Harvard president decries anti-Semitism in academia

Summers chides students, professors for support of activities opposing Israel

September 21, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Harvard University president Lawrence H. Summers entered this week the nationwide campus debate about Israel and the Palestinians, using unusually personal language to criticize some Harvard professors and students for recent actions that he says are "anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent."

Summers, who holds perhaps the most visible bully pulpit in American intellectual life, told an audience at Harvard's Memorial Church on Tuesday that recent calls for Harvard, Tufts, Princeton and other schools to divest from Israel were anti-Semitic.

He also cited student groups at Harvard and elsewhere that sought to raise money for Arab organizations linked with terrorists - meeting with "at least modest success and very little criticism" - as well as antiglobalization rallies where protesters denounced Israel and compared its current prime minister, Ariel Sharon, to Adolf Hitler.

"Profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities," said Summers, who said he was speaking as "a concerned member of our community" and not as president. "Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent."

The speech was later posted on Summers' page on the Harvard Web site.

Officials at Tufts, Princeton, and other schools have privately expressed concerns about the divestment movement, but Summers' comments were the most forceful public statements yet against it.

The movement, which has spread to more than 40 campuses, condemns Israel for human rights abuses against the Palestinians and calls on schools to sell their investments in several companies with significant operations in Israel.

Summers had previously rejected a divestment petition signed by 69 Harvard professors, but he is rarely so publicly critical of Harvard faculty and students.

Several Harvard professors who support divestment reacted with surprise to Summers' comments, saying that he was jumping to an unfair conclusion: raising the specter of anti-Semitism to criticize what amounts to a political protest of the Sharon government.

"I don't consider myself anti-Semitic at all, but I'm definitely hostile to the aggressive eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth policies of the current Israeli leadership," said Peter Ashton, a research professor of forestry.

"People see all sorts of things where they don't exist - children see ghosts and goblins under their bed, grownups see enemies where there aren't any," said John Womack, a professor of history. Both Womack and Ashton signed the divestment petition.

The Summers speech, which was first reported Thursday by the Harvard Crimson, comes at a time when the Israeli divestment campaign has spread to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which drew support from 55 faculty members, as well as to Tufts, Cornell, Princeton and the University of California system.

The divestment movement is believed to have started two years ago after a speech by a University of Illinois professor suggested a strategy similar to that of the South African divestment movement in the 1980s, which is credited with helping to end apartheid.

No school has announced plans to divest from Israel, but leaders of the campaign are seeking to ratchet up the pressure and plan to plot strategy at the University of Michigan in mid-October.

Supporters of Israel in academia have been organizing as well. The Middle East Forum, a nonprofit organization led by several scholars and writers, began compiling this week "dossiers" on professors who criticize Israel and offer "biased" views about the Middle East, Islam and foreign policy issues.

Martin Kramer, editor of the forum's Middle East Quarterly, said he agreed with Summers that faculty and student activists may not be overtly anti-Semitic, but some of their actions cross the line.

"Calling for condemnation and special measures only against Israel when other states have similar policies is effectively anti-Semitic," Kramer said.

Summers delivered his remarks at Tuesday's morning prayers, a brief daily service held before classes at Harvard.

He described himself as a secular Jew who had always been "put off by those who heard the sound of breaking glass, in every insult or slight, and conjured up images of Hitler's Kristallnacht at any disagreement with Israel." But he said that several events have led him to see such views as "rather less alarmist" during the past year.

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