Open Letter to the Editorial Board of the Harvard Crimson
Dear Harvard Crimson Editorial Board,
On Friday, April 29, you published an editorial expressing your support for the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement. I read the editorial. Several times. There were things I disagreed with, and that’s fine. But there were also things I found troubling based on facts that you may or may not have realized when you decided to publish the editorial. I’m sure the decision to publish wasn’t easy. I’m sure there was disagreement and debate behind the scenes. I’m sure you all had many different opinions. So I respectfully ask you to hear me out and consider another perspective to which, perhaps, you’ve never been exposed.
Now I’m not quite a journalist—I just sort of play one on the Internet. And I humbly acknowledge that I didn’t go to Harvard. But I was lucky enough to marry an incredible woman who did go to Harvard, and Harvard Medical School, and she worked on the Crimson. That’s right, I have a Crimson alumna in my household. So it’s with great admiration for your institution that I share my response to your editorial.
Let’s start with the art display that appeared on the Harvard campus as part of Israel Apartheid Week. In your editorial, you express support for the art display. You acknowledge that it’s controversial, but you say it dares the viewer to contend with “well-established facts.”
One of the panels from the art display simply contains words on a white background that read: “ZIONISM IS RACISM SETTLER COLONIALISM WHITE SUPREMACY APARTHEID.” I could understand if you said that you think it has an important message, or that you agree with the underlying cause, but you said “well-established facts.” Are you saying it’s a well-established fact that Zionism is racism? That’s not a fact; that’s an opinion. I personally think it’s an ill-informed opinion—one the vast majority of Jews find offensive and dangerous.
Another panel from the art display appears to show a riot police officer menacingly hovering over three men with multiple bloody bullet holes in their chests, above an upside down American Flag. This panel plays on the debunked conspiracy theory known as “Deadly Exchange” that blames Israel for police violence against African-Americans in the U.S. According to the American Jewish Committee, the Deadly Exchange Theory is categorically false. AJC states: “Accusing Israel or Zionists of complicity in the murder of Black people is malicious, perpetuates antisemitism, and blames Jews for societal ills.” When you wrote this editorial, were you aware of those conspiracy theories, and the danger they pose to American Jews? Or did you not realize that kind of message might be living in the art panel that you just endorsed as containing “well-established facts”?
Your editorial then spends two paragraphs discussing antisemitism, focusing on your belief that the art display is not antisemitic. You start with this line: “In the wake of accusations suggesting otherwise, we feel the need to assert that support for Palestinian liberation is not antisemitic.” Hold on, did the people who called the art display antisemitic really say that “support for Palestinian liberation” is the thing they had a problem with? Or do you think maybe they were talking about statements like “Zionism is racism,” and accusing the world’s only Jewish country of White Supremacy, and that not-so-subtle attempt to link Israel to the killing of Black people in America? Perhaps that’s what they were upset about? And if you believe all of those messages aren’t antisemitic, fine. Make that argument. But you’re pretending that they were attacking “support for Palestinian liberation.” That’s a weak, disingenuous tactic that in my opinion is unbefitting the editorial board of the Harvard Crimson. It’s a textbook example of a strawman argument. And it’s not like you don’t know what a strawman argument is because in the very next paragraph, you say that the people calling it antisemitic are “straw-manning legitimate arguments.” You tried to pull off a double strawman. That might be a first in Crimson history.
It’s one thing to argue that something is not antisemitic. You’re entitled to your opinion and I respect that. But to attack the members of a marginalized community for sharing their opinion of what they find antisemitic? To question their motives and undermine their credibility by misrepresenting what they actually find objectionable? I find that deeply offensive. Please don’t silence and marginalize Jewish voices like that.
You begin the next section by saying: “Israel remains America’s favorite first amendment blindspot” because of the pushback against BDS. Before I went to film school, I was actually a First Amendment lawyer. I had the opportunity to work for a legendary First Amendment lawyer named Floyd Abrams. I am a strong defender of the First Amendment. I am deeply committed to freedom of speech. In my opinion, if you support free speech then BDS is not the side for you. The whole purpose of the BDS movement is to censor and sideline. BDS attempts to shun Israeli academics and artists. BDS is about canceling an entire country. It’s such a disturbing inversion for you to claim that the people who try to fight BDS are the cancelers.
In your editorial you state that “civil discourse and debate … are fundamental steps towards a better reality.” I completely agree. So, can we please acknowledge the bullying tactics that are regularly used by pro-BDS groups on campuses all over the country? Have you ever been to an event on campus that was stormed by a pro-BDS group? They do everything they can to stifle civil discourse and debate. They interrupt and yell over speakers with opposing views. They forcibly shut down conversations they don’t want to hear. The BDS movement is not about respectful debate; it’s about doing everything they can to silence the opposing perspective. It’s about never having to truly defend or debate your positions with someone who disagrees.
You go on to claim that journalists face professional risks for openly condemning Israel’s policies, and you provide a few examples. You mention a news editor who was fired by the Associated Press for her tweets that you describe as “critical of Israel.” Well according to the AP, the person you’re talking about was fired for violating their social media guidelines, not for being “critical of Israel.” That’s a relevant point you failed to mention, that I learned just by reading the article to which you linked. But more importantly, in one of her social media posts she says she’s planning to protest a Birthright fundraiser that’s featuring “naked mole rat-looking billionaire Shel Adelson.” Is that the “civil discourse” that you value so much? Is this really the hill that you’re willing to let the reputation of the Crimson die on? Is it possible that the AP wouldn’t have fired her if instead of making fun of the appearance of a person whose views she disagrees with, she actually wrote an intelligent tweet critical of Israel? I think for you to claim that her firing by the AP was merely because she was “critical of Israel” is a pretty significant mischaracterization.
You also link to an article about Marc Lamont Hill getting fired from CNN to support your claim that journalists get “shunned from the newsroom” if they “endorse Palestinian freedom.” But that’s not exactly what happened to Lamont Hill. If he just announced into a microphone: “I endorse Palestinian freedom,” I feel confident there wouldn’t have been a problem. But he didn’t. During a twenty minute speech to the UN, he criticized Israel in detail in ways that he’s perfectly entitled to, and that would not have gotten him fired. But, he also included a section during which he seemed to excuse and endorse violence as a means of Palestinian resistance. He dismissed what he called Gandhian non-violence and insisted that we cannot restrict the array of tactics at the disposal of the Palestinians. Considering the fact that Gaza is currently ruled by Hamas, a group officially designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada, the E.U., the U.K., Japan and Australia, and a group that openly targets civilians and promotes terrorism, his endorsement of violence was reckless and deplorable. That is what I found most troubling about his speech.
He also ended his speech calling for “A free Palestine from the River to the Sea.” This is the part that made a lot of headlines at the time, because “From the River to the Sea” is originally a Hamas slogan, widely understood to be a call for the destruction of Israel. There is a material difference between saying “From the River to the Sea” and, as you put it, endorsing Palestinian freedom. It’s like if someone got fired for wearing a Klan hood for Halloween, and you described it as getting fired for wearing white after Labor Day.
I understand that some people may repeat the slogan “From the River to the Sea” as their way to say they just want Palestinians to be free no matter where they live between the river and the sea. I understand that some people might not realize that by repeating that slogan, they’re empowering other people who use that slogan to mean Israel’s destruction. But Lamont Hill should’ve understood the dark history of the phrase. And by now it’s been so heavily covered that you should too.
But maybe you don’t, so let me clearly demonstrate why people like me are so alarmed by that slogan. If you go to the New York Times archive right now and search for the earliest article that used the phrase “From the River to the Sea” you’ll find an article from December 20, 1992 that describes how Hamas, which was a new militant group at the time, was strongly opposed to peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
According to the article, Hamas was growing in popularity with its message, which the New York Times described as “Holy war to establish an Islamic state ‘from the river to the sea,’ in the entire area of Israel and the occupied territories.”
Lamont Hill was not fired for “endorsing Palestinian freedom” as you put it. He was fired for endorsing Palestinian violence, and, whether he did it knowingly or negligently, for endorsing the destruction of Israel. And even if you still disagree with his firing, the way you mischaracterize it to fit the narrative of your editorial is weak and unethical, and a terrible stain on the reputation of the Crimson.
We finally get to the real core of the editorial, the section where you explain why you support the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement. You say that Israel’s current policy pushes Palestinians towards indefinite statelessness and hurts the prospect of a two-state solution. Now, I’m not going to dive into a whole explanation of why I think BDS is not the best way to achieve peace. You’re entitled to your opinion, and you’re entitled to share that opinion in an editorial. But I just want to take a moment to pose a question to which I personally have never heard a satisfying answer. If you believe BDS is the best way to get to peace and a two-state solution, then presumably that means you think Israel is the one with the power to make peace happen. So, what exactly do you think Israel can unilaterally do to bring about a two-state solution? I understand why you may feel that the settlements, and some of Israel’s other policies may pose some obstacles to peace, but in the absence of any obstacles posed by the Israeli side, do you think there would be peace? Did the editorial board discuss any of the obstacles posed by the Palestinian side? Like the fact that a huge chunk of Palestinians are ruled by Hamas, a terrorist group that’s sworn to Israel’s destruction, and, as I just demonstrated, came to power with an explicitly anti-peace message. A group that incites violence and indoctrinates child soldiers and celebrates terrorism. Not only do they carry out terrorist attacks on civilians, they pay around seven percent of their budget on special bonus salaries for convicted terrorists and their families. They name schools after the terrorists.
Do you know how many Palestinians support a two-state solution? No one really does, because Hamas denies its people basic freedoms including the freedom to disagree or advocate for peace with Israel. An example is when Hamas arrested three Palestinian peace activists and charged them with “weakening revolutionary spirit.”
Did you know all of this when you decided to sign on to BDS? Given the significant obstacles to peace that exist on the Palestinian side, why are you so convinced that Israel is the one with the power to make peace? Why are you so convinced that you’re willing to endorse such an extreme tactic like boycotting an entire nation of people? What if you’re wrong?
Finally, there’s one more thing I feel compelled to point out regarding your editorial. Clearly you are in favor of a two-state solution since you explain your support for BDS by your assertion that Israel’s policies hurt the prospect of a two-state solution. But remember at the very beginning of the editorial, you said that you broadly and proudly support the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee’s mission? Well I took a look at their mission and it calls for a right of return for Palestinian refugees, which is a non-starter for Israel. It’s unrealistic and inconsistent with a two-state solution. Is this something you thought about before deciding to endorse their mission?
Their mission also calls for Israel ending its “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands.” I find “all Arab lands” to be a peculiar way to phrase it. Since you support their mission, I’m curious what “all Arab lands” means to the editorial board of the Crimson? Does it mean the ‘67 borders? The Green Line? Have you considered the possibility that it might mean all of Israel to some people? What do you think “all Arab lands” means to the Palestine Solidarity Committee?
Honestly, reading the PSC’s mission, it doesn’t look like the mission of a group that supports a two-state solution. Have you asked them if they support a two-state solution? Do you think that’s something you should clarify? This is basic diligence I’d want to do if I were endorsing the mission of another organization.
Why does any of this matter? Why do I care enough to give such a detailed response to your editorial? Because this isn’t just some rinky dink high school newspaper. This is the Harvard Crimson. You sit in positions of great promise and privilege. Your destinies are limitless, and your futures are still unwritten.
I think you want to see yourselves in the same light as the heroic voices that took a brave stand against Apartheid South Africa. But this is not the stand that you think it is. Publishing this editorial was not the brave choice. It was the easy one. It was a choice to buckle to the pressure of the bullying mob that everyone sees, but few are willing to call out. I think someday you may realize that publishing this editorial puts you in the same company as the many, many cowardly souls throughout history who conformed to the popular witch-hunt of the day.
Jason A. Kessler
Jason A. Kessler (@jasonakessler) is a screenwriter, filmmaker, and host of the web series “Jew or False” that fights antisemitism and misinformation with truth and humor.