Living Inside a Psyop: Three Months at Harvard

Walter Johnson in n + 1: People would later say that it began with the statement issued by the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee and thirty-four other campus groups after the massacre of October 7. The statement was relatively restrained. It did not celebrate the violence. Instead, it attempted to reframe the killings in a longer history—to say, as many would in the coming days, that history did not begin on October 7. “Israeli violence has structured every aspect of Palestinian existence for seventy-five years,” the statement read. “From systematized land seizures to routine air strikes, arbitrary detentions, military checkpoints, and forced family separations to targeted killings, Palestinians have been forced to live in a state of death both slow and sudden.” But for all the conversation there has been about it both here at Harvard and elsewhere, I doubt that many people actually read the whole statement. It was only the first sentence that came to matter: “We, the undersigned student organizations hold the Israeli regime responsible for all unfolding violence.”

That one sentence was enough to compel 350 of these students’ teachers to issue a public denunciation.1 The students’ statement, the professors argued, “can be seen as nothing less than condoning mass murder.”

In place of the students’ argument that the sources of the violence were to be sought in history, the professors pointed to metaphysics: “sometimes there is such a thing as pure evil,” they wrote. “How,” they concluded, “can Jewish and Israeli students feel safe on a campus in which it is considered acceptable to justify and even celebrate the deaths of Jewish children and families?”

I don’t wish to diminish the trauma and the fear to which that statement about safety alluded. But the plain fact of the matter is that the students’ statement did not attempt to justify or “celebrate” murder at all; the phrase “can be seen as” in the professors’ own initial formulation was itself an equivocation. In the place of evidence to back up the charge they had made against their students—the charge that their students were “condoning mass murder” and flirting with evil itself—the professors offered rumor: “We’ve heard reports of . . . Harvard students celebrating the “victory” or “resistance” on social media.”

As a piece of reasoning, the faculty members’ response was a good deal less coherent than the students’ statement. As a case study of the “Palestine Speech Exception,” however, it was exemplary, even field-defining. The statement demonizing the students and offering them up online as targets for public obloquy was circulated through the listserv of the university’s self-appointed Council on Academic Freedom, a faculty organization supposedly “devoted to promoting free inquiry, intellectual diversity and civil discourse.” And with the statement began the work of conscripting the dead of October 7 to the cause of silencing criticism of Israel.

More or less simultaneously, critics both within and outside Harvard were demanding that the university president, Claudine Gay, denounce the October 7 attack. Former Harvard president Lawrence Summers issued the following statement to his hundreds of thousands of social media followers on the morning of October 9. “In 50 year of @Harvard affiliation, I have never been as disillusioned and alienated as I am today,” he began. “Harvard is being defined by the morally unconscionable statement apparently coming from two dozen student groups blaming all the violence on Israel. I am sickened. I cannot fathom the Administration’s failure to disassociate the University and condemn this statement.” This was not a struggle over politics or even history: it was a fight for the soul of the university.

It is worth pausing to ask: why did it seem—why does it seem—so important for people to know that the administration of Harvard University supported Israel? How did this proxy battle—the battle for the soul of Harvard—come to stand in for, and finally replace, the war as a topic of conversation and conflict on campus, and, indeed, nationwide?

Later the same day, Gay, along with the deans and upper administration, issued a statement that mourned “the death and destruction unleashed by the attack by Hamas that targeted citizens in Israel this weekend, and by the war in Israel and Gaza now underway.” “In a community devoted to learning,” the university leaders hoped, “we can take steps that will draw upon our common humanity and shared values in order to modulate rather than amplify the deep-seated divisions and animosities so distressingly evident in the wider world.”

For many, that statement was too little, too even-handed, and too late. In a note appended to the original professors’ letter, five faculty members additionally condemned the administration’s statement. The next day, the president issued her own second statement, distancing the university from the student groups and more closely aligning the university’s position with that of its loudest and most powerful critics. “Let there be no doubt,” Gay wrote, “that I condemn the terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas. Such inhumanity is abhorrent, whatever one’s individual views of the origins of longstanding conflicts in the region.” Both the timing and the distinct shift in tone suggested that the second statement had been spurred by outrage from online commentators and important benefactors; indeed, one of the university’s billionaire donors later explained to the New York Times, proudly, that he had called the senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation to complain about the administration’s first statement and been reassured that his doubts were being addressed. This striking acknowledgment of a formerly unspoken fact—that when billionaires insisted, Harvard acquiesced—would come to seem fairly ordinary over the coming weeks.

On October 12, President Gay made a third statement, this time in the form of a video message to the university community, which was issued along with a transcription of the text. It was, for the most part, a resolutely liberal defense of civil discourse. It predictably left unanswered the question of whether “civil discourse” within a university whose endowment is invested in companies tied to illegal Israeli settlements on the West Bank can ever be considered truly neutral or even civil. But the real tell was in a single em-dashed clause. “Our University rejects terrorism—that includes the barbaric atrocities perpetrated by Hamas.” Who would ever think that such a statement made at such a moment did not include Hamas? Who would ever demand that sort of specification? What must have been intended to reset the conversation at Harvard on the basis of institutionally articulated liberalism, leavened with empathy and humility, came across as a barely coded message: outraged donors were editing the university’s statements, down to the dashes.

As Israel tightened the siege on Gaza and a million people were presented with the choice of leaving their homes or being bombed within them, the doxing trucks began to patrol the perimeter of the campus. They carried signs emblazoned with the photographs of individual students beneath the words “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites.” Billionaire hedge fund mogul William Ackman called for the creation of a blacklist to ensure that members of the campus organizations that had supported the statement would be unable to infiltrate their firms. The names of students belonging to the offending groups (and of some who did not) were circulated online, so that they might be isolated, shamed, and punished.

Harvard’s official responses to these threats to student safety were characterized by a troubling and paradoxical two-step of overlooking and overreacting—calibrated according to which students’ feelings of frustration and fear could gain the largest supportive audience outside the university. Overlooked by the university were many mounting instances of provocations and abuse toward Palestinian and Palestinian-aligned students: students reported being shouted at from passing cars or other pedestrians—“suicide bomber,” “terrorist,” “fuck you and fuck Palestine, fuck all of you,” “so did you murder your way into Harvard the way Hamas murdered their way into Israel,” “go back to your country, you don’t belong here”—and spat on during a demonstration. This abuse remains officially unspeakable at Harvard. The administration responded only with general acknowledgment of the importance of addressing Islamophobia along with antisemitism. At an October 7 faculty meeting, a faculty member requested the creation of a task force to track and address incidents targeting Palestinian and Palestinian-aligned students, a task force that could address the perplexity of a situation in which students feel too fearful to use the existing mechanisms the university provides to ensure their safety. As of this writing, that request has gone without response.2

Overreaction, meanwhile, characterized Harvard’s responses to perceived threats of antisemitism. The overreacting was epitomized by the case of a graduate student who was dismissed from his position as a proctor (archaic Harvard-speak for a residential advisor who lives in an undergraduate dormitory) following events at an on-campus protest on October 18. The protestors were staging a “die-in” to protest the ongoing attacks on Gaza. As they lay on the ground, a counter-protestor walked through the protest, periodically stopping to stand astride the protestors and film their faces, an action which was understood in the context of the doxing truck and online harassment as a threat. Along with other organizers, the proctor attempted to shield the protestors’ faces and to usher the counter-protestor away from the peaceful demonstration.

In the aftermath of the action, however, the events were reworked into an upside-down morality play. The proctor’s effort to protect his fellow students from an obvious act of provocation was transformed, through the power of repetition on right-wing media platforms, into an act of aggression. Six separate investigations of (and around) the proctor’s actions are apparently now ongoing: 1) the standard process of the university ad board, which is nominally overseen by the faculty; 2) an investigation by the Harvard University Police Department; 3) an investigation by the Cambridge Police Department; 4) an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation; 5) an investigation by the United States Department of Education; and 6) an investigation by the United States Congress. Meantime, the university administration unilaterally suspended the proctor from his residential-life position and evicted him from the room where he was living.

On October 29, President Gay announced the formation of a special committee to “begin the vital work of eradicating antisemitism from our community.” When its membership was announced, it struck some observers as odd that the committee did not include several members of the Harvard community widely respected for their scholarly work on the historical and contemporary manifestations of antisemitism. Writing in Jewish Currents, Peter Beinart concluded that the principle of selection seemed largely to be stated support for the definition of antisemitism supported by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association, which defines “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” (that is, antizionism) as necessarily antisemitic. It did not seem like an accident that the scholars of antisemitism who were left off the committee were on record as supporting the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, which holds that “criticizing or opposing Zionism” is not necessarily antisemitic.

There is no doubt that some degree of antisemitism existed on the Harvard campus both before and after October 7. Antisemitism has long been a regrettable feature of some segments of the ruling class in the United States, from which Harvard draws many of its students. And it is an element of the unholy political alliance of some members of that class with the floridly bigoted supporters of Donald Trump, who include avowedly antisemitic organizers and provocateurs. Some Jewish students on campus presumably felt the same way as many liberal Jews in the United States in the aftermath of the response to October 7: wounded and misunderstood by erstwhile friends and allies who suddenly seemed callously indifferent to violence against civilians simply because it happened in Israel. Nor it is hard to imagine that many Jewish students have felt hyper-visible as the war escalated in Gaza: called upon to take a side in a war that some of them wished probably would just go away, a sentiment that many scared and confused young people have expressed to me over the past weeks.

Some of these feelings might be understood as a part of the broader history of universities in the 21st century. There are many more Palestinian, Arab-American, and Muslim students at Harvard and other institutions than there were when the most vocal alumni and faculty went to college. Their numbers and their political commitment have ruptured what has been, for several generations, a de facto speech code about Israel, always contested, but never really threatened. Younger people (including younger Jews in organizations such as IfNotNow, Jewish Voice for Peace, and, at Harvard, Jews for Palestine) who have come of age during a period where the corrupt and expansionist Benjamin Netanyahu has been Israel’s most prominent representative on the global stage are no longer beguiled by the lockstep support for Israel that is so common among older generations, and which we have so recently seen expressed across a wide variety of powerful American institutions. For elders, especially those raised in the shadow of the Holocaust, the ways that college campuses are changing and the ways that young people are insistently speaking out have been uncomfortable and even frightening. And yet we must understand their deliberate and disproportionate misconstrual of students’ statements and chants as acts that target not only unruly Palestinians critics of Israel, but also liberal, non-, and antizionist Jews. On the one hand seeking to silence and to punish, on the other to terrify, to mobilize, and to discipline. More here.