Harvard Ignites Backlash Over Delayed Response to Hamas Attack on Israel

The letter was signed by more than 30 student groups at Harvard after the world woke to images of a mass attack by Hamas on civilians in Israel, including hundreds of young people at a music festival.

(Bloomberg) — The letter was signed by more than 30 student groups at Harvard after the world woke to images of a mass attack by Hamas on civilians in Israel, including hundreds of young people at a music festival.

The “events did not occur in a vacuum,” the students wrote, laying sole responsibility for the violence on Israel.

As word of the letter spread, it sparked backlash from other students, lit up alumni channels, dominated the Harvard Crimson’s homepage and ignited a controversy that has drawn in the likes of investor Bill Ackman and former university President Larry Summers.

For more on the Israel-Hamas war, click TOP IHW.

Summers said on social media that he was “sickened” by the failure of the university to condemn “terrorist attacks,” and contrasted the position Harvard had taken to other events, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police.

Hours later, Harvard President Claudine Gay and other university leadership issued a letter titled “War in the Middle East.” It spoke of the “death and destruction unleashed by the attack by Hamas that targeted citizens in Israel this weekend, and by the war in Israel and Gaza now under way,” but didn’t address the students’ views.

That, in turn, spawned even more criticism. 

Jason Furman, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a former top economic advisor in the Obama Administration, wrote on X that he felt compelled to speak up.

“Acknowledging that killing hundreds of innocents is wrong should be an easy place to start,” Furman said in a post.

Tensions around Israel and Palestine have been increasing on campuses across the US, including at Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania and University of California, Berkeley. According to the Anti-Defamation League, a vocal segment of US student groups and faculty with anti-Israel and anti-Zionist views have grown in prominence. 

Critics of Israel say the activism has increased because of the actions of a more hard-line government and its treatment of Palestinians.

The institutions, meanwhile, are grappling with how to preserve the right to free expression and academic freedom against calls for more oversight over the language and actions of students, faculty and administrators.

Some students at the University of California, Berkeley, espoused support for Hamas’ attack, though law school Dean Erwin Chemerinsky said they have the right to express their opinion.

“As much as I detest those who are defending what Hamas has done, I also support the free speech right to do so,” said Chemerinsky, the co-author of Free Speech on Campus. “It’s a very difficult situation. Emotions are high.”

At New York University, law school dean Troy McKenzie issued a statement saying a message from the president of the Student Bar Association — which also laid blame on Israel — doesn’t speak for the institution’s leadership.

“It certainly does not express my own views, because I condemn the killing of civilians and acts of terrorism as always reprehensible,” McKenzie said.

Law firm Winston & Strawn rescinded an employment offer to the student, who was previously a summer associate, after learning of their “inflammatory” comments. 

In a Bloomberg Television interview, Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber said his community so far has been civil and supportive despite the tensions. 

“There is a lot of anguish and anger over the murderous attacks that Hamas made in Israel,” he said, noting that he issued a statement Oct. 10 condemning Hamas for committing among “the most atrocious of terrorist acts.” 

Summers, a Harvard University professor and paid contributor to Bloomberg TV, said there’s nothing wrong with criticism of Israeli policy, but that’s “very different from lack of clarity regarding terrorism.”

A group of Harvard organizations, including Hillel — the school’s Jewish center — and the Ice Hockey Club, signed a petition urging the university to denounce Hamas’ actions. By Tuesday, it had more than 3,000 signatures.

Harvard President Gay then released another statement on Tuesday, in which she explicitly decried the attack and addressed the student letter.

“As the events of recent days continue to reverberate, let there be no doubt that I condemn the terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas,” Gay said. “Such inhumanity is abhorrent, whatever one’s individual views of the origins of longstanding conflicts in the region.” 

“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,” she said. 

Some want Harvard to go further.

Ackman — a Harvard alum — said in a post on X that he’s been asked if the university would release a list of the members of the groups that issued the student letter so that employers can avoid hiring them.

“One should not be able to hide behind a corporate shield when issuing statements supporting the actions of terrorists,” Ackman said.

Summers opposed that in an interview Wednesday on Bloomberg TV’s Wall Street Week with David Westin, saying Ackman was “getting a bit carried away.” Asking for lists of names is “the stuff of Joe McCarthy,” he said. At Harvard, some students might have acted rashly or not fully understood what they were signing, Summers said. He welcomed Gay’s latest comments and said, “We’ve got to keep the temperature down.”

The Harvard Crimson reported that, as of Tuesday night, at least five of the original 34 groups that signed the controversial letter have withdrawn their support for it.

(Updates with Princeton comment in 17th paragraph)

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