Genia Lukin

Pro-Palestinian protests continue at Harvard, but latest is peaceful

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Pro-Palestinian protests continue at Harvard, but latest is peaceful

Genia Lukin

CAMBRIDGE – When the first pro-Palestinian protest of the spring semester took place at Harvard University Feb. 8, it was interrupted by a pro-Israel counterprotest with unexpected guests.

“We actually come from South Korea,” a demonstrator said. “Of course, South Korea supports Israel … Israel is a country that God truly loves.”

As over 150 pro-Palestinian students and affiliates protested at the Science Center Plaza, with many wearing keffiyehs, holding signs, and waving Palestinian flags, around 10 counter-protestors stood across the community space on a cold winter afternoon.

The Harvard Crimson reported that the pro-Palestinian protest opened with chants including “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Israelis see that slogan – which demands that Palestinians occupy the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, or most of current-day Israel – as a call to destroy Israel.

One speaker, from a Palestinian family, said that over 100 relatives of theirs had been killed during Israel’s war in Gaza. A member of a graduate student union also urged attendees to lobby Harvard to divest from its investments in Israel.

About a half-hour in, the counter-protestors began demonstrating. Participants held signs, posters of Israeli hostages captured by Hamas in the Oct. 7 terror attacks, and an Israeli flag. They included Israelis with connections to Harvard and Cambridge, who have made appearances on campus to show solidarity with pro-Israel students. The group also included visitors from South Korea – a surprise development, according to one of the Israelis, Harvard psychology graduate student Genia Lukin.

Lukin said she believed the South Koreans were a group of Christians – “obviously very evangelical, vocal Christians” – who spontaneously arrived and asked to borrow some of the Israelis’ signs.

Although the Israelis and South Koreans stood next to each other, Lukin described feeling somewhat uncomfortable when one of the South Koreans delivered a sermon about Jesus.

“I actually think this one was on the smaller, milder end of the protests,” she said. “I think I’ve seen worse – quite, quite worse – as protests go.”

That morning, Harvard Hillel campus Rabbi Getzel Davis had discussed the campus situation with the Jewish Journal and to what degree it had changed since the fall, when multiple tensions and controversies arose in the wake of Oct. 7.

“We have students whose friends and families were killed or captured on Oct. 7,” Davis said. “Those losses and worries are very much in our hearts. At the same time, students come to Harvard because they want to learn. So far, most of our students are able to go to class and go to live in their dorms with a greater degree of normalcy.”

On Feb. 1, interim university president Alan Garber told the Crimson that he was concerned about “pernicious” antisemitism and pro-Israel students self-censoring themselves. While Davis did not read the Crimson article, he agreed with Garber’s conclusions.

“Systematically, Israelis have been experiencing real discrimination based on nationality for years,” the rabbi said. “No other nationality on campus is treated as poorly as them, and up until recently we have not seen the administration taking their concerns seriously.”

According to the Crimson, several members of a campus-wide task force on antisemitism met with students at Harvard Hillel this past weekend, and in the semester’s second pro-Palestinian mass protest, demonstrators assembled at the Cambridge Common park and marched to the nearby home of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

Following Oct. 7, Hillel has assisted over 60 Harvard students in informing the administration of instances in which they or their peers felt unsafe. Student sleuths also identified a university staff member who had defaced posters of Israeli hostages. The Department of Education has launched separate investigations of Harvard for not protecting students from antisemitism or behavior targeting Palestinians, Muslims and Arabs.

Davis was among those watching the pro-Palestinian protestors from a distance. So was Rabbi David Wolpe, a visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School who stepped down from the antisemitism task force in December, citing the disappointing congressional testimony of Claudine Gay.

“I think, despite this, things have calmed down a little bit this semester,” Wolpe said, “I think most of the people protesting really don’t understand the situation very well.”

Two Harvard student leaders of the pro-Palestinian protest – sophomore Kojo Acheampong and junior Prince Williams – spoke with the Jewish Journal afterward.

“I think the media sensationalizes Harvard and mischaracterizes our movement and what we advocate for,” Williams said. “They constantly say we advocate violence … We do know history. As Black students … we understand the American government is one of the origins of the apartheid state. We love life. It’s why we call for cease-fire, an end to the occupation. We don’t want people to suffer.”

The pro-Palestinian protest reportedly included several Jewish students. That morning, Davis had been asked whether there is room at Hillel for anti-Zionist Jews.

“Every student is welcome at Harvard Hillel – Jewish, non-Jewish, no matter their politics,” he replied. “We as an institution make decisions around which speakers we platform.

We’re a center for Jewish life on campus for students, regardless of their politics.”

Reflecting on the spring term, Lukin said, “I’m hoping that we’re going to see a more regular semester. I’m also hoping that there’s going to be some kind of attempts at constructive dialogue and community-building within the university.”

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