Feeling alone and distanced, many Jews at Harvard wonder what's next


At Harvard University, the rabbi at a menorah lighting ceremony was unusually direct.

“It pains me to have to say, sadly, that Jew-hatred and anti-Semitism are thriving on this campus,” Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi of Harvard Chabad said Wednesday.

“For twenty-six years I have given my life to this community,” he said. “I've never felt so alone.”

Just the night before, he told those present, a woman passing by the Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony shouted that the Holocaust was fake. When Harvard Chabad hosted a screening of an Israeli military film featuring footage of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, she said campus police advised him to seek safety for her family. Even the giant menorah, prominently displayed in Harvard Yard, was put away every night, she said, to protect it from vandalism.

Claudine Gay, president of Harvard, was nearby, waiting to light a candle. As the rabbi spoke, she looked ahead, looking distressed.

The uproar over Dr. Gay's testimony before Congress (about whether students would be punished if they called for genocide of the Jews) has exposed the deep anxiety, anger and alienation of many of the Jewish students, alumni and religious leaders of Harvard.

In interviews, many Jewish members of the Harvard community described their growing alienation from campus. Protesters have disrupted conferences, shouting through megaphones that the war in Gaza was a genocide. Anti-Semitic messages have been posted on social media. Some students have decided to test their Zionist beliefs in the classroom and in residence. Some have traded in their kippas, or kippahs, for baseball caps.

For students who feel increasingly isolated, it didn't help that many of their Jewish peers had joined the pro-Palestinian protests.

The fall semester closed with more tension. The Harvard Corporation, the school's board of directors, deliberated for hours on Monday before deciding to resist calls to force Dr. Gay's resignation.

The day before, as students prepared for final exams, groups of pro-Palestinian students held a large, silent demonstration at Widener Library, occupying a reading room. Rows of protesters, many of them dressed in kaffiyehs, the Palestinian headscarf, sat at tables with open laptops, all displaying the same flyer: “There is no normality during genocide. Justice for Palestine.”

After one of the most difficult weeks in the university's recent history, and as the campus emptied for the holidays, some Jews in the Harvard community called on Dr. Gay and the university to reset for the new year. They said something urgently needed to be done to correct the perception that the institution had turned its back on Jews.

The issue goes beyond the war between Israel and Hamas. Jews, who have had high admission rates to the Ivy League, are declining in number. At Harvard, the decline has been especially steep, falling to less than 10 percent of the current student body from about 20 percent a generation ago, according to estimates from outside academics and surveys of the student body, including one by The Harvard Crimson. the student newspaper.

Those figures reminded some alumni of the university's history of bias against Jewish applicants. In the 1920s, Harvard's Jewish population represented about a quarter of the student body. But then the school instituted quotas meant to limit its admission, which lasted for decades. The percentage of Jewish students dropped to about 10 to 15 percent of all students, according to Marcia Graham Synnott, whose book “The Door Half Open” examined discrimination at the Ivy League.

That legacy helped fuel unrest over current campus politics.

“Seeing the resurgence of anti-Semitism in this context of wonderful and fairly recent acceptance is very, very painful for many Jews,” said Mark Oppenheimer, a journalist who has studied the Jewish experience at the Ivy League. “We thought these were institutions that were deeply welcoming and were going to continue to be deeply welcoming.”

Dr. Gay's critics said she was slow to condemn the Hamas attacks. In her view, she had also not been quick enough to speak out against pro-Palestinian student groups who said they held Israel “totally responsible for all the violence that was unfolding” in the conflict.

In response, a Harvard spokesperson on Saturday pointed to a half-dozen campus events where Dr. Gay had joined Jewish students since Oct. 7, and referred to her earlier statement announcing the creation of a group advisor on antisemitism. The group, Dr. Gay said, would aim to “intervene to disrupt and dismantle this ideology.”

Trust was almost completely broken after the December 5 Congressional hearing, when Dr. Gay; Sally Kornbluth, president of MIT; and Elizabeth Magill of the University of Pennsylvania seemed to dodge questions about disciplining students if they called for the genocide of the Jews. Magill resigned as president four days later.

Dr. Gay apologized for her testimony. “When words amplify anguish and pain, I don't know how you can feel anything but regret,” she told The Harvard Crimson.

He must still lead a deeply divided campus and continue trying to balance the freedom to protest with the fears of many Jews – who say certain slogans used by pro-Palestinian protesters – such as “from the river to the sea” and “globalizing the intifada” – are anti-Semitic. and a call for violence against them.

But Ari Kohn, 20, a Jewish second-year student from Toronto, said that while she “believes in the State of Israel,” she has not experienced the pro-Palestinian movement at Harvard as a threat.

“It's important to understand that when people call for an intifada they are asked, 'What do you mean by that?'” he said. “We all use different definitions of the same word. Giving the benefit of the doubt to my peers, my faculty and my community is really important.”

For other students, the campus has become a strange place.

“After October 7, there was a very palpable and tangible change,” said Shabat Kestenbaum, an Orthodox Jew and graduate student at Harvard Divinity School.

She said her classmates – “whom I literally sit next to” – have posted messages on their social media “that explicitly praise Hamas, that deny the rape and kidnapping of Israeli women.”

He added: “I certainly don't feel comfortable, and I wouldn't even say welcome, in many spaces on campus.”

As criticism mounted, Dr. Gay announced the creation of an advisory group to combat anti-Semitism.

There has already been a defection. After Dr. Gay's testimony before Congress, Rabbi David Wolpe, a visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School, resigned from the committee.

In an interview after the Harvard Corporation announced its support for Dr. Gay, he said he found her “intelligent, thoughtful, and genuinely curious.” But he said she resigned because anti-Semitism at Harvard was getting worse and he wasn't convinced the committee would make a difference.

“I remain hopeful, but not convinced, that Harvard will change in the way I want it to,” he added.

In response to her resignation, Dr. Gay said she was “committed to ensuring that no member of our Jewish community faces this hatred in any form.”

Some have resisted the depiction of a campus rife with anti-Semitism.

Noah Feldman, a jurist and director of a program on Jewish and Israeli law, said he had “never” experienced anti-Semitism on the Harvard campus, not even during the years when, as a practicing Jew, he regularly wore a kippah.

How to move forward in such a stalemate? Rabbi Getzel Davis from the Harvard Hillel chapter He said there were practical things to do.

He noted that until the recent changes instituted by Dr. Gay, the university's various diversity programs had not focused their work on Jews.

But now students who report incidents of bias are having trouble navigating Harvard's diversity, equity and inclusion bureaucracy, to the point that Hillel hired a part-time staff member to help with the process.

Rabbi Davis said the university should do a better job enforcing its own rules against hate speech and actions. He would like to see more events for interfaith reflection and exchange. And he said the university should educate students about the history of anti-Semitism.

That might help some students.

Maya Bodnick, 19, a Harvard sophomore from Atherton, California, said she was cautious about sharing her liberal Zionist views on campus, because many on the left were simply not open to her perspective. Many of these students, she said, categorized Jews as oppressors, failing to acknowledge their suffering at the hands of others for millennia.

“It's been very disappointing,” he said. “I worry that my peers have a very skewed understanding of Judaism and anti-Semitism.”

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