Forgive me for quoting myself, but there’s no other way to begin: “History rarely issues us a red alert. But the surrender by America’s premier university to its anti-intellectual assailants marked a point of no return. Responsibility was so equally distributed among the administration, Board of Governors, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the main players that I saw no way the damage could be repaired.”

This was my verdict on Harvard when I retired from the university a decade ago after having witnessed the ambush and dismissal in 2006 of Lawrence Summers, whose appointment as president five years earlier had given me hope that the decline I had tracked would now be reversed. From the moment Summers arrived, he showed bold leadership, addressing the main areas of my concern. But his every initiative also alerted his ideological opponents, who proved so skilled in cultural combat that they were able to damage him almost immediately and to bring him down in record time.

There was no inquiry at the time into the factions that mobilized against the president, leaving them free to further influence policy and squelch opposition. Now by curious inversion, we see that Claudine Gay, recently installed as 30th president of Harvard, has been upended by the very crisis in education Summers had tried to avert. Although opinion will vary over what led to Gay’s resignation, several of those controversies—over the university’s role in society, anti-Semitism, academic standards, and affirmative action or “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion”—were precisely the ones that were “weaponized” against Summers, but for opposite ends.

Currently, at least four groups from inside and outside the university—alumni, faculty, administration, and government—are looking into what has gone wrong at Harvard. While the aborted Gay presidency is but a symptom of that damage, and the resignation itself brings no necessary change, anyone hoping to understand what is at stake in higher education would do well to study the defenestration of Lawrence Summers. He has personally transcended that debacle, but Harvard has not.


In submitting this testimony, let me clarify my role as participatory witness. Soon after I came to Harvard in 1993 as first occupant of the Martin Peretz Chair in Yiddish Literature, I was made director of the Center for Jewish Studies, which required my presence at faculty meetings I had seldom attended during my previous tenure. At McGill University, where I had taught for 20 years, such meetings were chaired by the dean; at Harvard, by the president himself. This seemed to give the Faculty of Arts and Sciences disproportionate influence in setting university policy; when decisions in this forum were ratified under presidential authority, they were presumably binding not only on the college but on the university as a whole. Moreover, a small group of activists among otherwise preoccupied academic colleagues could put items on the agenda, strategically line up speakers, and corral the votes they needed. “Harvard” therefore became defined by a bare minyan of dedicated reformers.

One of the policies enacted at Harvard and several other Ivy League universities during the war in Vietnam had been the banning from campus of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, the medium through which students receive training for the military while in an academic program. Faculty had opposed any form of campus military training that either provided (or implicitly denied) exceptions to the draft, but when conscription was repealed in 1973 and the original rationale for the ban fell away, the Army’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy governing homosexuals put in place in 1993 became the excuse for prolonging it; any form of discrimination “unrelated to course requirements” was said to contravene the principles of the school.

My study of Yiddish and East European Jewish culture—a civilization of 1,000 years exterminated in five—had taught me the moral obligation of self-defense. I believed that a leading institution of higher learning should actively encourage a high percentage of its undergraduates to learn how to defend their country during the college years that overlapped with years of military training. Instead, the presumed insult to the gay minority was assumed to be an acceptable reason to abandon America. Implicit in the prohibition of ROTC was the message that this imperfect country was not worth defending, that Harvard students were too good for the armed forces, that protection had best be left to the farm boys of Iowa, the blacks of Mississippi, or any other poor suckers who didn’t make it to Cambridge’s hallowed ground. Those on ROTC scholarships whom Harvard felt obliged to accommodate were sent down the street to MIT for their training.

Thus, I was greatly encouraged when Lawrence Summers, despite the small number of students involved, attended the ROTC commissioning ceremony at Harvard his first year in office—according to the Harvard Crimson, the first president to do so since 1969. He then regularly attended these annual ceremonies, taking the opportunity as president “to associate the university with something that is very noble and something that is crucial.” The nation was strong, he said, because it is free, but “we are free because we are strong, and that freedom depends on our strength.” He told the students they should argue about every aspect of our country’s policies, “but the idea that freedom depends on strength is one we should all be able to agree on.” Summers also addressed the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus (HGLC), perhaps hoping to forestall its protest against his support for the military. That protest came anyway, since he was obviously challenging progressive pieties.

Much bolder and more consequential was the speech he delivered in Memorial Church in September 2002, condemning the upsurge of anti-Semitism around the globe, and specifically, the petition for divestment from Israel that was being circulated by professors at Harvard and MIT. The boycott of the Jewish state had been imposed by the Arab League at Israel’s founding, selectively enforced during by now one of the longest wars ever waged. The BDS movement for boycott, divestment, and sanction of Israel that Summers criticized was a campus-generated instrument of the American far left. The wave of petitions had started at Berkeley, coinciding with the Palestinian attacks on Israel in March and April of 2002.

Speaking in a private capacity, Summers delivered a speech that would nonetheless define his presidency. He acknowledged that academic communities had to be open to all viewpoints, and that parts of Israel’s foreign and defense policy “can be and should be vigorously challenged,” but also that anti-Semitism was no longer the creature of fascist Germany or local thugs: “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.” Giving signatories of the petition and anti-Israel agitators full benefit of the doubt, he generously added, “Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.” This most quoted part of the speech merely incited his opponents.

At the next faculty meeting, Lorand Matory, professor of anthropology and Afro-American studies and himself African American, accused Summers of using his presidential authority to stifle free expression by casting “criticism of Israel” as anti-Semitism. He was backed up by colleagues in an ambush so well prepared that though the press was excluded from faculty meetings, the next day’s Boston Globe featured Matory’s charge on its front page. It had gone international by the following August when Judith Butler, gender-studies scholar and one of the original BDS petitioners at Berkeley, published an attack on Summers in the London Review of Books titled, “No, it’s not anti-Semitic.” She called his remarks personally hurtful to her, with “a chilling effect on political discourse.” The president’s rare courage in challenging anti-Semites was slandered as an attack on free speech, just as Israel was pilloried when it successfully practiced self-defense.

The anti-Summers coalition had actually been seeded a little earlier when the president began restoring Harvard’s academic claim to excellence. He facilitated the appointments of Steven Pinker in psychology and Niall Ferguson in history, scholars with the dedication to objectivity that would get them classified as “conservative.” He met privately with several professors, one of whom told me he appreciated being reminded of the school’s high expectations and the need to avoid grade inflation. These meetings were private, but Cornel West, who was already negotiating a transfer to Princeton, aired his version of the interview, making it sound as if Summers had singled him out for reprimand as a black American for cutting rap records and inflating grades. Racial discrimination was implied.

In playing the race card, West knew that Summers could never adequately defend himself against this slur, and that as a Jew he was particularly vulnerable to the charge of racism. In West’s version of the black-Jewish Alliance, based on long-standing association with leftist Tikkun magazine, blacks united with Jews against Israel, which was branded a colonizing expansionist, nationalist state. American Jews were to be guilt-tripped into supporting African Americans even when they worked against Israel and Jewish interests. With enviable skill and media connections, West turned the tables on the uppity white Jew who dared to suggest that his academic performance and pedagogy could be improved.

And ultimately decisive in the intersectional coalition that ousted Summers was the women’s caucus. When I came to Harvard, I was surprised to find myself invited to faculty “women’s lunches” that were subsidized by the administration, although they had no ostensible academic agenda. I was also invited to Jewish faculty lunches that addressed academic subjects of Jewish interest, paid for by senior faculty subsidizing the participation of younger colleagues. I found the women’s arrangement unfair and unwise, a pretext for political organization to advance the interests of women, though we had been hired as academics, masters of a discipline, dedicated to independent research and critical thinking. Committees of women, I thought, could legitimately be struck to address issues such as child care, nursing stations, or supplies in restrooms, but if the Academy had accepted us as equals, why would we now caucus as females?

In her self-exculpatory op-ed after resigning as president, Claudine Gay wrote of the congressional hearing in December: “I fell into a well-laid trap. I neglected to clearly articulate that calls for the genocide of Jewish people are abhorrent and unacceptable and that I would use every tool at my disposal to protect students from that kind of hate.” The trap she refers to are questions put to her by New York representative Elise Stefanik which she admits that she could have answered more effectively.

In fact, the only “well-laid trap” for a Harvard president had been the one laid for Summers by some of his female colleagues, who bullied and ensnared him. In January 2005, Summers was invited to speak at a small private conference on women in science and engineering, where he was encouraged to address “with his customary candor” the underrepresentation of women in fields like mathematics, engineering, and the physical sciences. This he did, offering three reasons in declining order of importance: female choices, unequal distribution of cognitive skills across the sexes, or discrimination. The published text of his remarks shows how tentatively he advanced these speculations, ending with the fervent wish that he be proven wrong “because I would like nothing better than for these problems to be addressable simply by everybody understanding what they are, and working very hard to address them.”

But Summers had been shanghaied. An MIT professor of biology reported to the Boston Globe that “this kind of bias makes me physically sick.” From Harvard sources, the reporter heard that tenured job offers to women had “dropped dramatically since Summers took office”—a specious charge but one Summers had taken seriously enough to address by creating a task force to deal with the alleged problem. When the media piled on, he did not help himself by issuing a letter of apology, committing millions in new funds “to avoid budget constraints on the appointment of outstanding scholars from underrepresented groups including women and minorities.” He promised to explore ways “to enhance flexibility and support for faculty trying to balance career and family” and to accelerate the advancement of women in science and engineering—essentially vowing to fix the very problems he had more honestly acknowledged were not his to fix.

The “faculty,” led by those who had accused Summers of stifling free speech for calling out their anti-Semitism, used the momentum of this latest charge to introduce a vote of no confidence through a process I was not alone in comparing to a Soviet show trial for its predetermined judgment against an innocent man. The Board of Governors that had originally chosen him to restore Harvard values gave him no support once they saw the line-up against him. At the time, I blamed the president for apologizing when he ought to have unmasked his accusers, but none of us had yet fully understood the strength of the cultural-political war that was being waged through the universities.


Almost two decades later, the movement that unseated Summers welcomed Claudine Gay as its president. As Dean of Arts and Sciences from 2018, she had vigorously promoted affirmative action and the doctrine of DEI. When the Supreme Court ruled against the university’s racially discriminatory admissions program, she wrote to the Harvard community, “Today is a hard day, and if you are feeling the gravity of that, I want you to know you’re not alone”—unaware or ignoring that many Harvard affiliates welcomed the Court’s reaffirmation of the Civil Rights Act, which guaranteed equal opportunity to individuals irrespective of gender and race. The progressive agenda that had come to define Harvard dismissed at least half the country. Political uniformity in this academic community was assumed—and imposed.

Protesters of the 1960s had redefined universities as incubators of social action. The failure of socialism wherever implemented, from the Soviet Union to Cuba, had left a vacuum of positive models, so instead aggrieved minorities were claiming injury at the hands of America—gays by the military, women by the patriarchy, blacks by white racism. Affirmative action was advanced as the cure, a Robin Hood approach to higher education. When faculty substituted injury for merit as the criterion for student admissions and disadvantaged group status for proven academic excellence as the standard for academic appointment and advancement, it never acknowledged that it was subverting the Civil Rights Act and the competing ideal of meritocracy. It did not monitor the social and academic results of its experiment to test either the individual progress of those who were admitted with weaker academic records or the social consequences of these good intentions.

Among the inevitable results of this unscrutinized experiment was a culture of resentment, even more on the part of those being affirmed than those being denied. Equality of outcome is even less achievable in the classroom than on the playing field, and no one will feel it more keenly than the student who experiences the condescension. Anti-Semitism, already present, was bound to flourish in a culture of grievance and blame. I was mocked at the time for saying that anti-Semitism was one of the catalysts in Summers’s ouster, but no one would doubt its prominence in the fate of President Gay.

The year before I came to Harvard, the Black Student Association hosted speakers who denounced Jews for running the slave trade and “despoiling the environment,” prompting Professor Henry Louis Gates of Afro-American studies to go public with his concern about the rise of anti-Jewish politics among blacks when it was declining (as he thought) everywhere else. By then, Harvard’s Middle East program and students from the region were importing the Arab-Muslim war against Israel, persuaded of Israel’s illegitimacy “in their territory.” Anti-Zionism had had its breakthrough in the 1970s, when the Arab and Soviet blocs succeeded in passing United Nations resolution 3379 defining Zionism as racism. Until then, Arab leaders, channeling fascism, had vowed to push the Jews into the sea. But in adopting the Soviet denunciation of Zionists as imperialist capitalist nationalist reactionaries, and accusing Jews of displacing and colonizing the Arabs, they shifted anti-Zionism to the political left, where it blossomed in Europe and America.

The American activist left had lacked a proper ideological target since the Vietnam War. In 2011, Occupy Harvard, an affiliate of Occupy Wall Street, camped out in Harvard Yard in protest, according to the Harvard Crimson, “against fundamental problems in American society, ranging from wealth disparity to racism and sexism.” This was a pretty pathetic campaign against an abstract villainy in which some of the protesters probably invested. There came Palestinian students in the form of the victimized Arabs to give grievance coalitions the most familiar of all targets in this intriguing new guise. Anti-Semitism trumps all other ideologies in being entirely anti, a wholly negative campaign against a people with no incentive to counterattack those from whom it seeks acceptance. It sprouted like weed.

Other parts of the university contributed to this effort. While Professor Stephen Walt of the Kennedy School of Government alleged that the United States’ commitment to Israel, often justified as serving strategic interests, was really controlled by the “Israel Lobby,” he failed to disclose Arab influence over his own institution—for example, what the Qatari government might have received for its $6,329,283 contribution to Harvard over the past two years. The administration never answered the demands of students and faculty to investigate its Center for Middle East Studies for its Arab- and Muslim-dictated misteaching of the region. Gradual erasure of the Jewish presence at Harvard has included a sharp decline in Jewish admissions, substitution of Egyptian for biblical exhibitions, and the renaming of the Semitic Museum, which had been established by Jacob Schiff in 1903 to represent the common Abrahamic heritage of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.1 Rather than try to counteract the rapid rise of anti-Jewish ideology on campus, all segments of the university seemed relieved that the incipient violence was not being directed at them.

When Hamas bloodied Israel on October 7, more than 30 Harvard student organizations instantly issued a statement holding “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” As institutional godmother of that DEI coalition, President Gay could not have been expected to denounce their corruption. But if the investigative commissions do their job, they will address the fact that Harvard students justified an attack for which the vocabulary of bestiality and even Nazi atrocities would prove insufficient. Hamas Jew-killers broadcast their criminality, confident that their societies would support them. The students, likewise, celebrated them proudly, with no expectation of penalty or reprimand, and with no subsequent remorse. If they remain Harvard students, Harvard has a moral stake in their depravity.

Democracy is one of the youngest forms of government, and America cannot expect to keep its republic unless those responsible for higher education can transmit the rudimentary understanding of good and evil. The shock of 9/11 that came from without is less disturbing than this shock from within. Anti-Semitism is never about the Jews. If Harvard cannot find a way of extirpating the rot, it betrays its mission, its obligation to higher education and to the country that looked to it for leadership. Like its recent president, Harvard is a symptom of the larger problem and vitally important on that account. Lawrence Summers knew this, and the spreaders of the disease knew he knew. We’ll soon see what they know now.

1 It is now known as the Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East, which hardly rolls trippingly off the tongue.

Photo: AP Photo/Charles Krupa

We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link