.O.s could make sure not to “inadvertently hire” any of them. (Summers said in a television interview that Ackman was getting “a bit carried away.”) On Wednesday, a billboard truck bankrolled by the conservative watchdog group Accuracy in Media showed up in Harvard Square. Screens on the sides of the truck, which has in the past targeted U.C. Berkeley and other campuses, flashed names and photos of student leaders from the signatory organizations, under the heading “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites.” The display directed onlookers to a URL:

Support for the letter cratered. At least nine campus groups retracted their signatures, and individual students rushed to distance themselves, insisting that they hadn’t seen the statement until after it was released. (“I have not been on the Harvard campus this semester and was not involved,” Josh Willcox, an undergraduate leader of the P.S.C., said this week, after online commentators came after his mother, the British perfume magnate Jo Malone.) On Thursday, Gay released a video message—her third statement of the week—emphasizing that the school “rejects terrorism,” embraces “free expression,” and stands against hatred of both Jews and Muslims. But many students already felt, as an editor of the Harvard Crimson told me, “abandoned by the university in both directions.”

Despite a follow-up statement from the Palestinian student groups condemning violence against “all innocent life,” Muslim college kids on the Accuracy in Media list were receiving death threats. One undergraduate who’d been doxed told me that her parents were new immigrants to the U.S. during the 9/11 attacks, before she was born. “We’re seeing echoes of what they talked about that I never understood,” she said. “Because now it’s me that’s being targeted. It’s my brown, Muslim face up on that truck.”

Last Friday, at Harvard Hillel, I met an Israeli student whose relatives live in a kibbutz near Gaza. That week, as she later relayed at a campus vigil for victims of Hamas, she’d learned that the children of her family’s neighbors—a nine-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl—had hidden in a closet for fourteen hours as militants descended on the community. Their mother was murdered and their three-year-old sister was taken hostage. The student recalled the shock of reading the P.S.C. letter in the middle of processing such news. “I felt in my heart a physical pain, because I’m still worried about my friends,” she told me. “I don’t know where people are. I don’t know if my grandma will make it out of there. And all of a sudden I see this statement.”

One of her suitemates belongs to a club that had signed on to the P.S.C. letter but then retracted its support. The suitemate said that she hadn’t seen the letter before it was released, but the Israeli student remained troubled that she couldn’t know how many individual signatories actually had. Did the groups that retracted do so because they regretted the message, or because they were scared of the backlash? “We’re neighbors on this campus,” the Israeli student said. “And you’re saying that targeting my family’s village, targeting innocent people, is justified?” A few students showed me a compiled list of antisemitic posts that their classmates had published online, including a rhyme: “Harvard Hillel is burning in hell / Harvard Hillel is burning in hell / And they got funded by Epstein as well.” On SideChat, an anonymous message board that anyone with a Harvard e-mail address can access, one post read, “LET EM COOK.” It had twenty-five upvotes.

That evening, the Israeli student planned to say a blessing at Shabbat 1srcsrcsrc, an annual celebration hosted by Harvard Chabad. Zebulon Erdos, a junior wearing a bright-blue yarmulke, met me at the event, inside an enormous white tent on the university’s Science Center Plaza. He described Harvard’s initial silence on the Hamas attacks as terrifying. Now a thousand people had gathered in solidarity with the school’s Jewish community. Security officers with metal-detector wands were checking in guests as local news crews set up cameras. Students took seats at round tables set with challah, pasta salad, and small candles for attendees to light. Elkie Zarchi, one of the co-founders of Harvard Chabad, quieted the crowd to introduce an unexpected guest—President Gay—“who’s here to just wish us all a ‘Shabbat shalom.’ ”

Gay stepped up to the lectern. “I feel your pain, and I feel your loss,” she told the assembled guests. “And what I want to say is that Harvard has your back. We know the difference between right and wrong.” The crowd rose and gave her a standing ovation. “I thought she was about to pull out, like, Hebrew,” one of the students at my table joked.

There was a sense, among Muslim Americans on campus, that the university was less eager to extend them such gestures of support. They spoke earnestly of the need for “safe spaces” and derisively of the university’s efforts to create them. Harvard had tightened security measures on campus, and Gay had met with the school’s Muslim chaplains. But the students wanted her to do more to denounce Islamophobia and the doxing truck. At one campus vigil, student speakers had recorded messages instead of appearing in person, out of concern for their safety. “We are scared to be Palestinian at this university,” one anonymous speaker said.

The day after the Shabbat service, hundreds of Harvard students and locals gathered for a pro-Palestinian rally on the front steps of the university’s Widener Library. Organizers in fluorescent security vests were distributing cloth masks, not as a precaution against COVID-19 but as a means to help protect students’ identities. The pillars of the library were decorated with Palestinian flags and a large sign reading “STOP THE GENOCIDE IN GAZA.” A member of Harvard’s African and African American Resistance Organization, which had signed the letter, delivered remarks comparing the Palestinian cause to the resistance movement in apartheid South Africa.

“The West vilified the people and labelled them terrorists,” he said. “Today, we call them liberators.” (He didn’t mention that, unlike Hamas, the African National Congress avoided deliberately targeting civilians.)

Another speaker wept as she recalled learning about the developing catastrophe from relatives in Gaza. By the end of the week, she said, many of her family members had been killed. The last thing one of her great aunts had told her before losing cell service was “Ihna bil mot”: “We are in death.” “It takes courage in this moment to stand up for Palestine,” the student said. “Speaking out is not easy, but it is right. It is necessary.”

On Sunday, at her off-campus apartment, Yasmeen, the statement’s co-author, told me that before the Hamas attacks she’d felt a swelling of support on campus for the Palestinian cause. “We have held events that were some of the most attended ones in Harvard’s history,” she said. “Rooms were packed to hear about Palestine. It almost felt like if you were a progressive person you had to be on board. And then this happened.”

She was sitting on an orange couch in her living room, under a framed poster that read “Visit Palestine.” Beside her were Nadia and another friend, who asked that I call her Yara. The women, all Palestinian American graduate students, periodically whispered in Arabic to debate whether one detail or another belonged on the record. There were reports in the U.S. of an uptick in threats against both Jewish and Muslim communities. Outside of Chicago, a six-year-old Palestinian American boy had been stabbed to death by his family’s seventy-one-year-old landlord. One of the women’s friends on campus had been bombarded with hate mail and was too scared to leave her house; a rotating group of students had been escorting her to class.

Yasmeen described the surreal whiplash of confronting the war abroad and the upheaval on campus simultaneously. The letter had had the paradoxical effect of distracting from the plight of Gazans. A few days before, Yasmeen had been helping a doxed classmate manage the fallout with her prospective employer when she got a notification from her father informing her that several of their family members were dead. “Someone said, ‘I’m so sorry,’ ” Yasmeen recalled. “And then we just moved along to the doxing shit.”

Both Nadia’s and Yara’s names had appeared on the “Harvard Hates Jews” Web site, but they didn’t know if their faces had been on the truck, and they didn’t seem particularly concerned about it. “I hope they choose a nice photo,” Nadia joked. For years, Nadia and Yara have had profiles on Canary Mission, a Web site that purports to document “hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews” on college campuses by crowdsourcing dossiers of student activists. “This isn’t a new phenomenon at all for Palestinians or allies of the struggle for Palestinian Liberation,” Nadia said. “It’s just a risk that we know comes with the territory.”

Other campuses have been roiled by similar controversies since the eruption of the war. At the University of Pennsylvania, a trustee resigned over the appearance of anti-Israel speakers at a campus Palestinian literary festival. The corporate law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell announced that it had rescinded job offers made to three students at Columbia and Harvard. A billionaire couple had resigned from one of Harvard’s executive boards, and the Wexner Foundation, a prominent Jewish nonprofit, had severed its decades-long relationship with the school, citing its “tiptoeing, equivocating” response to the student statement. To Yasmeen, Nadia, and Yara, the backlash exemplified a tendency to conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism, and advocacy for Palestinian liberation with support for terror.

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