Address at morning prayers
September 17, 2002
I speak with you today not as President of the University but as a concerned member of our
community about something that I never thought I would become seriously worried about --
the issue of anti-Semitism.
I am Jewish, identified but hardly devout. In my lifetime, anti-Semitism has been remote from
my experience. My family all left Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. The Holocaust
is for me a matter of history, not personal memory. To be sure, there were country clubs
where I grew up that had few if any Jewish members, but not ones that included people I
knew. My experience in college and graduate school, as a faculty member, as a government
official -- all involved little notice of my religion.
Indeed, I was struck during my years in the Clinton administration that the existence of an
economic leadership team with people like Robert Rubin, Alan Greenspan, Charlene
Barshefsky and many others that was very heavily Jewish passed without comment or notice
-- it was something that would have been inconceivable a generation or two ago, as indeed it
would have been inconceivable a generation or two ago that Harvard could have a Jewish
Without thinking about it much, I attributed all of this to progress -- to an ascendancy of
enlightenment and tolerance. A view that prejudice is increasingly put aside. A view that while
the politics of the Middle East was enormously complex, and contentious, the question of the
right of a Jewish state to exist had been settled in the affirmative by the world community.
But today, I am less complacent. Less complacent and comfortable because there is
disturbing evidence of an upturn in anti-Semitism globally, and also because of some
developments closer to home.
Consider some of the global events of the last year:
There have been synagogue burnings, physical assaults on Jews, or the painting of
swastikas on Jewish memorials in every country in Europe. Observers in many
countries have pointed to the worst outbreak of attacks against the Jews since the
Second World War.
Candidates who denied the significance of the Holocaust reached the runoff stage of
elections for the nationís highest office in France and Denmark. State-sponsored
television stations in many nations of the world spew anti-Zionist propaganda.
The United Nations-sponsored World Conference on Racism -- while failing to
mention human rights abuses in China, Rwanda, or anyplace in the Arab world --
spoke of Israelís policies prior to recent struggles under the Barak government as
constituting ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The NGO declaration at the
same conference was even more virulent.
I could go on. But I want to bring this closer to home. Of course academic communities
should be and always will be places that allow any viewpoint to be expressed. And certainly
there is much to be debated about the Middle East and much in Israelís foreign and defense
policy that can be and should be vigorously challenged.
But where anti-Semitism and views that are profoundly anti-Israeli have traditionally been the
primary preserve of poorly educated right-wing populists, profoundly anti-Israel views are
increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities. Serious and thoughtful
people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.
Hundreds of European academics have called for an end to support for Israeli
researchers, though not for an end to support for researchers from any other nation.
Israeli scholars this past spring were forced off the board of an international literature
At the same rallies where protesters, many of them university students, condemn the
IMF and global capitalism and raise questions about globalization, it is becoming
increasingly common to also lash out at Israel. Indeed, at the anti-IMF rallies last
spring, chants were heard equating Hitler and Sharon.
Events to raise funds for organizations of questionable political provenance that in some
cases were later found to support terrorism have been held by student organizations on
this and other campuses with at least modest success and very little criticism.
And some here at Harvard and some at universities across the country have called for
the University to single out Israel among all nations as the lone country where it is
inappropriate for any part of the universityís endowment to be invested. I hasten to say
the University has categorically rejected this suggestion.
We should always respect the academic freedom of everyone to take any position. We
should also recall that academic freedom does not include freedom from criticism. The only
antidote to dangerous ideas is strong alternatives vigorously advocated.
I have always throughout my life been put off by those who heard the sound of breaking glass,
in every insult or slight, and conjured up images of Hitlerís Kristallnacht at any disagreement
with Israel. Such views have always seemed to me alarmist if not slightly hysterical. But I have
to say that while they still seem to me unwarranted, they seem rather less alarmist in the world
of today than they did a year ago.
I would like nothing more than to be wrong. It is my greatest hope and prayer that the idea of
a rise of anti-Semitism proves to be a self-denying prophecy -- a prediction that carries the
seeds of its own falsification. But this depends on all of us.