“It’s absolutely tragic what Hamas has done to the people of Gaza, beyond tragic,” said Dara Horn.

For Harvard expert on history of antisemitism, ‘It’s about making Jews not be Jewish’

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For Harvard expert on history of antisemitism, ‘It’s about making Jews not be Jewish’

“It’s absolutely tragic what Hamas has done to the people of Gaza, beyond tragic,” said Dara Horn.

CAMBRIDGE – Purim may be in the rear-view mirror, and Hanukkah is months away, but both holidays are helpful to Dara Horn in explaining antisemitic threats Jews have faced throughout history.

Purim’s revenge-minded archvillain Haman represents the threat of extermination, Horn said – “a big bad guy wants to kill all the Jews” – while the Hanukkah narrative reflects the peril of assimilation: “An empire wants to destroy Jewish civilization. No one says, ‘Let’s kill all the Jews.’ It’s about making Jews not be Jewish.”

A three-time National Jewish Book Award winner, Horn has become an expert on antisemitism past and present. Her acclaimed 2021 essay collection, “People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present,” contends that mainstream society tolerated Jews as long as they were dead, but not if they were alive, and even less so if they were public about their identity. The book has gained interest following the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks on Israel and concerns over antisemitism worldwide. Horn has been speaking about antisemitism in talks at college campuses – including at Harvard University, her alma mater.

The June 1 talk took place at Harvard Hillel as part of a series of events during class reunion week. It also was a chance for the audience to learn about the recently formed Harvard Jewish Alumni Alliance (HJAA), an advocacy group for Jewish students at the Ivy League university. Horn was marking her 25th reunion as a member of the Class of 1999. She also received a doctorate from Harvard in comparative literature in 2006.

At Hillel, she discussed aspects of Jewish history from biblical times to the present, and related them to the larger phenomenon of antisemitism. How much did Jews in ancient Judea wish to assimilate into the Hellenistic empire of the ancient Greek Seleucids? Young men underwent reverse circumcisions to participate in Greek athletic competitions in the nude, as was the custom back then. During the Russian Revolution of 1917, how did Jewish communist supporters reassure other Jews that Lenin bore them no ill will? According to Horn, it was by arguing that the communists were anti-Zionist but not antisemitic. She added that thousands of Russian Jews subsequently fell victim to Soviet persecution.

“All the lies are part of the foundational big lie that Jews are collectively evil and have no right to exist,” Horn said. “All these Western societies define themselves by opposition to whatever they call Judaism.”

After her talk, the Journal asked Horn about the role of anti-Zionist Jewish students in pro-Palestinian campus protests that erupted in response to Israeli attacks in Gaza following the Oct. 7 siege by Hamas.

Within the Jewish community, she said, there are “lots of different opinions. Over 80 percent of American Jews are Zionists. It’s way higher for the West [in general]. Half the world’s Jews live in Israel … This is a very, very, very fringe group.”

As for how much Israel’s conduct of the war in Gaza may be affecting anti-Zionist public opinion overall, she replied, “This whole war could end if Hamas releases the hostages and surrenders … It’s absolutely tragic what Hamas has done to the people of Gaza, beyond tragic.”

Much of Horn’s talk focused on her participation in a Harvard advisory group on antisemitism, which was formed following the Oct. 7 attacks and their repercussions on campus. Over 30 student groups signed a letter pinning full blame on “the Israeli regime” for any resulting violence. Some groups retracted their signatures. Pro-Palestinian activism on campus has continued, including a tent encampment this spring and a walkout during commencement to protest the denial of diplomas to 13 students for their roles in the encampment.

According to Horn, after her role on the advisory group was disclosed, Jewish Harvard students contacted her with concerns about antisemitism on campus – not about anti-Israel slogans at rallies, but issues such as harassment, intimidation, vandalism, and stalking. She also made several references to student testimonies regarding a similarly hostile climate on campus that were included in a Harvard Jewish Alumni Alliance audit of pre- and post-Oct. 7 antisemitism and anti-Zionism at Harvard, released last month.

While she praised the advisory committee and its initial support from the Harvard administration, she voiced frustration over the group’s fate, calling its suggestions unheeded and noting that it was disbanded.

Two subsequent task forces have since been established, one on antisemitism and one on Islamophobia.

“Enforce your code of conduct,” Horn said. “There’s a time, place, and manner of protest. Free speech doesn’t mean coming into Ec 10 [a popular introductory class on economics] and disrupting Ec 10.”

“I don’t care if it’s ‘Save the whales,’” Horn said. “Don’t disrupt class.”

She also noted that the advisory group recommended “strengthening education on Jewish civilization,” and she urged that classes in general be examined for “academic rigor.”

Horn encouraged the audience to be more vocal in its advocacy – with a reference to the heroine of Purim, Queen Esther, who at the request of her cousin Mordechai went to King Ahasuerus to plead for him to spare the Jews of Persia from Haman.

“This is our Queen Esther moment,” Horn said.

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