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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Raised Voices

November-December 2002

Six days after helping to bring the community together at Harvard's observance of September 11 (see preceding page), President Lawrence H. Summers broached what proved to be a sharply divisive topic. On the first day of the fall term, while delivering the brief address that forms part of Morning Prayers at Memorial Church, Summers spoke "as a concerned member of our community" about what he called "disturbing evidence of an upturn in anti-Semitism globally" and also about "some developments closer to home." (The full text appears at www.president.harvard.edu/speeches/.)

After stating that "much in Israel's foreign and defense policy...can and should be vigorously challenged," he indicated that anti-Semitism and "views that are profoundly anti-Israeli," traditionally the "primary preserve of poorly educated right-wing populists," had increasingly found support in "progressive intellectual communities." Last among five academic actions that he called "anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent" were two touching on Harvard: student fundraising for "organizations of questionable political provenance that in some cases were later found to support terrorism"; and a petition calling for divestiture of endowment funds from businesses operating in Israel (see www.divest-from-israel-campaign.org). The latter statement implicitly criticized the position of several dozen faculty members, some of them Jewish, who have endorsed divestiture. (Summers noted that "the University has categorically rejected this suggestion.")

After the Crimson reported the remarks, related articles appeared in national newspapers. A Crimson editorial titled "Summers Stifles Israel Debate" called his treatment "disingenuous and divisive" and said his "arguments discredit the academic rigor of this institution." The Boston Globe, while editorially opposing divestiture, said that it was possible to do so "without ascribing base motives to its proponents" and that labeling them anti-Semitic in effect "is needlessly inflammatory and tends to freeze the debate." "Instead of a critique," the Globe concluded, "Summers could offer an education." The Wall Street Journal praised Summers for focusing on "the selective targeting of Israel" and for making use of "the Harvard Bully Pulpit" in general.

That level of discourse was restrained compared to faculty reaction. In a scathing letter published in the Crimson on September 19, professor of psychology Patrick Cavanagh called the president "either uninformed or a dupe" for equating "our anti-Israel petition with anti-Semitism." Maintaining that "[Ariel] Sharon's policies deserve every bit of criticism," he urged that if Harvard's president "has nothing constructive to say, he should say nothing at all."

In a Crimson op-ed essay on September 23, psychology professors Elizabeth S. Spelke and Ken Nakayama said the object of divestiture was to press Israel, in accord with U.N. resolutions, to end its "occupation of the West Bank and Gaza," abandon settlements, and cease using torture and deportation. "Accusations of anti-Semitism have been used effectively for decades to stifle criticism of Israeli policy," they wrote. On the same page, Frankfurter professor of law Alan M. Dershowitz announced that after 38 years of teaching at Harvard, he was "writing in praise" of an action by the institution's president for the first time.

In his installation address in October 2001, President Summers insisted that, even as "All ideas are worthy of consideration here...not all perspectives are equally valid," a theme reprised at Commencement ("Openness does not mean supposing that all ideas are created equal") and again this September 11 ("...there are truths beyond debate"). He has expressed his opinion on issues of interest within the academy and beyond (grade inflation, ROTC and military service), and has proved his ability to attract attention for those views. In that light, the critical reactions to his Memorial Church remarks appear to reflect not only substantive differences but also concern in the community about the ability to engage on an equal footing in that search for truth that is the University's hallmark.