November 4, 2023
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My Letter to Harvard's President About Anti-Semitism

By Jonathan Wallace

Dear President Gay:

I am a Harvard alumnus (Law School 1980) who is a semi-retired constitutional litigator and author. In the 1990's, I was a named plaintiff in the Supreme Court case which recognized applicability of the First Amendment to the Internet, and co-authored one of the first books on online free speech. In the last twelve years, I have defended hundreds of protesters arrested at Occupy Wall Street, Standing Rock and other demonstrations, and been a member of the legal team in several significant voting rights cases, including the ones which reinstated the canceled New York Democratic primary, and the first case which ordered the U.S. Post Office to handle absentee ballots speedily, both in 2020.

I am Jewish myself, growing up in the 1960's in Brooklyn, New York, in what seemed a very mainstream Reform tradition, whose members were largely Democrats and political liberals. I attended Congregation Beth Elohim on the High Holy Days and for religious instruction on Sundays. I was bar mitzvahed in 1967. Beth Elohim was in the news last week-- its rabbi and membership publicly opposed Prime Minister Netanyahu's attempts to take authority away from the Israeli Supreme Court, but suspended activism for the time being to support Israel after the Hamas atrocities last Saturday. By the way, in a truly just and egalitarian nation, it would rarely be needed for me to begin a paragraph in an advocacy letter, "I am Jewish myself..."

Within two years after my bar mitzvah, I began asking a question no one around me could answer: "We donate to Israel and the A.C.L.U. If a Mississippi sheriff bulldozed the home of a black sharecropper, we would all be up in arms. How can we without contradiction and hypocrisy defend Israel when, without legal process, it bulldozes the family home of a Palestinian arrested for terrorism?" I noticed that adults became entirely tongue-tied and the most common answer I received was wholly unsatisfactory: "You couldn't possibly understand. You haven't lived there."

It has been a long journey since then. I have visited Israel twice. I have no relatives there, but have had many Israeli coworkers, business partners, and social acquaintances, and read very extensively about Israeli and Middle Eastern and Arab and Palestinian history. My views are much better elucidated now than when I was fourteen and include the following elements. I am proudly Jewish, particularly to belong to the same group as Spinoza, Maimonides, Mendelsohn, and Einstein-- and the list continues, very long. Yet I believe that Israeli history has been essentially tragic, and that the people of Spinoza have in many ways diminished themselves-- as well as made the Jewish people less secure, not more-- by obtaining and conducting a nation-state in a land occupied in modern times by other people. Israel's near-nadir, and confirmation of my fears, has manifested in Prime Minister Netanyahu's coalition with violent fringe figures, and, in our country, his astonishing abandonment of the millions of liberal Democratic American Jews (the Beth Elohim contingent) to seek common cause with the often anti-Semitic American far right-- and at the same time with Evangelical Christians who believe that war in Israel is a prerequisite to the second coming of Christ (upon which Jews will either convert or be plunged in a "punishing lake of fire"). We are witnessing the heartbreaking and appalling outcome in the rageful, tit for tat bombing of civilian populations in Gaza today, the denial of food, electricity and water, and the directive to one million Palestinians to evacuate the North overnight when there is nowhere safe for them to go.

These last few years, I have developed a sub-specialty representing university faculty and staff subjected to harassment, First Amendment chills and disciplinary action for the expression of opinions. The bulk of my cases have been at the City University of New York, though I have also handled matters at private universities including Syracuse, Julliard and New York University. I have represented Palestinian and Arab-American and Moslem individuals and worked with activist organizations supporting the Palestinians.

In carrying out this representation, I have witnessed first hand the hatred, harassment and threats of violence which pour down on people in the academic environment who criticize Israel in any way. While the bulk of the reductive, oversimplified and thus, hate-tolerating public discussion (in the press and television news, and on social media) has centered around speakers (certainly they exist) who have explicitly expressed support for violence against Israelis, the actual average targets of campus hate speech in my personal experience have been anyone, Arab or not, and including many Jewish people, who have expressed that the State of Israel has erred in its treatment of Palestinians, made grievous missteps in its political and ethical policies, violated the Geneva Conventions-- or is the fit subject of political activism, up to and including a boycott similar to the ones directed against apartheid South Africa in the last century. Anyone expressing political disagreement with the nation-state, Israel, including Jewish people, is accused of being a "Jew-hater", has personal information often including home address, phone number and email, posted on Twitter, is picked up for feature attack articles in online publications supporting political Israel and in the New York Post, and receives volumes of hate mail and even death threats. Some of these individuals have also been, if faculty, suspended or fired from university jobs, denied tenure, or, if already tenured, been the subject of constant administrative claims of security threats and discrimination filed by pro-Israel students and faculty, for years on end, making academic freedom of speech well-nigh impossible.

My first hand experience has been that not even a Jewish student or faculty member is safe in academia today, if they hold my views. That is so important I will say it a second time: People politically and ethically taking a stand against the state of Israel cannot safely speak out in most of academia today. Yet as I personally know, and, without false modesty, embody-- opposition to political Israel is not anti-Semitism.

In New York City, I have witnessed craven adminstrators and college presidents throwing their own students and faculty under the bus, making hypocritical "I am shocked, shocked" speeches. Right wing activists, inside and adjoining academia, are making tremendous headway in their campaign to categorize any political opposition to Israel, even to the existing right wing Israeli administration with its outlier hypernationalist members, as anti-Semitism.

This is all disturbingly reminiscent of the now largely forgotten domestic anti-speech campaign led at the end of, and after, World War I, by President Woodrow Wilson. Outspoken people were routinely prosecuted, and often convicted and imprisoned, for sedition for criticizing the draft, opposing the war, disagreeing with American intervention in the Russian revolution, and even, in one case, producing a silent movie portraying British atrocities in the American revolution. Some defendants were professors, and across the country, university administration joined the effort by firing junior faculty and harassing tenured faculty.

Here, if you don't mind, is an excerpt from my own as yet unpublished writing on the history of free speech: "In 1917, [Nicholas Murray] Butler, then president of Columbia University, dismissed three professors for 'association with allegedly disloyal persons', causing Charles Beard to resign in protest. Harvey Goldberg, ed., American Radicals (New York: Modern Reader 1957) p. 296 In June 1917, Butler had announced that he was ending academic freedom at Columbia for the war's duration: 'What had been tolerated before becomes intolerable now. What had been wrongheadedness was now sedition. What had been folly was now treason'. Walter P. Metzger, Academic Freedom in the Age of the University (New York: Columbia University Press 1961) p. 225 “Loyalty,” says Walter Metzger, 'was defined in effect as the particular degree of indignation and bellicosity displayed by President Butler'. p. 225 Historian Charles Beard resigned from Columbia in protest. The university, Beard wrote in his resignation letter, 'is really under the control of a small and active group of trustees who have no standing in the world of education, who are reactionary and visionless in politics, narrow and medieval in religion'”. p. 228 Butler also made tenured anthropologist and political progressive Franz Boas' life a living hell, for years on end. Boas did not quit; one of his reactions to his own internal marginalization at Columbia was to mentor students who themselves belonged to outlying or disadvantaged groups, including Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ella Deloria (see Charles King, Gods of the Upper Air (New York: Doubleday 2019)).

Your video statement of a few days ago does better than that, in you defend academic freedom of speech: "Our University rejects the harassment or intimidation of individuals based on their beliefs. And our University embraces a commitment to free expression.That commitment extends even to views that many of us find objectionable, even outrageous. We do not punish or sanction people for expressing such views". But then the other shoe drops, with a hint of Murray Butler: "But that is a far cry from endorsing them". Why was it necessary to add that? Doesn't everybody (at least everyone with a college degree) understand that faculties (and also student bodies, of course) contain diverse and often contradictory viewpoints?

I have also seen university administrators defend freedom of speech with lofty generalities, while failing to take action to protect academic freedom, to shelter individuals holding unpopular views against doxing, harassment, administrative chills and, in sum, terrible daily pressure for long duration to renounce their views, quit committees and appointed roles, go to ground-- and even to quit if they are not fired. It is hard to express the following without invoking a cliche: You evidently talk the talk. What action are you planning next, to protect your people, and their academic freedom at Harvard? In background, I am also wondering: if the purpose of an education is not to learn to think independently and fearlessly to speak out, what is university for? I have a sense how Murray Butler will have answered that. How will you, not by your words but your actions?


Jonathan Wallace HLS 1980