- Harvard students spoke to Insider about the controversies roiling the campus.
- The disputes followed the terrorist attack by Hamas on Israel and a letter signed by student groups.
- One student said he was “frustrated and angry and sad” by the week’s developments.
For all the privilege students at Harvard enjoy, it felt like a tough week.
Insider spoke with students on campus who said the climate there since the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel — and the resulting fight over a letter signed by students blaming Israel — has made it a bruising few days.
The letter drew outrage from high-wattage alums like billionaire Bill Ackman, who called on his alma mater to release the names of the students who are members of the groups that signed onto the letter. Several groups later withdrew support. And a truck purporting to show the names of students involved with the statement circled the campus, adding to tensions. One woman told Insider people falsely accused her and her fellow Jewish students at Harvard Law School of sponsoring the truck.
Several Jewish and Muslim students, in particular, said they were feeling the strain of the conflict in the Middle East and the resulting fights over ideas playing out on the storied campus.
Here are some of the things students shared. Insider agreed not to publish some names because of the sensitivity of the issue:
Graduate student, Middle Eastern studies
The man, who is Jewish, said he was “frustrated and angry and sad” to see the truck circling campus branding people as antisemitic because there had been a lot of confusion about the contents of the letter.
“I know people who are signed on to the statements and who are being blacklisted and doxxed and they’re lovely people who hold political and religious and otherwise views that are anathema to my own, and that’s OK, and they’re allowed to hold those and they’re allowed to publicize them,” he said.
“I don’t think that a 19-year-old who feels something right now and decides to put their name on something should have the rest of their lives decided in this moment. We’ve all done things that we would rather we hadn’t,” he said.
Second-year MBA student
The woman said she thought it was unfair for companies to demand the names of fellow Harvard students who’d put their names to the letter though she thought the statement was “too strong.” She appealed for more understanding: “Things should be seen from a humanity side rather than from this side or that side.”
Third-year law student
The man said he expected many organizations on campus would institute more defined processes for signing onto letters. He said there was talk on campus that, at least with some groups, the decision to support the letter might have been made without much deliberation and perhaps without a vote. And he said people seem to be talking past each other.
“The problem is we’re having two different conversations. A lot of people are having a conversation of reaction to violence — justified reaction to violence, and mourning and everything that comes with it. But because this is the moment where we’re talking about this issue, it’s also an opportune moment to talk about the underlying problems that may have contributed to this issue. And the problem is, some people want to have that conversation and some people want to have the other conversation.”
Second-year law student
The woman said she was “appalled” by the letter. “I was very disappointed to see that some of those organizations where I know members of these organizations — I know board members — had signed on.
“I had gotten text messages from friends being like, ‘Our organization had signed on. We were not aware of this as board members. We didn’t see this until it signed on. So I also knew that it wasn’t fully coming from everyone.”
She said students need to take seriously the idea of endorsing a position. “My take on that is you should look into an issue before signing on,” she said. “Words are powerful. They have an impact.”
Graduate student, education
The man said he never expected to see the level of backlash from business leaders “using their platform to punish these students for exercising their First Amendment rights of free speech and to speak on something that I feel a lot of the media isn’t speaking of, which is the dignity and value of Palestinian lives.”
“As a graduate student seeing undergraduate students being targeted, it really rocks my spirit. It hurts me so much because we all deserve to be able to be safe.”
Mendelsohn, who is Jewish, and a first-year MBA student, said she scrolled through the statement from the student organizations and was relieved to see none of them were business-school groups. She said everyone has a right to be critical of the Israeli government but “that’s not the same as having the right to think that innocent people should be brutalized and murdered in such a horrific way.”
“If I walked into a job interview and I said, ‘Oh, I think all men deserve to be murdered’ or ‘Oh, I think all people from the Midwest deserve to be murdered,’ no one would even think twice about saying, like, that’s not a stance,” she said. “That’s just evil.”
First-year law student
One first-year law student said he wished both the student groups and the Harvard administration would take a more nuanced approach. And he said it’s concerning that students would have their hiring opportunities limited because of a political opinion. He pointed to the young age of some of the students and Harvard generally being a more liberal campus.
He said students would be wise to think through what their opinions could mean for employment, at least in a more buttoned-down field like law. “The general advice is to keep your opinions to yourself for the most part,” he said.
“It does seem that people are talking past each other,” he said. “People aren’t exactly willing to listen to the opposing side, which I think is a pretty commonplace when it comes to these sorts of issues, and especially with an issue with this sort of gravity.”
First-year MBA student
The man said he thought the leadership at Harvard could have done a better job being clear on its position around the attack by Hamas. And yet he also doesn’t agree with calling out individual students.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to name students. I think there’s already a lot of conflict in this whole situation. I think by kind of naming individuals you are creating this kind of witch-hunt,” he said. “It’s a reflection of cancel culture, which I don’t think makes sense.”
He said while he understood Ackman’s desires to identity students with views antithetical to his own, that’s not necessarily the best approach.
“There are better ways to figure out whether you think someone should work for you or not, than, you know, going for this kind of, more or less, witch-hunt where you try to figure out people’s political views. Although I understand that his argument is it’s not political, it’s more sort of deeply moral questions.”