What Went Wrong at Harvard ... And Elsewhere?
The poisonous antisemitism that has infected elite institutions of higher learning is both silly and extremely dangerous
“It depends on the context.” Those were the infamous words spoken by the former rector of Harvard University, Claudine Gay, during a hearing in the U.S. Congress last month. The question that was posed to her by Republican representative Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), as well as to her colleagues from MIT and the University of Pennsylvania: “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate your university’s codes of conduct?” This might strike you as the easiest question in the world to answer in the affirmative. But, as it turns out, all three refused to answer it in the affirmative. Instead, with contemptuous smirks on their lips, they kept repeating the same evasive and lawyerly phrases that they had clearly rehearsed beforehand: Calling for the extermination of the Jews on our campus? Gee, it depends, I guess.
In defense of her answer, Harvard’s president averred that her university is “deeply committed to protecting free expression” in the spirit of the U.S. First Amendment. Such a statement displays a shocking level of hypocrisy. Harvard is the same university where students and staff risk disciplinary sanctions if they address someone with the wrong pronouns or make disparaging comments about their weight, both of which are treated as “violence” and “abuse.” When Harvard discovered that some of its students had shared some raucous jokes and memes in a closed Facebook group, they were immediately suspended. In fact, the “freedom of expression” allegedly cherished by Harvard is in such a dire state the university received the lowest score ever in the index of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, coming in dead last out of 203 elite schools surveyed. Forget about calling for the “genocide of Blacks”—if you were to so much as utter the N-word at Harvard or another Ivy League university, even in an educational context, you would be immediately fired or suspended.
Oppressors and Oppressed
Are we witnessing hoary old antisemitism rearing its ugly head again, this time at America’s finest institutions of higher learning? What else could explain this rank hypocrisy? In fact, there is a deeper, underlying explanation. The almost identical automaton-like answers of the three rectors—only one of whom still has their job—are the ultimate consequence of a perfidious ideology that has been on the rise at university campuses in the U.S. and abroad for many years. At Harvard, this ideology is mainly being promulgated and enforced by the massive diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) bureaucracy. It’s only now that the entire world—especially the wealthy donors whose money is the lifeblood of a university like Harvard—is noticing.
This ideology neatly divides the world in two mutually exclusive categories—the oppressors and the oppressed—that are diametrically opposed to each other. Each person’s identity is subsumed into one of these two broad categories, and two entirely different moral standards are applied to each group. Those deemed oppressed are by definition innocent and are incapable of doing anything wrong. As for oppressors, they can’t do anything right because they are always complicit in systems of oppression, regardless of their intent or behavior. All oppressors can do is to humbly acknowledge their guilt and undeserved privilege.
Out in the wider world, this ideology produces a set of binary divisions, the most important being between “white” and “Black.” Others include Western/non-Western, male/female, cis/trans, straight/LGBTQ+, etc. Each binary corresponds to its respective system of oppression: racism and white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, transphobia, etc. If you belong to one of these victim groups, you are entitled to protection, compassion and the bigotry of low expectations. If you belong to the other group, you get none of that.
The intellectual roots of this ideology of victim vs. oppressor binaries are complex—they stem from the theories of French thinker Michel Foucault about hegemonic systems of power, the concept of “intersectionality” as developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw (which is about the intersection of different dimensions of oppression) and critical race theory as developed by Derrick Bell and others.
The ideology also has many striking parallels with Marxist schemes of thought, except that, in this case, they are being applied outside of the economic sphere. While Marx reduced the whole of society to an ineluctable zero-sum game between two groups defined in terms of their economic position and interest, and each with their respective class consciousness—proletarians and capitalists—the modern ideology extends these binary divisions to the realm of racial, sexual and cultural identity. And it suffers from the same fatal problems as original Marxism: Just as Marxists were blind to the fact that proletarians could also exploit or abuse each other, or that some factory bosses could ally with their workers, the opposition between Black and white leaves no room for the possibility that nonwhite people can also have racist views, about each other or about whites. And just as Marxists dismissed proletarians who failed to adopt the group identity as suffering from “false consciousness,” people of color who diverge from the ideological talking points are being told that they are “thinking white” or are suffering from “internalized racism.”
Now there’s only one missing element to fully understand the charade that occurred when Gay and the other college presidents testified before the U.S. Congress: Jews constitute an oppressor group. Jews, you see, are associated with Israel, which is an ally of the U.S. and the West, and therefore by definition an exponent of colonialism, white supremacy and imperialism. Moreover, in the U.S., Jews are seen as a successful “model minority” against which other minorities are often compared, and many of them hold positions of influence and prestige. Public surveys bear this out: Among Generation Z (ages 18 to 24), a majority of 67% agree with the statement that “Jews as a class are oppressors and should be treated as such.” The Palestinians, on the other hand, as victims of the oppressive and colonial state of Israel, are by definition innocent.
The fact that there are hundreds of thousands of Sephardic and Black Jews living in Israel, as well as hundreds of thousands of Arab Israelis who practice Islam, the fact that Jewish “colonizers” have no homeland to return to at all, that Jews are just about the most hated group in the world (with just 2.4 % of the U.S. population, they bear the brunt of 60% of hate crimes), that Jews have been persecuted almost to annihilation precisely because they failed to pass as “white,” that Israel is the only liberal democracy in the Middle East and was founded with a U.N. mandate, that Palestinians and Israelis are ethnically indistinguishable—none of this matters in the slightest. In this infantile DEI-driven worldview, Jews as a class are “white,” therefore colonizers, and therefore racists. As the activists delicately put it: “IDF = KKK.”
This shift on the academic left toward seeing Jews as oppressors occurred in the wake of Israel’s victory during the Six-Day War in 1967, according to historian Jeffrey Herf. After originally supporting the establishment of the Jewish state in the years immediately following the Holocaust and regarding Zionism as a liberation movement for the Jewish people, leftist academics in the 1960s began perceiving Zionism as a racist and colonial ideology. To a large extent, this equation of Zionism with racism, and thus anti-Zionism with anti-racism, happened in conjunction with the communist fight against “fascism” and “imperialism.” Even the accusation that the state of Israel is doing to Palestinians what the Nazis did to Jews—a perverse form of Holocaust inversion and thus antisemitism—was already a staple of Soviet propaganda during the Cold War. By the time the infamous “Zionism is racism” resolution was adopted by the U.N. in 1975 (enthusiastically voted by the communist bloc as well as many Arab nations) this shift to viewing Israel (and thus Jews) as an oppressor class was already complete.
Glorification of Terrorism
If you understand this ideological background, you can make sense not only of the three college presidents’ testimonies before Congress, but also of many other bizarre incidents that have occurred since October 7. At numerous academic institutions, student groups and academics have rushed to condone, downplay or even glorify Hamas’ massacre. The day after the attack more than 30 student groups at Harvard wrote a joint statement holding the “apartheid regime” “solely responsible” for the massacre. Pro-Palestinian demonstrators have aggressively harassed Jewish students on several campuses, including Harvard, usually without facing any consequences from these institutions. No fewer than 120 gender studies departments worldwide took the time to condemn Israel just days after October 7, but none of them had a single word to spare for the female victims of Hamas’ systematic, horrific and sadistic sexual violence. The official U.N. agency for women’s rights, U.N. Women, dragged their feet for almost 50 days before finally condemning one of the most brutal violations of women’s rights in modern history, in a tweet that they deleted a few hours later with a pathetic excuse.
This insanity is not restricted to the U.S. At my own university in Ghent, Belgium, hundreds of academics signed an obscene open letter, three days after the largest antisemitic massacre since the Holocaust, explicitly refusing to condemn Hamas, placing all the blame squarely on the evil “Zionists” and lavishing Palestinians with praise for their “tenacity and fierce resistance in the face of racism and settler colonialism,” which they found tremendously “inspiring.”
The Source of Silliness
In recent years, we have seen how the same Black-and-white ideology, when applied to relatively innocuous issues about sexuality and skin color, has generated an endless stream of hard-to-parody silliness. A white writer who is not allowed to translate a Black slam poet, novelists who are cancelled for the sin of “cultural appropriation” and have to write grovelling apologies, the annual outcry and fury over Halloween costumes, books that are sanitized, censored or outright banned and an endless string of words and phrases that are cancelled for being too “stigmatizing” or “oppressive.” (My favorite is the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work removing the word “field work” from its curriculum because it might be associated with plantation slavery.)
Also at the rather laughable end of the spectrum was the recent sight of the Harvard Board of Overseers bending over backward to defend their president even as her extensive history of plagiarism (especially considering her short list of publications) was coming to light. Every Harvard student knows that plagiarism is a grave academic sin and that anyone caught committing it risks severe sanctions, including expulsion from the university. But for the sake of Claudine Gay—a Black woman and therefore at the intersection of at least two designated victim groups—Harvard dreamt up laughable Orwellian euphemisms such as “duplicative language without appropriate attribution” while continuing to “reaffirm our support” for their president. Only after it transpired that no one was buying their ridiculous excuses, least of all their wealthy donors, and only after even more revelations of academic misconduct, did Harvard cave in to public pressure and force Gay to resign (though she still remains in a full-time professorship and retains her nearly $1 million presidential salary).
As the Black American linguist John McWhorter has written in The New York Times, by giving the impression that Harvard adopts lower standards for Black women, the university has not only damaged its own reputation, but also that of African Americans everywhere. Yet this is just the flip side of the same ideology: Anyone who belongs to an officially recognized victim group can get away with almost anything.
It is easy to make light of the sillier manifestations of this ideology—which for lack of a better word has become known as “wokeness”—but we should be significantly less amused when it is used to excuse and even justify terrorism and horrific violence. As New York University professor Susie Linfield has written in Quillette, the response to the October 7 attack on Israel among many Western academics and leftist intellectuals (who are in fact betraying everything progressive thought should stand for), will go down in history as a moment of “moral corruption” on par with the glorification and defense of Stalin’s terror and the denial of the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. Everyone has now witnessed with their own eyes the moral monstrosities you end up with if you view the world through the lens of this simplistic ideology of victims versus oppressors. There is no longer any excuse for any of us to ignore, let alone support, this corrupt and destructive view of the world.