Last week, Lawrence H. Summers, the Charles W. Eliot University Professor and president emeritus of Harvard University, and former Secretary of the treasury, delivered a lecture on “Academic Freedom and Anti-Semitism” at Columbia University. He recalled that in 2002, when a petition circulated among the Harvard and MIT faculty and students, calling on universities to divest from companies doing business in Israel, he labeled the initiative “anti-Semitic in effect if not intent.” Last week, he said his 2002 assertion “seems to me to have stood up rather well,” and warned that the situation has gotten even worse: “It is my impression that there are more grounds for concern today than at any point since the Second World War”:
We live in a world where there are nations in which the penalty for homosexuality is death, in which women are stoned for adultery, in which torture is pervasive, in which governments are killing tens of thousands of their own people each year. But the proponents of Israeli boycotts, divestiture, and sanctions do not favor any form of pressure against countries other than Israel.
Summers asserted that the recent boycott of Israel by the American Studies Association (ASA) was “anti-Semitic in effect and quite likely in intent” (emphasis added), since it applied only to Israel, sought to demonize the Jewish state, and was “unrelated to the expertise” of the ASA. When you reach out, beyond your area of competence, to delegitimize the Jewish state–and none other–both the effect and intent of the action seem reasonably clear. Summers said that university presidents should have responded to the ASA by saying something like this:
“The decision of the American Studies Association supported by a majority of its membership to single out Israeli institutions and Israeli scholars for selective boycott is abhorrent. The University believes it is very dangerous for scholarly associations to insert themselves into political issues outside of their range of competence. While individual members of the faculty are free to do as they wish, the University is withdrawing its institutional membership in the ASA. We will withdraw from any scholarly association that engages in similar boycotts with respect to Israel or any other country.”
Summers also wrote an op-ed published in yesterday’s Harvard Crimson, expressing his growing concern about what he has seen at Harvard. Unlike many universities that withdrew from the ASA in response to its boycott, Harvard remains an institutional member. Summers’ concluding paragraph suggests that this is a moment of truth for Harvard, whose official motto is Veritas:
Harvard’s example has never been more important. If Harvard is to lead on academic freedom it is essential that we all feel free to assert our views but that our University protect with ferocity its reputation by preventing views demonizing Israel or any other country from being bestowed with its good name.
More than a decade ago, Summers’ description of advocates of divestment as “anti-Semitic in effect if not intent” generated more controversy than any other academic freedom issue during his entire five-year Harvard presidency. In 2015, it is not clear whether his Columbia lecture and Crimson op-ed will elicit any response at all from Harvard’s administration.
What does it bode for the future if things have declined so far that America’s oldest university (and once deemed its most prestigious) not only fails to lead, but chooses not even to follow the example set by other educational institutions–and continues to lend its imprimatur and prestige to an academic association whose action was not only anti-Semitic in effect but likely in intent as well?