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Harvard students file civil rights complaint over harassment for Palestinian advocacy

Complaint alleges that pro-Palestine students at the elite university have been targeted with harassment and racist attacks including doxing, stalking and assault
People gather at Harvard University to show their support for Palestinians in Gaza at a rally in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 14 October 2023 (AFP)

Students at Harvard University submitted a civil rights complaint against the institution on Monday, claiming that it failed to provide adequate support or protection to students facing harassment due to their Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim identities or for advocating for Palestinian rights.

The complaint was filed by the Muslim Legal Fund of America (MLFA) and nearly a dozen students, including Muslim students and others who have reported experiencing harassment for their pro-Palestine stance during protests on campus. 

It also included Palestinian students with relatives in Gaza.

“For months, students at Harvard have been targeted with rampant harassment and racist attacks including doxxing, stalking and assault simply for being Palestinian, Muslim and supporters of Palestinian rights,” MLFA said in a statement. 

According to MLFA, Harvard Univeristy had responded to requests for help “with closed doors” and occasional threats to “limit or retract the students' future academic opportunities”.

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In the statement, one of the students said, “As a Palestinian student at Harvard, the racism and harassment I have faced is shocking, terrifying, and outrageous.”

“We have been chased, spat at, stalked, and hounded by doxxing trucks on campus, and even at our families’ homes. On top of worrying about my family’s safety in Palestine, I’m living in fear of being attacked while walking to class. No student should have to live like this.”

According to MLFA civil litigation department head Christina Jump, who is the lead attorney for the students, “We are proud to help these brave students find a voice and assert their rights to learn free and safe from harm, consistent with the First Amendment of our nation’s Constitution."

When reached for comment, the US Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights told MEE: "The Office for Civil Rights does not confirm complaints."

A spokesperson for Harvard told MEE that the university does not have a comment on the complaint, adding that Harvard has numerous supports and resources put in place to support students, including the Friday announcement of a Presidential Task Force on Combating Islamophobia and Anti-Arab Bias.

"Among the repercussions of conflict in the Middle East have been the loss of family and friends among many members of our community, as well as feelings of uncertainty, abandonment, mistrust, and fear," the announcement said, adding that incidents of bias and hate against Jews and Muslims, Palestinians, and others of Arab descent have risen across the US.

"Reports of antisemitic and Islamophobic acts on our campus have grown, and the sense of belonging among these groups has been undermined. We need to understand why and how that is happening - and what more we might do to prevent it."

In early January, Claudine Gay, Harvard's former president, resigned, following criticism of her testimony at a congressional hearing where she declined to give a “yes” or “no” answer when asked whether calling for the genocide of Jewish people violated Harvard's code of conduct on harassment.

Harvard professor's wife harassed another pro-Palestine student days before viral video
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At the hearing, Gay emphasised the need for universities to uphold free speech while also addressing hate. She noted that antisemitism, Islamophobia, and anti-Palestinian sentiments all constitute forms of hate.

Harvard University students and over 30 organisations which signed a statement in October holding Israel “entirely responsible” for “all unfolding violence” in Israel and Palestine have been facing criticism.

On 8 October, the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee and Harvard Graduate Students for Palestine published a statement emphasising the role of Israeli “colonial occupation in creating these conditions of violence”.

They wrote, “We hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence. Today’s events did not occur in a vacuum. For the last two decades, millions of Palestinians in Gaza have been forced to live in an open-air prison.

"Palestinians in Gaza have no shelter for refuge and nowhere to escape. In the coming days, Palestinians will be forced to bear the full brunt of Israel’s violence.”

Billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman had called on Harvard to release the names of the students who signed the statement so that he and other CEOs don’t “inadvertently hire any of their members”, Fortune reported.

Wave of campus crackdowns

Since 7 October when the war in Gaza broke out after the Hamas-led attacks on southern Israel, there has been a wave of crackdowns on college campuses throughout the country. Students have faced accusations of antisemitism and have been targeted for speaking out against Israeli occupation.

At Harvard, a Palestinian-American student was hounded and intimidated by the wife of a Harvard professor and former aide to Barack Obama just days before she was caught on camera harassing another student for wearing a scarf known as the keffiyeh, a symbol of Palestinians and Palestine.

In November, a pro-Palestine sit-in at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sparked a slew of accusations of antisemitism and violence from a pro-Israel group, coupled with a concerted effort to permanently ban a student group calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

At Columbia University, tensions at the university had been simmering since Israel's war on Gaza erupted.

But by November, they reached fever pitch after administrators suspended both Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voices for Peace for the rest of the semester after the two groups participated in a nationwide student walk-out the day prior.

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