Much of the discussion around the explosion of anti-Semitism in public spaces is, appropriately, geared toward demanding accountability from those in power. But the Jewish community is also going to have to grab society by its lapels on occasion, make it look into our faces, and listen to our words.
On that note, a remarkable speech was delivered last night at the Harvard Chabad menorah lighting. Perhaps the most important part of the story is that Harvard President Claudine Gay was in attendance. Until last night we couldn’t be sure that, in the days since her atrocious testimony before Congress, she had heard everything she needed to hear about the anti-Semitism scandal at Harvard and elsewhere.
Well, now she has.
Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi, who was been with the Harvard Jewish community for a quarter-century, began by pointing out that the last time President Gay came to a Chabad event, she made sure to tell those in attendance that Harvard had their back. “We didn’t feel it last night,” Zarchi then said.
The rabbi explained that they held a screening of war footage from Israel. “The Harvard police called our family, advising us that we should get security for the night to protect our family, my wife and children and our students because we’re being accused of hosting a war criminal. I don’t feel that they had the back of me and my family and our community.”
The previous morning Zarchi was in a Harvard chaplains’ meeting where, he said, the other chaplains talked about wanting more relevance, more of a presence, more of a voice on campus. Zarchi had some constructive criticism for them. “The Harvard chaplains want to be more relevant? You had your time, you had your moment when the faculty failed us,” Zarchi said. “When leadership wasn’t speaking in a way that it should have, the chaplains could have made themselves relevant and been the moral voice.” Instead, regarding the calls for genocide that Jews constantly hear on campus, “not a word from the Harvard chaplains till this day.”
In response they accused him of misrepresenting the calls to “globalize the intifada,” as if there was a benign interpretation of expanding a campaign to murder any Jew where we are found.
Zarchi had previously supported the removal of a proctor who had called for “the beast of Zionism to be slain.” In response, there was a mass faculty open letter denouncing Zarchi.
The rabbi noted that after the menorah lighting, just like every night of Hanukkah this or any year at Harvard Yard, the menorah will be taken down and stored in a secure place because the university believes leaving it up overnight invites vandalism. Students say they check their reflections before leaving their dorm rooms to make sure no sign of their Judaism is showing.
Zarchi turned to Gay and told her that in person, she has always shown him warmth and generosity. But then he recalled an email to the Harvard community that referred to Gay as “our president,” and he said: “We in the Jewish community are longing for a day that we could refer to the President—and all of Harvard—as ‘ours,’ too. [When] Harvard indeed not only has our back and not only allows us to finally put up a menorah, but doesn’t force us to hide it at night. And when they witness hateful calls for the death of Jews, you don’t walk by and say nothing. You speak. You don’t remain silent. And let’s hope that indeed we’ll be able to look at the light of the Hanukkah candles and see only its light. Because the power of its light will eliminate all the darkness and turn this and transform our community to a place that’ll be indeed a beacon of life.”
Rabbi Zarchi’s speech is an excellent example of someone speaking actual truth to power. But it should also serve as a reminder not to let bad-faith actors gaslight us into doubting things we know to be true, the row over the intifada chants being the most current case. Zarchi knows what “intifada” means. I was caught by this line of his: “Intifada meant that the pizza shops where the five-year-olds and the seven-year-olds were eating pizza, were blowing up.”
Indeed this isn’t ancient history. One of the victims of that attack—the bombing of a Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem—I knew most of my life; she had been in a coma for the 22 years since the bombing and died six months ago. One perpetrator of that attack is Ahlam Tamimi, who was released in an Israel-Hamas deal a decade ago. Her cousin is 22-year-old Palestinian “icon” Ahed Tamimi, lionized by the New York Times for assaulting Israeli soldiers. She was released in Israel’s deal with Hamas two weeks ago.
And so goes the cycle. The Jewish community has learned a lot about Claudine Gay over the past week. Hopefully last night she learned something about us.