More than 100 Harvard faculty members across eight of the University’s schools criticized Harvard President Claudine Gay’s condemnation of the pro-Palestine slogan “from the river to the sea” in an open letter to the president Monday.
Amid heightened campus tensions surrounding the war in Israel and Gaza and rising pressure from University donors to more forcefully condemn antisemitism, Gay issued a statement last Thursday condemning the phrase. Gay also wrote that Harvard would work with a newly formed antisemitism advisory group to implement antisemitism training for affiliates.
The letter’s signatories include prominent professors such as former Lowell House Faculty Dean Diana L. Eck, Philosophy Department Chair Bernhard Nickel, and History professor Sugata Bose, a former member of India’s parliament.
Monday’s letter stated that the pro-Palestine phrase has “a long and complicated history.” Calling attention to the specific phrase as “necessarily implying removalism or even eliminationism,” the letter added, is “imprudent as a matter of university policy and badly misjudged as an act of moral leadership.”
The letter stated the signatories were “profoundly dismayed” with Gay’s statement, which it said raised concerns about academic freedom.
“The University’s commitment to intellectual freedom and open dialogue seems to be giving way to something else entirely: a model of education in which the meaning of terms once eligible for interpretation is prescribed from above by a committee whose work was, on Tuesday, described to the faculty as only beginning,” they wrote.
Criticism of Israel, they added, “cannot be ruled as ipso facto antisemitic.”
University spokesperson Jason A. Newton confirmed that Gay had received the letter, but he declined to comment further.
The faculty called for Gay to direct the advisory group to “explain the definition of antisemitism” to affiliates “before recommending any policies touching upon the freedom of thought and expression on our campus.”
The letter seemed to reference statements by Harvard Chabad President Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi, who condemned the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee — a student group that penned a controversial statement holding Israel responsible for the initial attack — as “supporting terrorism” in an email to The Crimson.
“At a moment when an affiliate of the University has with apparent impunity stood in the yard and accused students of supporting terrorism, your delineation of the limits of acceptable expression on our campus is dangerously one-sided,” the faculty wrote.
In his email, Zarchi called on Harvard to de-recognize the PSC, following similar sanctions of pro-Palestine student groups at Columbia University and Brandeis University.
But in their letter, the faculty called on Gay not to take disciplinary action against the PSC.
The faculty also asked Gay to resist “calls to set aside the University’s normal disciplinary procedures to prematurely sanction students and employees because of concerns raised about their political activity absent specific allegations of wrongdoing” and to reverse sanctions already placed on affiliates “pending a procedurally sound investigation.”
Walter Johnson, a History professor and the first listed signatory on the letter, confirmed in an email that the letter was referring to Elom Tettey-Tamaklo, a Harvard proctor who was relieved of his position last week after appearing in a video of a confrontation at a “die-in” supporting Palestine at Harvard Business School.
The viral video showed Tettey-Tamaklo, a safety marshal at the event, directing a man identified by several media outlets as an Israeli student away from the event and blocking his camera. The video sparked calls from prominent alumni for Harvard to take disciplinary action against the protestors.
Harvard College spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo declined to comment, citing a policy against commenting on personnel matters.
The faculty letter also called on Harvard to “explicitly and specifically” affirm the school’s commitment to academic freedom, denounce what they described as a “‘Palestinian exception’ to free speech,” and create an advisory group on “Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab racism.”
Two signatories — Sociology assistant professor Adaner Usmani ’08 and Harvard Law School professor David W. Kennedy — are also members of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard, a group formed in April to advocate for free speech at the University.
“We are firmly committed to academic freedom for our students — all of them. As should be obvious, this commitment brooks no ‘Palestine exception’ for students who harshly attack Israel’s policies,” Edward J. Hall, a Philosophy professor and one of the Council’s founding co-presidents, wrote in an emailed statement on behalf of the Council’s presidents and executive director.
“While those students, and the groups to which they belong, should be ready to face pointed criticisms both of their ideas and the words they choose to express them, they must not fear official sanction,” Hall wrote.
—Staff writer Rahem D. Hamid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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