The Self-Denying Prophecy
This address was given Sept. 17, 2002, at morning prayers at Harvard University’s Memorial Church in Cambridge, Mass.
I speak with you today, not as president of [Harvard] 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 president.
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, 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 World War II.
Candidates who denied the significance of the Holocaust reached the runoff stage of elections for the nation’s 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 Israel’s 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 Israel’s 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 journal.
- At the same rallies where protesters, many of them university students, condemn the [International Monetary Fund] 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 university’s 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 Hitler’s 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.