This is an edited and slightly extended version of remarks delivered at the Harvard Medical and Dental School Shabbat Observance on Nov. 10, 2023. The opinions expressed reflect only the views of the author.
I am honored by the invitation to be here. I am identified but not devout or highly observant—less familiar with Shabbat rituals than almost all of you. Indeed, but for the harrowing events of the last month it is very unlikely that I would be attending a Shabbat dinner tonight.
We are—I am convinced—at a moment of mortal and moral peril in the world and in university communities like our own. After what we have heard tonight it is not for me to detail Hamas’s evil barbarism or the malevolence of its sponsors. President Biden too has already done that.
My focus tonight will be much closer to home. Since 20 years ago, when I spoke of antisemitism in effect if not intent in response to the Divest Israel movement, I have been alarmed. More recent developments—from Crimson endorsements of BDS, to testimonials by Israeli students regarding in-class discrimination, to vile social media posts—only heightened my concern.
Even so, I am shocked and appalled by what I have seen on university campuses including ours since October 7. I should have raised my voice louder. It is not a mistake I will make again.
We come together at a moment of danger.
Antisemitism is a cancer—a lethal adversary best addressed as rapidly, thoughtfully, and aggressively as possible.
Harvard has not been swift in its response. Others have done better. After a long month of delay, the kinds of statements that many of us have been insisting on from the first day have come from university leaders.
This is welcome but any treatment plan is only a first step towards recovery. I want to reflect for a few minutes on the road ahead.
Of the many conversations I have had about recent events, none has had a stronger impact on me than the one Dr. Kaplan and I had as we discussed tonight’s event. Tammy commented indignantly and accurately on a number of places where antisemitism issues were being treated less seriously and aggressively than parallel prejudice issues.
Then Tammy said the thing I can’t get out of mind. She said that not long ago she had come to the bedside of an unconscious young man whose body was covered with swastika tattoos. She told me how she did a double take, saw his crying mother, and then proceeded to do what was right and treat the young man.
How are we now to reconcile our hurt, our fear, our rage with our responsibility?
Not by doxxing and inciting mobs to threaten even those whose views we abhor most.
Not by supporting violence that touches innocents beyond that which is absolutely necessary for successful and enduring self-defense.
Not by seeking to shut down criticism of governments or countries to whom we feel loyalty.
Not by calling for guilt by association or discipline or humiliation of anyone without due process.
Not by suggesting ours is the only group suffering injustice or rightly feeling under threat.
To do any of these things would be in some way to lower ourselves to the level of those hurting us most. That is what they most want. We must not and will not give it to them.
How then to go forward? Spreading cancers cannot be contained with limited, casual, or partial responses. The stronger and more vigorous the response, the greater the prospect of a return to normal.
While intellectual communities often pride themselves as being at the vanguard of justice, this is not always the case. German universities were not just passive but on the wrong side in the 1930s. American universities self-regarding as progressive were in the vanguard of the eugenics movement. Matters of course are very different today, but history is cautionary and speaks to the responsibility of trustees and leaders.
It is the responsibility of university leaderships—deans, presidents, and outside trustees—while leaving the cut and thrust of politics and policy, to assure that universities are sources of moral clarity on the great questions of their time.
It is shameful that no honest observer looking at the record of the last few years and especially at the last month can suppose that universities’ responses including Harvard to antisemitism have paralleled in vigor or volume the responses to racism or other forms of prejudice.
For example, with few exceptions, those most directly charged with confronting prejudice—Offices of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion—have failed to stand with Israeli and Jewish students confronting the oldest prejudice of them all.
And there may even have been cases where they did more to support the prejudiced than victims. Ideologies arising out of identity politics have too often had the effect of driving discrimination against groups whose members have been most committed to the values of rigorous study and intellectual inquiry.
With recent leadership statements, I hope and trust this is changing, though there is much to be done if consistency is to be achieved in what rhetoric is condemned, what policies are enforced and what standards of discipline are applied.
Double standards are unacceptable. I believe though that those of us concerned with prejudice against Jews make a grave mistake if we embrace the approach of identity politics and seek only to be an equally recognized identity.
Ours must instead be an insistence on seeing past false equivalence to moral clarity as a central component of education.
Make no mistake. To do otherwise is not to have antisemitic intent. But it risks antisemitic effect.
This means recognizing the difference between wanton acts of terror and defensive responses.
This means seeing that singling out Israel with widely understood calls for its annihilation is Jew hatred of an unacceptable sort.
This means acknowledging the truth often attributed to Orwell: “people sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
This means pondering that there is evil in the world and considering with the greatest of care and seriousness how to respond.
If they aspire to be places of moral leadership, universities must seek not the soft understanding that glides over questions of right and wrong. Rather the hard comprehensions that grave threats demand.
In a way I would not have imagined even a few years ago, I believe the United States, Israel, and their allies are engaged in a profound, even existential struggle. Even a casual examination of the state press in Russia or China or Iran will demonstrate that antisemitism is intertwined with totalitarianism.
These may not be easy years for our country or our people. The intellectual and moral challenges with which universities must contend and the extent of internal division within them is greater than at any time since I came to Harvard 40 years ago.
We must all do our part. Leadership will be essential, but looking around me tonight I am so encouraged by the talent, by the humanity, and by the moral seriousness of those gathered here.
We will not just endure but prevail by, yes, insisting on what is right but also carrying on with our vitally important work in the library and the lab, the classroom and the common room.