Shabbos Kestenbaum, pictured, and Students Against Antisemitism, Inc. filed a lawsuit against Harvard Jan. 11.

Tensions remain high at Harvard after Gay’s departure

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Tensions remain high at Harvard after Gay’s departure

Shabbos Kestenbaum, pictured, and Students Against Antisemitism, Inc. filed a lawsuit against Harvard Jan. 11.

Claudine Gay has resigned as president of Harvard University, but the tumult of her departure has only just begun.

The news came during increasingly publicized and heated allegations of plagiarism in Gay’s scholarly work, nearly a month after the former president’s tepid responses in the Congressional hearing on antisemitism on college campuses, and after Harvard’s board assured the world she would remain in office. She is the second to resign of the three presidents who testified before Congress; Liz Magill of the University of Pennsylvania resigned on Dec. 9, and Sally Kornbluth is still president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

On Jan. 2, Gay wrote in a statement that she is stepping down as president at Harvard. The Harvard Corporation also released a statement expressing gratitude for Gay’s time in office, as well as to Alan M. Garber, provost and chief academic officer, who will serve as interim president following Gay’s resignation.

On Jan. 9, Congress asked Harvard to turn over a list of documents in its investigation of antisemitism on the campus, citing a long history of antisemitic issues. The Dec. 5 Congressional hearing that preceded this request was at the forefront of much of the pressure to topple Gay, centering on how she would not clearly say that calls for the genocide of Jews violated Harvard’s code of conduct.

“When you are unable to call out the genocide of Jewish people, then you are not fit to lead,” said Alexander “Shabbos” Kestenbaum, a second-year graduate student at Harvard Divinity School. “I’m glad she’s gone. I hope the new president, whoever they are, can now finally take the concerns of Jewish students seriously.”

On Jan. 11, Kestenbaum, along with Students Against Antisemitism, Inc., filed a lawsuit against the university. The complaint alleges that “Harvard, America’s leading university, has become a bastion of rampant anti-Jewish hatred and harassment,” and that Harvard is violating the civil rights of Jewish students at the school.

“Harvard will continue to be an unsafe environment for Jewish students until Harvard takes the necessary action to defend all of its students, regardless of who is president,” Kestenbaum said.

“Unfortunately, antisemitism existed before Claudine Gay’s resignation, and continues to exist afterwards. Our lawsuit clearly demonstrates this. What is required, therefore, is Harvard to finally take our concerns seriously.”

For many, the controversy of Gay stepping down is merely a note in the narrative of antisemitism on the prestigious campus.

“It’s been widely reported that the problems are significantly more pervasive across the university – which by the way, to be clear, is not unique to Harvard,” said Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi, founder and president of Harvard Chabad. “An issue that has kind of developed over the last several years, throughout institutions of higher learning.” He noted that even over winter break, Jewish students were reporting harassment over social media – from conspiracy theories about Jews to attacks on Jewish students and faculty – including on those sites used exclusively by Harvard students. “So, there’s still deep concern, and the recognition that much work is necessary,” he said.

When asked what he thought of Gay stepping down he said, “We’re after that fact. The important work that needs to happen is a lot larger than an individual person or a particular position, but clearly requires the kind of leadership that understands the severity of the issue under discussion.”

Rabbi Getzel Davis, campus rabbi of Harvard Hillel, took a similar stance, saying in a statement, “The most important priority for Harvard Hillel is that our university is a safe and inclusive environment for Jewish students and for all students. We look forward to continuing to work with the next president of Harvard and the rest of the senior University administration, to ensure that Jewish students are able to safely express their identities on our campus.”

Zev Mishell, a first-year graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, said that he does not feel that Harvard is a dangerous place to be a Jew. “I study Judaism, I studied in yeshiva, I went to day school for 12 years, Jewish summer camp, the whole thing,” he said. “That just hasn’t been my experience.

“It’s been tense. But it’s a very, very tense moment in our country.”

Beyond the issue of student safety is the issue of DEI – Diversity, Equity and Inclusion – that has risen to the forefront of conversations about antisemitism at Harvard, particularly around Gay’s resignation.
The day after stepping down, Gay herself published an op-ed in the New York Times titled, “What Just Happened at Harvard Is Bigger Than Me.”

In it, she writes, “It is not lost on me that I make an ideal canvas for projecting every anxiety about the generational and demographic changes unfolding on American campuses: a Black woman selected to lead a storied institution … At tense moments, every one of us must be more skeptical than ever of the loudest and most extreme voices in our culture, however well organized or well connected they might be. Too often they are pursuing self-serving agendas that should be met with more questions and less credulity.”

Gay’s opinion, at least around the “self-serving agendas” of those pushing for her resignation, was reflected in several Harvard affiliates the Journal spoke with for this piece.
Annette Yoshiko Reed is the Krister Stendahl chair at Harvard Divinity School. She teaches on ancient Jews and Judaism and studies Jewish-Christian relations, including Christian anti-Judaism. She said that Gay’s resignation, rather than being a victory for Jews at Harvard, should be a warning sign.

In observing the history of antisemitism, Reed noted how we see “non-Jews using discussions of Jews and Judaism for their own purposes.” She suggested that the intensity behind the pressure of Gay’s resignation stemmed more from concerns around DEI, affirmative action, and “the assumption that President Gay was unqualified until proven otherwise” than from a legitimate desire to carefully address antisemitism on campus. She said that it reminded her of the “instrumentalization of Asian-Americans to overturn affirmative action” (Reed is Jewish and Asian-American).

“It’s a warning sign,” she said. “There’s something so craven about people claiming to be on the side of those who fear rising antisemitism, at the same time as they are using that fear for their own purposes.”
Mishell agreed. “I think antisemitism is being used by the right, is actually being weaponized right now to push back on efforts to make campuses a more equitable place for everyone,” he said. “And that can only come to the detriment of Jewish students like me.”

Alternatively, Kestenbaum argued that serious reforms needed to be made to DEI, and that Gay’s resignation was a necessary act in that regard. “It has nothing to do with race and it has everything to do with incompetence,” he said. “If people want to turn it into race, and ignore the problem with antisemitism, that’s their prerogative, but it doesn’t mean that that is an accurate depiction of the situation at Harvard University.”

Alan Dershowitz, emeritus professor of law at Harvard, agreed, saying of Gay’s resignation, “I think it’s a good thing for Harvard, and I think it’s a good thing for higher education. It really represents a challenge to DEI, to diversity, equity and inclusion, which has been destroying universities. She was the symbol of DEI, and I think a resignation is a necessary setback to DEI.”

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