A New School of Thought

The war with Hamas must be a moment of reckoning for elite American universities

In Short

Harvard's failure to unequivocally condemn the terrorist group signals a broader moral crisis in elite American universities. But this could also be the opportunity to make bold decisions to prevent their total descent into irrelevance.

A memorial to the victims of the Hamas attacks at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass.
A memorial to the victims of the Hamas attacks at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. Photo by Barak Sella

On the evening of Saturday, Oct. 7, I received a text from a fellow Israeli Harvard student. “Check out this draft circulating in the Palestinian WhatsApp groups.” I couldn’t believe my eyes. Over 30 student organizations signed a letter holding “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” While my friends and I were still counting our dead, they blamed us for our own slaughter.

I’ve researched anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses for years and co-authored a study documenting the connection between radical progressives and the Muslim Brotherhood. Still, I never imagined that students from the best university in the world would wholeheartedly support the killing of infants and kidnapping of the elderly.

The letter made international headlines, and the administration went into panic mode. Israeli students received emails checking on our well-being and expressing sorrow. We demanded a public response but got a referral to a social worker instead. As I told one of my professors: “The last thing I need now from my American friends is a therapist. What I need is a sense of justice.”

After significant pressure, Harvard issued an embarrassing and tepid statement that didn’t even define Hamas’ atrocities as a terror attack. We didn’t expect the administration to suddenly become Joe Biden; just that they would condemn the ISIS-like terror of Hamas. Generic words such as “heartbroken” and “passion for learning” couldn’t hide the absence of a moral compass. 

One of the proudest moments of my life was when I received my admission letter to Harvard; and in this moment, I felt ashamed to be associated with this institution. I struggled to understand how Harvard deans failed to acknowledge the simple truth: Hamas, a designated terrorist organization, launched an unprovoked attack, killing over 1,000 civilians, along with hundreds of soldiers. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is undoubtedly complicated, but this seemed like a no-brainer for the world’s brightest. I wondered what views some deans might hold to justify this cautious position. 

I quickly got my answer when a statement from the Divinity School called for being “wise and even-handed when confronting the result of decades of oppression imposed on the Palestinians.” I guess “wisdom” means that the massacre of Israeli civilians doesn’t deserve their outrage. 

The storm of public criticism led Harvard President Claudine Gay to issue another correction, strongly condemning Hamas and distancing the university from the students’ letter. But we are dealing with a systemic nationwide problem, and we saw the same leadership paralysis in elite universities across the U.S. After many years of adopting anti-Israel stances, they have lost the ability to condemn terror when it targets Israelis and Jews.

Hung amidst the usual posters found on campus billboards at Harvard are flyers publicizing the victims young and old, Jewish and non-Jewish, kidnapped by Hamas during the Oct. 7 attacks.
(Barak Sella)

We are in a moment of reckoning. If American universities lack the ability to oppose terrorism, how can they fulfill their mission as the epicenter of democracy? Hamas’ horrific acts must be a breaking point, separating actual progressive ideas from the lies masquerading as radical leftism. Journalist Alexander Nazaryan described it precisely: “The reason you’re seeing paralysis from so many elite figures and institutions right now is because they never thought they would have to apply their social justice precepts to Jews. Faced with that prospect, they simply don’t know what to do.”

But what administrators struggle to see, the American public clearly identifies, as —  trust in higher education is at an all-time low. Only 36% of respondents in a recent Gallup poll expressed confidence in higher education (a decline of 20 points over the last eight years). Gallup researcher Zach Hrynowski noted that while there is a steeper decline on the right, it’s crucial to recognize that trust amongst other groups is “eroding as well.”

The inability of Harvard’s leadership to unequivocally condemn Hamas angered its donors, and estimates suggest they might lose up to half a billion dollars just from those who have spoken out in the past week. But this crisis could be the wake-up call they need to return to their historic role, to be beacons of knowledge and truth for the challenges of democracy in a changing world. This must include how they talk about Israel, for without Israel there will be no democracy in the Middle East — not now and not in the future.

recent Harvard-Harris poll found that most Americans (84%) support Israel in this conflict, but 48% of people ages 18-24 support Hamas. Not everybody subscribes to this moral incompetence, however. Most young students are just confused and afraid to speak out publicly. In the past week, dozens of students, including those from Arab countries, reached out to me expressing support. Most of them understand very well the true cruel nature of Hamas.

The tactics used over the recent decades to combat antisemitism and anti-Israel on campus have largely failed to move the needle. If we continue to try to “put out fires” in attempting to sway some college students with trips to Israel, we will forever be stuck in this rat race of defending the idea that Jews have a right to live in peace. This isn’t so much a reflection on our community institutions but rather the powerful undercurrents that no student initiative can single-handedly overcome. This is a moment for strategic rather than reactionary thinking. A better statement from university leaders could’ve been nice, but that’s yesterday’s battle. We need to focus on institutional change. 

Instead of fighting progressives on campus, we need to resist the lure of prestige and invest in academic institutions that have proven that they actually have a moral spine. Instead of acting as bystanders as Reform and Conservative seminaries shrink, we need to invest in creating relevant elite Jewish leadership programs across the Diaspora and rebuild our leadership pipeline. Instead of demanding statements, we need to demand curricula educating on antisemitism. After four months at Harvard Kennedy School, I’ve been to lectures on almost every type of inequality and oppression — except that directed at Jews. Instead of waiting for universities to change, we should consider developing more Jewish alternatives to higher education that will be open to Jews and non-Jews alike and attract the best minds worldwide.

The war against Hamas is far more than a military operation — it is a rare opportunity for profound systemic change in the core institutions of Western democracies. To do so, we must stop focusing on the fringe elements and invest in building bold partnerships around democracy and against terrorism. The moral spiral must end. And in the meantime, universities will need to make bold decisions determining their relevance as institutions, and whether the quest for veritas will mean more than just an overpriced hoodie bought at Harvard Square.

Barak Sella is an expert in Israel-US relations and world Jewry. He is the former director of the Reut Institute and is currently an MC/MPA student at the Harvard Kennedy School.