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As faculty and officers of Harvard University who oppose racism and colonial violence in all its forms, we stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people in their struggle for freedom and self-determination. Israeli state violence has devastated Palestinian life through a combination of warfare, territorial theft, and violent displacement. Unwavering US financial, military, and political support has fueled the systemic domination and repression of Palestinians. In 2018, Jewish supremacy in Israel was given legal sanction through the Jewish Nation-State Basic Law, which makes the right to national self-determination in Israel unique to the Jewish people and defines Jewish settlement as a national value. Long-standing criticisms of Israeli state violence by Palestinians themselves are now echoed in reports by Human Rights Watch and the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem that document widespread human rights violations against Palestinians. Amnesty International has noted that “Israel's system of institutionalised segregation and discrimination against Palestinians, as a racial group, in all areas under its control amounts to a system of apartheid.” Most recently, Israel’s former attorney general, Michael Ben-Yair, called his country an “apartheid regime” and urged the international community to recognise this reality and hold Israel accountable.
It is this larger context of escalating ethnonationalist violence that the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee addressed in its Israeli Apartheid Week of events. It is also the context that prompted The Harvard Crimson to publish its April 29 editorial in support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and Palestinian liberation. And it is this larger context that is systematically distorted in the statement penned by a number of Harvard faculty members in opposition to the Crimson editorial.
In their statement, these faculty members repeatedly call for a more “complex” understanding of the situation in Israel/Palestine. But this complexity does not include any acknowledgment of the actual conditions of Palestinian life in Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, or refugee camps in adjacent countries. The statement makes no mention of the dispossession of Palestinian land by ever-expanding settlements, the siting of educational institutions on settlement land as a means of solidifying the Israeli occupation, the routine incarceration and killing of Palestinian protestors, the eviction of Palestinians and destruction of their homes, and the gunning down of Palestinian journalists. It makes no mention of the fact that Palestinian resistance is criminalized by Israel and the US and that every measure of self-defense by a people without a state or an army against a nuclear power backed by the US is subject to immediate censure. On the contrary, the statement completely obscures the relationship between the Jewish national project and Palestinian subjugation. In demonizing BDS, it also severs its family
resemblance to other instances of boycott, divestment, and sanctions, including the movement against South African apartheid and the measures being adopted against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In short, the statement sidesteps any effort to understand why BDS — a nonviolent response to the violence of the Israeli state — might have been adopted by Palestinians as a political strategy and why it has increasing support around the world.
Instead, the only violence mentioned is that of antisemitism. The only threat identified is to the Jewish national project. The only vulnerability named is that faced by “Jewish and Zionist students.” In disregarding the everyday violence exercised by Israel on Palestinians, blaming BDS for rising antisemitism, and equating student opposition to Israel’s policies with “anti-Jewish hate speech,” the statement conflates Jewishness with Israel and Zionism and erases the presence of Jewish students and organizations that oppose Zionism and root their support for Palestinian liberation in a moral understanding of Judaism. Antisemitism is indeed real and dire. It is embedded in white supremacy, and many forms of racism have deep ties to antisemitism. However, blaming the movement for Palestinian liberation for rising antisemitism weaponizes a legitimate concern to distract from the racism and violence faced by Palestinians. In effect, the statement reprises a strategy deployed by Israeli and US governments as part of a growing trend to shut down legitimate criticism of an increasingly violent, exclusionary, and discriminatory state.
It is especially troubling that a group of faculty, including former Harvard president Lawrence Summers, has gone to such lengths to criticize the political stances of students in the name of “a respectful and inclusive learning environment.” The irony of leveraging the stark imbalance of power between faculty and students in order to obscure the gross asymmetries in power between Israel and Palestinians seems to be lost on them. So too is the inherent contradiction of censoring criticism of Israel in the name of intellectual exchange. This abuse of power is compounded by their patronizing attitude to the Crimson editors whom they encourage to access resources at Harvard, including the signatories themselves, to “[learn] more deeply about Jewish identity and Israel, the diversity of the Jewish experience, and the multifaceted nature of contemporary antisemitism.” Not only do such comments render Palestinian experiences irrelevant, even illegitimate, they substitute institutional power and credentials for knowledge in order to put students in their place. We strongly oppose such tactics of intimidation and applaud the Crimson editors and the Palestine Solidarity Committee for their moral clarity and fortitude in defending Palestinian rights against consistent efforts to deny them. It is students like these who make our university proud. We stand with them and the Palestinian people in their principled opposition to Israeli apartheid.
Steven Caton is the Khalid Bin Abdullah Bin Abdulrahman Al Saud Professor of Contemporary Arab Studies. Sara Roy is a senior research scholar at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Ajantha Subramanian is the Mehra Family Professor of South Asian Studies and Chair of the Anthropology Department.
A full list of the 49 signatories to this letter can be found here.
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