Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Campaign Against Harvard Leader Fueled by Remarks on Israel Boycott

March 25, 2005
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

It’s no coincidence that so many of the professors leading the campaign against Harvard President Lawrence Summers for his recent comments about women in science also were in the vanguard of the campaign to divest from Israel and boycott Israeli academics. These anti-Israel fanatics will never forgive Summers for his criticism in September 2002 of those who single out Israel for condemnation in a world so full of horrible human rights abuses.

After pointing to evidence of increasing global anti-Semitism — “synagogue burnings, physical assaults on Jews,” Holocaust denial, and a U.N.-sponsored conference at Durban that became a platform for anti-Israel and anti-Semitic agitation — Summers turned to some disturbing events on university campuses, such as efforts to boycott only Israeli researchers and to divest only from Israel.

He called these and other selective sanctions against the Jewish state “anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.” At the same time, he encouraged listeners to vigorously challenge and criticize specific policy decisions by Israel, as they would do with policy decisions by any other country.

More recently, Summers made controversial statements about women in math and engineering. He suggested that among the explanations — certainly not the justifications — for the relatively small number of women on the most elite research universities’ math and engineering faculties might be “different availability of aptitude at the high end.”

Summers made it clear that he “would far prefer to believe something else” and that he “would like nothing better than to be proved wrong,” because “it would be easier to address what is surely a serious social problem if something else were true.” He offered his theory as one of many to “provoke” his audience of high-powered academics.

These remarks provided Summers’ enemies with an opportunity to cobble together a coalition of radical leftists, feminists and aggrieved others to demand his resignation.

Among the leaders of this “get Summers” group was J. Lorand Matory, professor of anthropology and African and African-American studies, who drafted a motion for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. According to an account in the Boston Globe, the draft “has three paragraphs of explanation that refer to several Summers controversies: the memo he signed while working at the World Bank in 1991 suggesting that Third World countries were underpolluted; his support for the Reserve Officers Training Corps on campus, despite a ban on gays serving openly in the military; and his criticism of signers of a petition for divestment from Israel as ‘taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent.’ “

The motion criticizes Summers’ “apparently ongoing convictions about the capacities and rights not only of women but also of minority populations, third-world nations, gay people, and colonized peoples.” The “colonized people” is an explicit “reference to Palestinians.”

If Matory has his way, it will become impermissible on Harvard’s campus to criticize those who single out Israel for divestiture or boycott.

I’m sure that Matory would respond by pointing out Summers’ position as president of a university, insisting that in this role he has to be careful about not offending any of his constituents. The problem is that if a university president were to be fired because he expressed the views put forward by Summers, it would become only a matter of time before professors, researchers and students also would be subjected to discipline for expressing similar views.

Once a point of view becomes an impermissible one on a university campus, nobody can express it without fear of recrimination. Dismissing a president on such grounds would give an imprimatur of legitimacy to censorship of the views that formed the basis for his dismissal.

That’s why this issue is bigger than Summers or even Harvard University. It is really about a long-term, systematic effort to impose a political-correctness straitjacket on certain views, especially at universities.

Summers’ statements regarding Israel did not by themselves generate all the opposition to him. His views about women — guarded as they were — may have been the final straw for some who long have been upset at Summers for his refusal to subscribe to the first commandment for university presidents: Make only speeches that risk offending nobody.

Because Summers has repeatedly broken this commandment, Harvard has become the most exciting, diverse, intellectually stimulating and, yes, provocative university in the world. If Summers now begins to “temper words,” as he told the Faculty of Arts and Sciences he would do, Harvard will become a less interesting place.

Many of the same people who correctly insist on greater “diversity” based on gender, race and ethnicity seek homogeneity of viewpoints. They want more colleagues who share their ideologically fixed positions. The last thing they want is diversity of viewpoint, especially on issues of gender, race and politics.

President Summers’ voice has added to the diversity of viewpoints on university campuses, especially with regard to Israel. He was among the first major university presidents to condemn the immoral efforts to miseducate students by presenting Israel as a pariah nation uniquely deserving economic capital punishment.

He should not be criticized for speaking out. Others should be criticized for their silence in the face of bigotry.

Alan Dershowitz is a professor of law at Harvard. His latest book is “Rights From Wrongs.”

Recommended from JTA