Harvard Chabad Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi told students and faculty that the campus menorah would be put away at night because Harvard could not protect it. | Michal Mode

Elite colleges like Harvard and MIT face the ‘task of educating a generation’ about antisemitism

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Elite colleges like Harvard and MIT face the ‘task of educating a generation’ about antisemitism

Harvard Chabad Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi told students and faculty that the campus menorah would be put away at night because Harvard could not protect it. | Michal Mode

CAMBRIDGE – Talia Khan spoke on the phone from a hotel room in Brazil. She was there for a conference she attended as a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and at the same time, she was fielding calls from the press.

Khan, it seems, has become the de facto speaker, public relations contact, and champion for Israel and Jewish students at MIT. “I get texts and emails every single day from current students, telling me about another antisemitic event,” she said from the conference.

“It’s not my job, it shouldn’t be my job,” she said. “It’s become my job because [MIT President] Sally Kornbluth has failed to do her job … I just want to be a student. It has taken over my life.”

Khan has made a name for herself following her speech at a House Republican press conference (along with students from New York University, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania) on Dec. 5. Khan, who is president of the MIT Israel Alliance, highlighted the specific and prolific instances of antisemitism she has experienced or witnessed at MIT over the last two months, in addition to providing Congress a letter with links to documents outlining the antisemitic “rot” – as she’s come to refer to it – that has taken root on her campus.

Examples at MIT include disruptive protests on campus, including chants of “From the river to the sea,” “Raise up your two fists and sacrifice everything for Palestine,” and “intifada,” which calls for an armed uprising of Palestinians against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Other examples include students feeling the need to leave study groups where people say the Israeli deaths on Oct. 7 were deserved; staff supporting anti-Israel conspiracy theories; and Jewish students being forced to remove Israeli flags while other flags remain up.

At Harvard, where President Claudine Gay will remain in office with the backing of the university’s board following a series of letters both in favor and against her resignation, antisemitism has found fertile soil as well.

“If I were to go through every event that has happened at Harvard over the past two months, we could be here all day,” said Rabbi Getzel Davis of Harvard Hillel. “These events range from students excluded from groups because of their Jewish identities, students being harassed in the streets … [to] personal relationships [ending].”

Davis said that the Congressional hearing on Dec. 5 that took testimony from Harvard’s Gay, MIT’s Kornbluth, and Penn’s Liz Magill – who resigned soon after – did little to persuade the campus community that Jewish students were safe.

“It had a profound effect on our student body,” he said. “We were appalled by a need to state the obvious, that a call for genocide against Jews … is always [violent], and that chants to ‘globalize the intifada’ is an endorsement of violent terrorist attacks against Jews and Israeli citizens … Students were deeply upset both around the content of [Gay’s] words and the way she said them.”

“Those infamous three minutes of testimony were astounding to many and alarming to people … on college campuses,” said Rabbi Jonah Steinberg, regional director of New England Anti-Defamation League. “The tragedy of it is that Claudine Gay, for example, said exactly what she said in her subsequent apology in her opening remarks … It is boggling to me that she did not simply repeat those words when questioned.”

Yet, despite the disappointment and alarm with which much of the Jewish world viewed Gay’s testimony, many are not looking for her to step down.

“The president is just a figurehead,” Davis said. “We look forward to working across the administration, including with President Gay.” Harvard Hillel has plans to work with the administration to implement educational opportunities across campus on antisemitism, which will likely begin in the spring.

Khan, too, referred to her university’s president as a “figurehead,” and argued that removing her would be a largely meaningless act. On Dec. 7, the MIT governing board announced full support of Kornbluth to remain in office.

“It’s not Sally acting independently,” Khan said. “Just getting rid of the president is not going to do much, they’re just going to replace her with another puppet … Antisemitism is not only normalized, but it’s institutional, it’s deeply embedded. I think that you need to have institutional change.”

The need for change has been widely discussed following both the events of Oct. 7 and the Congressional hearing on Dec. 5. Last week, Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard, published an op-ed in the Boston Globe, outlining five ways universities need to change on an institutional level to accomplish a true shift in free speech and safety on campus. In an email to the Journal, he wrote, “Gay did no worse than the other two university presidents, suggesting the issue is systemic.”

This, too, seems to be the basis behind many professors’ support of Gay and Kornbluth staying in office.

Professor Derek Penslar, who was one of the coauthors of the letter of support over 700 Harvard faculty signed in favor of Gay staying, said in an email to the Journal, “Harvard has problems with antisemitism that the firing of the president will do nothing to solve. As Professor Steven Pinker has said, Gay herself is not an antisemite and did not bring on the problems at Harvard, which have been brewing for some time and will require effort from many quarters to address.”

For some, however, the prospect of addressing systemic change is daunting and disheartening. Rabbi David Wolpe, a visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School and a rabbinic fellow with the ADL, stepped down from Harvard’s antisemitism task force on Dec. 7, writing on X, “This is the task of educating a generation, and also a vast unlearning.”

Meanwhile, at a menorah lighting this month, Harvard Chabad Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi told a group of students and faculty that the menorah would be put away at night because Harvard could not protect it. “It pains me to have to say, sadly, that Jew hate and antisemitism is thriving on this campus,” he said.

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