Harvard, M.I.T. and Systemic Antisemitism

This Monday, March 11, roughly 200 Jewish students and supporters marched through the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, and it was newsworthy that they were not attacked. Local news hailed that they were able to, as one headline noted, “successfully march without confrontation.”

The march came two weeks after violent protests forced the cancellation of an event that was to feature an Israeli speaker and was organized by Jewish students. The event — which had already been moved from another location because of safety concerns — was canceled, and the building evacuated by police, after protesters broke through doors and reportedly assaulted Jewish students. There was no way to ensure safety, university administrators explained, “given the size of the crowd and the threat of violence.”

At the time that I read accounts of the violence at Berkeley, I was also reading two legal complaints about antisemitism on elite college campuses, one filed against Harvard and the other against the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Both complaints make for horrifying reading, detailing a cascading series of antisemitic incidents, including acts of violence and physical intimidation. The moral and legal injury is compounded by blatant double standards on the part of the universities. As the complaint filed against Harvard states, “Harvard permits students and faculty to advocate, without consequence, the murder of Jews and the destruction of Israel, the only Jewish country in the world. Meanwhile, Harvard requires students to take a training class that warns that they will be disciplined if they engage in sizeism, fatphobia, racism, transphobia, or other disfavored behavior.”

I spent virtually my entire legal career defending free speech on campus, including the free speech of Muslim students and staff members. I’ve also walked through metal detectors at a tense and volatile Columbia University to defend the academic freedom of Jewish students challenging antisemitic statements made by university professors. And during those decades of litigation and my subsequent years in journalism, I have never seen such comprehensive abuse directed against a vulnerable campus minority group as I’ve seen directed at Jewish students and faculty since Hamas’s terror attack on Oct. 7.

Obviously antisemitism isn’t the only hatred afoot in America. Since Oct. 7, there have also been horrifying incidents of anti-Muslim violence. Shortly after the Hamas attack on Israel, the chancellor of the state university system of Florida ordered the deactivation of chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine based on the absurd idea that its written materials provided “material support” for a designated terrorist entity in violation of federal law. (The order has not been enforced.) But what’s happening to Jewish students and faculty at several elite campuses is so comprehensive and all-consuming that it can only be described as systemic antisemitism.

Which brings me to the complaints against M.I.T. and Harvard. One should always use caution when evaluating such documents. They represent the allegations of one side. There are times when litigation ultimately proves the accuracy of a complaint’s claims and times when the allegations fall apart under scrutiny. (There are also times when the case grows stronger as the plaintiffs obtain discovery, read internal communications and depose witnesses under oath.) The complaints against M.I.T. and Harvard, however, don’t simply ask us to trust them. Time and again they provide screenshots, quotes from emails and photographs that offer visual evidence of their claims.

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