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Rabbi Zarchi Confronted Maria Ressa, Walked Off Stage Over Her Harvard Commencement Speech

Harvard Chabad Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi walks off the stage during the Commencement ceremony Thursday. Zarchi confronted Nobel laureate and journalist Maria A. Ressa after taking issue with her speech.
Harvard Chabad Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi walks off the stage during the Commencement ceremony Thursday. Zarchi confronted Nobel laureate and journalist Maria A. Ressa after taking issue with her speech. By Julian J. Giordano
By Neil H. Shah, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard Chabad Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi confronted Nobel laureate and journalist Maria A. Ressa toward the end of Thursday’s Commencement ceremonies, telling The Crimson that he had asked Ressa to publicly clarify a remark in her speech that he found antisemitic.

Zarchi said he could not properly hear Ressa’s response due to the ongoing address but said that when he felt it was clear she would not oblige, he left early. Zarchi, who was seated on stage, was seen confronting Ressa during the benediction delivered by Pusey Minister Matthew Ichihashi Potts.

Ressa, Harvard’s featured Commencement speaker, did not respond to a request for comment. University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain did not comment for this article.

Zarchi took issue with Ressa’s statement that after she accepted Harvard’s invitation to speak at Commencement, she was “called antisemitic by power and money because they want power and money.”

Ressa followed the comment up by saying “the other side” was already critical of her decision to speak on a stage with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has been critical of pro-Palestine protesters.

“But I’d already survived information operations from my own government — free speech used to pound you to silence,” Ressa said.

Nobel laureate and journalist Maria A. Ressa delivers the featured address at Harvard's 2024 Commencement ceremonies.
Nobel laureate and journalist Maria A. Ressa delivers the featured address at Harvard's 2024 Commencement ceremonies. By Addison Y. Liu

Ressa addressed Zarchi’s comments on X after the event, saying the phrase “money and power” referenced Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.) — who accused Ressa of antisemitism in early May. Stefanik had cited a report in the Washington Free Beacon that said an editorial published by Ressa’s media company, Rappler, compared the actions of Israel to Hitler.

In statements to TIME Magazine at the time, Rappler said that the Free Beacon had inaccurately characterized the piece, which was originally written in Filipino (Tagalog), and Ressa forcefully denied the antisemitism allegations.

During the event, two of the three student speakers expressed support for their classmates who were blocked from graduating for participating in the pro-Palestine encampment in Harvard Yard. Ressa said in her speech that she “loved” the students’ remarks.

Zarchi criticized Ressa’s support for the students in a statement, arguing that she had ignored how the students had “hijacked” the Commencement ceremony to support protesters who had violated Harvard policies. The student speakers had both diverged from the script they provided to the University to express support for sanctioned students.

He was also critical of the University’s slate of speakers, saying he wished there had been more pro-Israel representation in the featured voices.

“It would have been nice to have had at least one speaker representing the overwhelming majority of students and guests disgusted by the disruptors and hateful violators,” he wrote.

Ressa’s speech largely centered around the influence of technology and social media on free speech and repression. She also referenced the loss of life in Gaza, and emphasized the importance of peaceful protests while encouraging graduates to abide by the “golden rule.”

She had previously referred to “power and money” to describe entities exploiting social media platforms for surveillance.

Ressa was the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize for her investigative journalism on the Rodrigo Duterte regime in the Philippines. The repression she experienced at the hands of the Philippine government was a recurring theme in her remarks.

—Staff writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at neil.shah@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @neilhshah15.

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