Proceeding when discourse seems impossible
In a November Letter from Israel, chillingly titled “In the Cities of Killing” (adapted from Hayim Nahman Bailik’s 1904 poem about the Kishinev pogrom), New Yorker editor David Remnick, who has reported from the region for decades, quoted Sam Bahour, an American-born Palestinian who had moved to the West Bank after the 1990s Oslo Accords. Even as he condemned Hamas’s killing of civilians, Bahour, referring to the region’s history and Palestinians’ impossibly constrained circumstances, said, “We have to be…wise enough to hold multiple thoughts in our heads.”
A place like Harvard, committed to full and open discourse, must be wise enough to “hold multiple thoughts”—and to expose each to criticism, refinement, and improvement.
The horrors committed by Hamas on October 7 and the massive Israeli response to a terrorist enemy interwoven among civilians provoked raw emotions and, in some cases, unwarranted behaviors on campus. A hasty and provocative student statement published the afternoon of the initial attack did much to color the ensuing community reactions, and attracted even more intense scrutiny (and criticism) of Harvard than usual (see here).
Given Harvard Magazine’s bimonthly schedule, anything written here, before Thanksgiving, risks being rendered obsolete or obtuse by further horrors that may accompany a wider war in the Middle East. Here, we merely propose some general principles for debate and conversation that may apply to this and any future issues, whether humanitarian catastrophes or something less dismaying, that impinge on the Harvard community’s conscience and deeply held beliefs.
To begin with the caveats, there is a tendency in today’s social-media-saturated world to express opinions quickly. Within the University community, two parts of that sentence require unpacking. First, opinion-having is overrated; better to ascertain and disseminate facts. Second, speed isn’t everything, and can be the enemy of ascertaining facts, especially where information is available only at a great remove—as is particularly the case with wars and natural disasters. Speed, then, can feel gratifying but often leads to precipitous judgments.
Despite the aspiration to proceed deliberately and focus on facts, however, people will succumb to the urge to hold forth. Young people, immersed in social media, may be particularly susceptible. A university is supposed to be a place where they try things, err, and learn: all part of developing as critical thinkers. Expressing themselves, even horribly and even on matters of major consequence, and learning from the experience are risks entailed in becoming educated. Universities presume the results will be good for both students and the wider society—and hope over time to achieve good results more often than not, and less painfully than otherwise.
But youngsters are not the only parties at risk of keyboarding too quickly. When they do commit a regrettable speech act, their critics would do well not to emulate them by opining rapidly and savagely in social media (i.e., mimicking the behavior they deplore). Condemning students for life (suggesting that they be banned from employment, for example) for expressing themselves, even dreadfully, is to deny the very possibility of growing in wisdom. It also risks finding people guilty by association, conflating a superficial group affiliation with a careful, individual commitment and speech act. And during this autumn’s traumas, some social-media commentators staked out positions on apparent campus incidents before the facts were fully understood. (No, pro-Palestinian protestors did not take down the American flag at an early-November event; their protest was under way as Harvard personnel lowered the University Hall flag, as they do each afternoon.) A little restraint on all sides would go a long way.
A little forbearance might be shown to institutions, too. The Hamas attack shocked Israeli and U.S. intelligence experts, so it is not surprising that most U.S. academic leaders weren’t prepared for the convulsions that shook their campuses. And for administrations newly in office—one thinks of Harvard, Penn, and elsewhere—or serving in an interim capacity (Stanford), the important business of appointing deans, meeting faculty and alumni, and developing academic agendas was properly at top of mind, so the overnight pivot to these new circumstances was difficult, to say the least. By their nature, unprecedented events present unprecedented challenges.
Bearing all that in mind, what might Harvard and other universities do when the next crisis inevitably arises?
One suggestion—admittedly controversial—is to abstain from articulating positions on issues not immediately pertinent to higher education. Harvard has a stake in trying to shape the public rules on who is admitted to study, how much the society invests in research, and so on. But as an institution, it might remain silent on issues, even compelling ones, like criminal justice or abortion. Amid the Middle East disasters, the case for doing so (which can seem morally self-neutering, to the fury of students, faculty, or alumni) was perhaps best made by Northwestern University’s president Michael H. Schill (also newish: in office since September 2022). Writing to his senior leadership team this October 11, he said, “I am not planning to put out a statement officially stating a University position.”
As “Mike Schill, citizen, Jew, and human being,” he said he was “deeply repulsed, sickened, and disappointed by what Hamas has done.” But being president differs: “The University does not speak for our faculty, students, and staff on these matters—they have their own voices, and I would venture to say, there are no doubt differences among our students and faculty on what Hamas did and how Israel is responding. For me to speak for them displaces their own freedom to speak”—and in effect forecloses debate. That distinction between the personal voice and the institutional one (“I do not foresee that I will be issuing statements on political, geopolitical, or social issues that do not directly impact the core mission of our University”) is subtle, but not trivial.
The critical affirmative suggestion is to live up to a university’s purposes: to apply its intellectual resources to debating the hardest issues. This fall, Dartmouth was lauded for bringing together professors of very different persuasions to discuss Israel and Palestine—apparently, forums that engaged hundreds of community members. Perhaps not coincidentally, Dartmouth seems to have been less torn asunder than other campuses. Harvard appears to have missed some similar opportunities: during much of October, the University’s home page featured stories about architecture; Princeton’s featured professors’ “Voices on Israel and Gaza.” Harvard’s centers on Middle Eastern studies and on international affairs are peopled with experts who have things to say about the current crisis, and there are still more scholars of conflict resolution, government, history, human rights, law, and other pertinent disciplines seeded throughout the schools.
At least some Harvard students want to hear from each other and from their professors. In a November 1 Washington Post op-ed, Aden Barton ’24 (one of this magazine’s Ledecky Undergraduate Fellows) suggested that he and his peers are tough enough for demanding discourse. “As a Jew,” he wrote, “I understand the anger provoked by ignorant and offensive statements about Israel. But, as an American student, I am appalled by the intimidation of my classmates” in the form of recent doxxing but also, and more generally, “national vitriol aimed at my campus and classmates” for “isolated instances of student leftism or conservatism.” He concluded, “Those who care about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should recognize that stifling the thought processes of young people trying to engage with the issue will only make the already intractable situation even worse.”
The next week, Harvard Kennedy School student Zahra Asghar wrote in the Boston Globe, “I am struck by the sense that on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, I am not being educated.” For all the emails about community support, she continued, she had received “virtually no academic resources or expert perspectives.” In the future, she concluded, “[I]t will be critical that Harvard establish study groups, enabling dialogue and encouraging faculty to engage…in line with their expertise….Such efforts are core to the institution’s mission—the reason we are all here.”
What they seek, amid a brutal war and emotions of loss and even hatred, is the application of reason to find a way forward when unreason prevails. Surely Harvard ought to, and can, do that.
—John S. Rosenberg