CAMBRIDGE — On the surface, the Harvard school newspaper editorial board’s recent endorsement of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, or BDS, is nonbinding since the board doesn’t represent the university. Still, nearly two weeks after the Crimson editorial board called for a boycott of Israel, some Harvard Jewish students and academics are perplexed by the board’s decision and say that it overlooked key facts about the movement. To date, BDS has not endorsed a two-state Palestinian solution and does not advocate for coexistence with Israel.
The backing of the controversial boycott movement – which has been championed by the likes of academics such as Cornel West – a Harvard grad and former professor – and pop stars like Roger Waters of Pink Floyd – was published April 29, the day after Yom HaShoah: Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was approved by the 87-member Crimson editorial board – made up entirely of undergraduates who won’t earn diplomas until at least 2023 – at a time when the campus was festooned with anti-Israel posters put up by students during “Israel Apartheid Week.” One of the posters was in black and white, and featured cattle cars entering a camp marked by an Israeli flag.
The 1,000 word editorial, “In Support of Boycott, Divest, Sanctions and a Free Palestine,” cites the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee as an inspiration for the endorsement – the same group that erected panels on campus such as “Zionism is Racism” last month. “Art is a potent form of resistance, and we are humbled by our peer’s passion and skill,” the editorial states. While the editorial denounces antisemitism, it makes no mention of the antisemitism ingrained in parts of Palestinian culture, in the Hamas charter, and by Palestinian Authority leaders, along with its media. Instead, it posits that journalists face retribution for reporting critical stories about Israel and accuses the country of strong-arming reporters. “Dare question Israel policies or endorse Palestinian freedom and you will be shunned from the newsroom” – a charge that, to date, few working journalists have expressed. It also cites the “overwhelming power imbalance that defines and constricts the ongoing debate,” and mentions that nearly 50 Palestinians have been killed this year by Israeli soldiers. But there is no mention of the 19 Israelis – nearly all civilians – killed by Palestinians since March 22. It also does not mention Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2006, and seeks Israel’s destruction. Nor does it mention Israel’s negotiations and attempts to create a Palestinian state since 1992.
The endorsement was alternately celebrated and denounced in and around Greater Boston and on the Harvard campus. Orlee G.S. Marini-Rapoport, editorial chair of the Crimson, referred to her religion when she posted the board’s decision on Twitter:
“I am an Editorial Chair @thecrimson. I am also Jewish. Yesterday, the Board overturned a decades-old precedent; for the first time, we announced our support of BDS. I encourage you to read our editorial. I’m so proud to be part of this thoughtful group.”
Her message was retweeted by pro-Palestinian groups, including Jewish Voice for Peace. “The fact that this was done while the paper is helmed by a Jewish student who publicly supported the move is extra heartening,” the group wrote on Twitter.
Harvard President Lawrence Bacow, whose mother survived Auschwitz, did not respond to an interview request from the Journal. But in a May 3 Harvard faculty meeting, he told professors that he would not comment on the Crimson editorial.
“The Crimson is a student newspaper,” he said. “It is independent of the university, and, I think it is fair to say, the Crimson does not represent, or certainly the editorial board does not represent, the views of the university. The Crimson editorial board represents the views of the Crimson editorial board. We believe in a free press. They are entitled to publish what they wish and to share their views as they may.”
In an op-ed in the Crimson, and republished on page 1 of the Journal, Crimson associate news editor and Harvard Hillel president Natalie L. Kahn criticized the board’s BDS endorsement.
“We live in a country where peaceful protest is strongly encouraged. But the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement – overwhelmingly condemned by Congress in a 2019 resolution passed 398-17 – is not just a boycott; BDS rejects Jewish self-determination altogether,” she writes. “If you doubt me, ask its founders: ‘Definitely, most definitely, we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine,’ said BDS cofounder Omar Barghouti, who also declared that Palestinians have a right to “resistance by any means, including armed resistance.”
This week, more than 100 past and current members of the Harvard faculty issued a statement declaring they were “dismayed” by the editorial board’s political stance. Signees included former U.S. Treasury secretary and Harvard president Larry Summers, Gabriella Blum, Amy Comander, Alan Dershowitz, Gary R. Fleisher, Jesse Fried, Jeffrey Hamburger, Jon D. Levenson, Robert Mnookin, Eric Nelson, Elisa New, Steven Pinker, Steven Shavell, David Stern, Ruth Wisse, and Richard Zeckhauser.
“Contrary to the Crimson editorial, and despite its claim to be a movement for social justice, BDS does not advocate for coexistence, peace building toward a two-state solution, or even dialogue with Israel’s supporters on our campus. BDS negates the importance of Israel for Jewish continuity and as a refuge and safe haven for Jews who need one. It excludes Israel’s remarkable achievements as a post-colonial nation after independence, ignores the country’s relative successes in integrating waves of multi-ethnic and multi-racial communities, and neglects Israel’s own efforts at peace. Because of the movement’s rigid policy of ‘anti-normalization,’ BDS casts Israel as uniquely malevolent among nations, with any and all attempts at mutual understanding to be resisted,” the professors wrote.
They also criticized the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee – the same organization the Crimson praised in its editorial, and which sponsored the anti-Israel posters on campus:
“We are saddened and disheartened that both the Crimson and the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC), to which the Editorial Board gave full-throated support in its editorial, are creating spaces on campus where Jewish and Zionist students are targeted and made to feel unwelcome. In its ‘Wall of Resistance’ art installation at Harvard Yard, callously displayed over the Passover holiday, the PSC equated Zionism with “racism” and “white supremacy.” Such language is shameful and has no place at Harvard. We call out this rhetoric for what it is: anti-Jewish hate speech that is antithetical to the values of any academic institution.”
In an interview, Dershowitz, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Emeritus, called it “the worst piece of journalistic malpractice” he’s seen at the Crimson since he arrived at Harvard 58 years ago.
“It’s blatantly antisemitic,” he said. “It also refers to Jewish power, which is part of the old canard about Jews – disproportionate power; it suggests that it takes courage today to stand up against Israel on college campuses. They’ve got it exactly backwards.”
Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard, added “The editorial board of a newspaper has the right to advance a position, but it also has a responsibility to publish criticisms of that position, and they should publish a rebuttal which would point out its moral incoherence. The rebuttal would call attention to the invidious decision to single out one country for opprobrium in a world of nations that commit oppressions that are orders of magnitude more harmful, including China and many Muslim theocracies. It would call out the lack of an acknowledgment that Israel’s policies, even when excessive or ultimately unjustified, are a response to real acts and commitments of violence against it. And it would condemn the idea of boycotting scholars because of their national origin, which contradicts the deepest principles of intellectual life.”
This is not the first time the Crimson has taken a strong position that has angered Jews. Throughout the 1930s, its editorial board repeatedly supported then-Harvard president James Conant, who sought to maintain friendly relations with Nazi leaders and universities.
Stephen Norwood, in his 2009 book “The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower: Complicity and Conflict on American Campuses,” documents numerous instances of Conant appeasing Nazi Germany, with the Crimson’s editorial backing. In 1935, Harvard allowed Nazi Germany’s Boston consul to place a wreath with the swastika emblem in the University’s Memorial Church, and the Crimson supported the administration’s decision, calling it, “Harvard’s breadth of mind.”
A year earlier, in 1934, Harvard welcomed the Nazi warship Karlsruhe during its 10-day visit to Boston, according to Norwood. Despite protests from Boston’s Jewish community that ended with the arrests of protesters – which the Crimson endorsed – Harvard held a dinner dance in honor of the warship’s officers and crew.
That same year, the Crimson editorial board supported Harvard’s decision to invite Ernst Hansfstaengl – a Harvard graduate who at the time was the Nazi party’s foreign press chief – to the Class of 1909’s 25th reunion. Hansfstaengl had claimed to create the Nazi salute and Sieg Heil chant. The Crimson editorial board called him “a man of ability and distinction,” and suggested that Harvard grant him an honorary degree as a mark “of honor appropriate to his high position in the government of a friendly country.”
Steven A. Rosenberg is the Journal’s publisher and editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.