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For Our Sake and The Middle East’s, Harvard’s Protesters Should Stop Grabbing Headlines

Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard

By Addison Y. Liu
By Boaz Barak, Contributing Opinion Writer
Boaz Barak is the Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science.

Yesterday, in protest of the war in Gaza, dozens of student organizers began an encampment at Harvard Yard, holding protests and spending the night in tents.

Many on campus support this cause. Others oppose it, finding some of the chants offensive or even antisemitic. Harvard’s administration has warned participants that the encampment violates University guidelines, igniting debates about the regulation of protests on campus.

Listening to these conversations as an Israeli-American and a Harvard professor, I have to say: Against the backdrop of a raging war, events at Harvard seem almost inconsequential.

Whether you see Israel as brutally killing more than 30,000 Palestinians, the majority of them women and children, or as defending itself against a terrorist organization that integrates its fighters among civilians, events in the Middle East make our conversations here in Cambridge about the minutiae of time, place, and manner restrictions on public speech or the contours of academic freedom seem insignificant.

And in some sense they are. After all, Harvard could decide tomorrow to divest from Israeli companies and boycott Israeli universities, or it could decide to double its investments in Israel and mandate that students take a class on Zionism. Neither would impact the course of the war 5,000 miles away in the slightest.

Given the scale of the war, I can understand why some protestors, convinced of the justness of their cause, choose to flout the seemingly petty rules of our university. However, sometimes breaking the rules is more performative than actually advancing the cause: Every day that the headlines focus on the antics of Harvard students is a day that they do not focus on Gaza. This is good for burnishing the activist resumes of some protestors, as well as for Benjamin Netanyahu, who much prefers to talk about antisemitic Ivy League students than the turmoil within his own country. But it certainly doesn’t help the people of Gaza.

The fact that our university cannot stop this war, does not mean we don’t matter. To explain why we can make a difference, let me recount a story. When I started as an assistant professor at Princeton in 2005, shortly after moving to America from Israel, one of the first students I advised was from Iran. He was not allowed to visit my home country, nor I his, and yet in the United States, we could collaborate on computer science research and find other points of commonality as well. For example, as an observant Muslim, he often ate at Princeton Hillel because Kosher meat is typically Halal.

In the intervening decades, I have worked with scholars of many nationalities, religions, and backgrounds. This diversity is a hallmark of the American higher education system and is part of the reason that the United States has some of the best universities in the world — Harvard included.

Approximately seven million Jews and seven million Arabs live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Neither the chants of Harvard protestors nor those of the settlers in the West Bank will change the fact that both people are there to stay, and that the land will never be fully Arab nor fully Jewish.

Jews and Arabs will either continue the cycle of violence or find a way to peacefully coexist. While academic institutions cannot alter the current conflict, if we do our job right, Harvard-educated leaders may help create a better future for both Palestinians and Israelis.

In an ideal world, Harvard would be a place for people of different beliefs to engage in dialogue and find solutions and common ground. Lately, though, we have become a place where people talk at each other rather than to each other.

Even when we invite speakers of opposing beliefs, they rarely share a stage. Rather, we support those with whom we already agree and protest those we oppose. The few organizations trying to preserve some semblance of discussion across difference — such as Standing Together, an organization that seeks to foster partnership between Jews and Arabs — are attacked by all sides. At Harvard, tellingly, their posters were torn down.

We often discuss whether protest regulations and restrictions are too tough or too lax. Don’t get me wrong — these conversations are important. A university should allow vigorous expressions of opinions, even when they cause some amount of disorder. There are worse things than a few tents on a lawn.

But the University must also balance the right to protest with the safety of its students and the ability to conduct its business. Unfortunately, no matter how lax the rules are, those on the extremes of a movement will always believe that they are made to be broken.

Ultimately, a university's culture is more important than its rules or regulations. We must all ask ourselves whether we prefer the comfort of interacting only with those who agree with us or if we came here to engage in difficult conversations.

If it is the latter — which I sincerely hope — we must be prepared to encounter speech on campus that we find not only wrong but offensive and even hateful.

Alternatively, we could choose to retreat into our safe spaces, interacting solely with those who echo our own perspectives. It is a fine way to live one’s life, but a waste of the precious opportunity that we have all been granted.

Boaz Barak is the Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science.

His piece is part of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard’s column.

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