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May 8, 2022 11:45 am
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The Speech President Lawrence Bacow of Harvard University Needs to Give

avatar by Rachel Fish and Aviva Klompas / JNS.org

Opinion

Harvard Club of New York City. Photo: Jim Henderson / Public Domain.

JNS.org – As the President of Harvard University, it is important for me to speak to you today about the responsibilities that we carry as members of this institution.

As students, you have earned the right to attend one of the world’s most esteemed universities. The Harvard name evokes intellectual rigor, thoughtful inquiry and the righteous pursuit of truth. Indeed, the telos of our university is veritas — truth. It is etched into our brick archways, and we wear it emblazoned above our hearts each time we don a Harvard shirt.

As the President of Harvard University, it is important for me to speak to you today about the responsibilities that we carry as members of this institution.

As students, you have earned the right to attend one of the world’s most esteemed universities. The Harvard name evokes intellectual rigor, thoughtful inquiry and the righteous pursuit of truth. Indeed, the telos of our university is veritas—truth. It is etched into our brick archways, and we wear it emblazoned above our hearts each time we don a Harvard shirt.

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Respect for the rights, differences and dignity of others, honesty and integrity in all dealings, conscientious pursuit of excellence in one’s work, accountability for actions and conduct in the community, and responsibility for the bonds and bridges that enable all to grow with and learn from one another.

Those are our values, and they must be rigorously safeguarded. When these values are under attack, our community is under attack. For this reason, I want to address The Harvard Crimson editorial board’s recent endorsement of BDS.

As a student-run newspaper, the editors of the Crimson should provocatively challenge the status quo and push us to be a more virtuous and principled community. But when its platform is used to desecrate our sacred values, then it is incumbent upon me to speak out.

My opposition to the BDS endorsement is not grounded solely in political differences, but rather in my deep-seated belief that we risk losing our moral compass. To allow the Crimson’s assertions to go unanswered is to contribute to a campus atmosphere that makes many Jewish students and faculty feel marginalized or even endangered.

It may seem to you that this is an overstatement, but I assure you it is not. What becomes normalized on the pages of our newspaper comes to life in our community, sometimes with terrible consequences.

In recent weeks, we have seen students in one of our graduate programs shout down a visiting Israeli diplomat. We have seen accusations that Zionism is equivalent to white supremacy. And we have seen Jewish students asked to account for the policies of the Israeli government.

Let me be clear: It is not academic freedom to indulge in indolent intellectual debate that turns a complex conflict into a one-sided caricature. It is not free speech to spread malicious lies that endanger the wellbeing of a particular group on this campus. It is not ethical or honorable to sacrifice integrity on the altar of popular opinion.

If the rhetoric of our student newspaper makes this community less safe for its Jewish and Israeli members, then we must all speak out. Jew-hatred will not go unchecked at Harvard any longer.

The BDS movement has made its goal explicit: The destruction of the Jewish State. Its core arguments discharge nuance in favor of superficialities. Indeed, BDS may as well stand for Binaries, Divisions and Silos.

The movement does not advocate for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or coexistence between two peoples. Rather, it steadfastly opposes any normalization with Israel and will only be satisfied when the 1948 file is reopened and a dissolution of the Jewish state is achieved.

If the Crimson had published an editorial that argued for the illegitimacy of any other nation-state, our community would be appalled by the absurdity. What does it say, then, if we are silent when the legitimacy of the world’s only Jewish state is questioned?

The oldest form of hatred is alive and well. It is not sufficient to claim to “oppose antisemitism” while ignoring this truth. Jewish people have both the right and the need for self-determination. History has taught the Jewish people this lesson in the costliest manner possible.

If we value truth, dignity, integrity and empathy, then we must make this known.

We must make it known to the entire student body that we will not tolerate the hijacking of the human rights discourse to marginalize individuals in our community.

We must make it known to our Jewish students that they need not check their Jewish and Zionist identities at the doors of our campus.

We must make it known to faculty members that they need not be silent for fear of professional and personal repercussions if they engage in scholarship about Israel.

We must make it known to my fellow administrators that Jews are not solely a religious identity, but rather a diverse ethno-religious community.

We must make it known to colleagues in academic institutions throughout our country that Jew-hatred is on the rise in this country and silence is a form of complicity. They are watching and listening closely, and I hope my words will serve as a clarion call.

I speak to you today as the proud president of this institution, as a committed Jew and as an unapologetic Zionist. Do not contribute to making Jew hatred acceptable in the 21st century.

The rhetoric delegitimizing Israel and demonizing our Jewish students has left us at a crossroads. It is weakening the fabric of our community and eroding the foundation of this institution. You have come to Harvard to sharpen your minds and grapple with complexity. Do not succumb to groupthink and abdicate your moral responsibility to be intellectually honest critical thinkers. Today is the day for us to reclaim Harvard’s pursuit of veritas.

Dr. Rachel Fish and Aviva Klompas are co-founders of Boundless, a new think-action tank partnering with community leaders to revitalize Israel education and take bold collective action to combat Jew-hatred.

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