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Israel-Palestine war: Harvard students face backlash over statement blaming Israel for violence

The statement was signed by over 30 Harvard student organisations
People walk past the Smith Campus Center at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 29 June 2023 (AFP)

Harvard University students and over 30 organisations that signed a statement holding Israel “entirely responsible” for “all unfolding violence” in Israel and Palestine are facing a wave of 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.”

They called on the Harvard community to take action to “stop the ongoing annihilation of Palestinians”.

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The statement originally included a list of 30 organisations at Harvard that had signed on, but the names were later removed to protect the safety of the students. 

On Wednesday, billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman 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.

He said he is 100 percent in favour of free speech but he objects to “students putting out a statement holding Israel ‘entirely responsible’ for terrorists’ heinous and despicable acts, but doing so anonymously under a corporate veil while leveraging the Harvard brand”.

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Ackman emphasised that people should be ready to defend their beliefs and take responsibility for them. He said that while there is nothing wrong with criticising Israel, students shouldn’t hide behind “a Harvard-branded corporation while doing so anonymously”.

On 10 October, Harvard president Claudine Gay put out a statement saying that she condemns the “terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas”.

“Let me also state, on this matter as on others, that while our students have the right to speak for themselves, no student group - not even 30 student groups- speaks for Harvard University or its leadership.”

Students challenge leadership

On Wednesday, the Harvard Club of Israel issued a statement addressed to the Harvard leadership in response to the “back-pedalling statement issued [by Gay]”.

“In the face of evil, Harvard must proclaim that pro-terrorism statements like those published by the student groups on Sunday have no place in civil discourse at Harvard or elsewhere,” the statement said.

“If Harvard wishes to be a moral leader for the world, its administration must speak out immediately and forcefully. Anything less than full support for Israel’s right to defend itself and its citizens and unequivocal denunciation of this terrorism is unacceptable and is wholly inadequate for an institution of Harvard’s caliber.”

Students across college campuses in the US have been speaking out in support of Palestine. On Tuesday, an NYU Law School student’s job offer with an international law firm was rescinded after they published a pro-Palestine message in the Student Bar Association newsletter. 

At Columbia University, the Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine contended that the blame for the conflict and resulting casualties squarely rests with the Israeli government and their western allies.

Columbia’s president, Minouche Shafik, said she “was devastated by the horrific attack on Israel this weekend and the ensuing violence that is affecting so many people. Unfortunately, at this moment, little is certain except that the fighting and human suffering are not likely to end soon.”

On Tuesday, Students for Justice in Palestine at Stanford University penned an opinion piece asserting the legal entitlement of Palestinians to resist occupation. 

Numerous California branches of the pro-Palestinian organisation endorsed a declaration characterising Hamas' assault as a pivotal event in modern Palestinian defiance, Politico reported.

Students for Justice in Palestine groups at multiple City University of New York campuses will hold rallies for Palestine on Thursday and Friday. 

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