On an already bitterly divided campus, this statement spilled acid across Harvard Yard.
A coalition of more than 30 student groups posted an open letter on the night of the Hamas attack, saying Israel was “fully responsible” for the violence that killed more than 1,400 people, the majority of them civilians.
The letter, posted on social media before the extent of the killings was known, did not include the names of individual students.
But within days, students associated with those groups began being defrauded, with their personal information posted online. The brothers and sisters who returned home were threatened. Wall Street executives demanded a list of students’ names to ban their hiring. And a truck with digital billboards – paid for by a conservative group – circled Harvard Square, flashing students’ photos and names, under the headline, “Harvard’s Leading Anti-Semite.”
There has been a struggle for freedom of expression on campuses for a long time. What is acceptable to say and what constitutes hate speech? But the war between Israel and Hamas has heightened emotions, threatening to shatter already fragile campus cultures.
It’s all getting complicated: outside groups, influential alumni, and big money donors are putting maximum pressure on students and administrators.
At the University of Pennsylvania, donors are pushing for the resignation of the president and board chair after speakers accused of anti-Semitism were invited to a Palestinian writers’ conference on campus.
At Harvard, a billionaire couple leave an executive board, another donor pulled Money for fellowship. And former Harvard president and Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers criticized the leadership “delayedReaction to the Hamas attack and the student letter.
This is not the first time Harvard students have taken an unpopular stance. But the people associated with the letter did not anticipate that their statement would go viral and such adverse consequences would emerge.
In an interview, a student whose organization signed the letter said that students had to deal with “people’s lives being ruined, people’s careers being ruined, people’s fellowships being ruined.”
Many critics have little tolerance for these complaints, saying the letter shows a lack of empathy. But other students and free speech activists say outside pressure has created its own kind of heckler veto, dictating what can be said on campus and how institutions must respond.
“You feel like you’re responsible for the harassment,” said a Harvard student whose family’s personal information was released. “That’s how silencing works, right?”
letter and its results
Last week, in a drab conference room on campus, four student leaders of the pro-Palestine movement — three women and one man, all undergraduates — sat nervously around a table. A kaffiyeh, a checkered scarf that has become a symbol of Palestinian solidarity, was thrown over a chair.
They were not Palestinians, he said, but activists for marginalized people.
Students said the groups that signed the letter often worked together in a kind of informal support network. When someone supports an issue, others may sign on to it in a display of collegiality.
They agreed to be interviewed, but insisted on anonymity, saying they feared for their safety. He asked even the smallest details of his personal life – from the new person? senior? – will not be published.
He has been avoiding publicity since posting his letter on Facebook and Instagram on the night of October 7, hours after the attack.
As the world’s attention continues to grow on Hamas’s path of terror in Israel, their letter began with this line: “We, the student organization signed below, hold the Israeli regime solely responsible for all forms of violence. Are.”
After the letter went viral and anger erupted against it, some groups distanced themselves from the message.
Now the focus has turned to Israel’s ongoing retaliation and civilian deaths in Gaza, and the students stand by their stance, though they say it is cliché.
One of the women found out about the billboard truck from a friend. It was parked just outside the university gate, bearing a huge image of his smiling face. Customers sitting at the pastry shop, students looking out of their dormitory windows and commuters walking to and from the railway station saw him, along with the carousel of other students, being labeled as anti-Semitic.
“I vomited in Harvard Yard,” she said.
The trucks are operated by Accuracy in Media, a conservative group that has also deployed such trucks at other campuses such as Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley.
“It’s ironic that students on the campus where Facebook was invented are shocked that their names are publicly available,” said Adam Guillet, president of Accuracy in Media. “We’re just amplifying their message.”
The group is not complete. It has purchased domain names Linked to letters for Harvard students and setting up separate websites for them. Each site will call on the university to punish the students.
The students’ names were also exposed last week through a website titled “College Terror List, a Helpful Guide for Employers,” compiled by 2022 Stanford graduate Maxwell Meyer.
Mr. Mayer, 23, said in an interview that his information came from public sources and tips sent to email addresses. He said that he has no connection with Accuracy In Media.
Mr Mayer said his website had been removed by Google and the note-taking app Notion, where it was displayed. (Students said alumni helped get it removed.) But other sites have picked up the list and promoted it.
Mr. Meyer said that as a former editor of the conservative Stanford Review, he was a defender of free speech. “At one time, I defended critics of Israel against what I called right-wing cancel culture,” he said.
But “if you’re a member of an organization that advocates terrorism in your name, you’re not just sitting idle, you’re a person with agency,” he said. “You can say, ‘I reject this.’ “These are Harvard students we’re talking about. They need to be held to a higher standard.”
Bill Ackman, hedge fund billionaire and Harvard alumnus, wrote on social media The names of students should be disseminated, to avoid “inadvertently” hiring them. Mr. Mayer said his more than 800,000 followers promoted Mr. Mayer’s website and sought lists from dozens of chief executives.
In Another social media post, Mr. Ackman said he was “100% in support of free speech.” But, he added, “one must be willing to stand up and be personally accountable for one’s views.”
However, doxxing has extended to family members.
“Every single member of my family has been contacted, including my younger brothers and sisters,” said the student, wearing a smiley face on the truck.
With free speech, what’s the line?
Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional scholar and dean of UC Berkeley’s law school, said he objected to doxxing and believed it was “disgusting” to display truck billboards of students’ photos.
But he did not believe that the actions had prevented either side from expressing their views. Mr. Ackman and Mr. Mayer may have escalated tensions, he said, but “you can’t express your views and then say, ‘People who criticize me are chilling my speech.'”
Universities have to strike a balance, he said. “The institution – law school or university – has to help all students get jobs regardless of their views.” Employers have the right not to hire people whose views they disagree with.
However, for other free-speech supporters, doxxing and shaming have become a standard part of the cancel culture arsenal, and risk suppressing opinions.
Nadine Strawson, former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the students’ statement “reprehensible” but said it was beside the point.
Collecting names, he said, feels reminiscent of McCarthy-era blacklists. The latest lists may upset not only these students, but also others who might share “more thoughtful and less obvious declarations.”
And threatening people’s career prospects seemed like an overreaction, he said, especially when they were young and just starting out.
“The concept of proportionality, though it is elusive, is woven into the fabric of not only American law, but international human rights law,” said Ms. Strawson, now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.
The students behind the letter said Harvard had not done enough to push back against its opponents.
University officials sent a general message saying Harvard “neither condones nor condones” threats and intimidation. And officials said they have taken steps over the past 10 days to ensure safety and calm concerns.
The university has urged students to report threats to Harvard Police. It has expanded shuttle service and closed the gates of Harvard Yard at night to people without university identification.
However, there is little the university can do about the truck, which is careful to remain on public roads. And lists of names were compiled from publicly available sources.
Harvard has also begun to deal with the broken mood on campus. On Tuesday, the Dean of Students Office announced open office hours for students who Wanted to talk about “recent events”. Another office announced a session on “Navigating Interpersonal Conflict and Leadership.”
According to student emails, students associated with the Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee have distributed a guide for doxxed students, which they compiled after meeting with “high-level administrators.”
The guide said Harvard’s career center will reach out to employers to vouch for students. And it provided contact information for an advocate interested in helping undocumented students. It also recommended avoiding the news media: “Demand anonymity – use language about ‘extreme threat to security’.”
At Hillel House, a different threat
At the Harvard Hillel Building, Jewish students passed through closed doors guarded by a patrol car. In the past week, he had spent more time than usual there, seeking solace and understanding. Some students knew those killed in the attack.
To them, the anti-Israel rhetoric seemed disconnected from reality.
“I feel crazy walking around this campus,” said Elien Sacher, a student from Israel. He asked, since when are murder and kidnapping condoned?
Spencer Glassman, another student seeking refuge at Hillel, said after the Hamas attack, more pro-Palestinian students have attended class wearing kaffiyehs.
The performance made him feel uncomfortable. “When terrorists wear a symbol, they also understand its meaning,” he said. “For me it is not a symbol of neutral liberation.”
Students said anti-Semitic comments were made in the dining hall last week and posted on social media. The SideChat app allows students to post anonymous messages after logging in with their Harvard email address.
Harvard Hillel President Jacob Miller laid out a group of examples on a table during an interview.
Next to the Palestinian flag emoji, read “Let them cook.”
“I proudly accept the label of terrorist,” wrote another.
A third responded to the Israeli flag emoji with an emoji of a child’s decapitated head.
Hillel students said screenshots of the post were shared with Harvard officials.
Mr. Miller said, as much as he condemned trucking and doxxing, the vitriol directed at Jewish students on social media also had a chilling effect on the speech.
“I think it cuts both ways,” he said. “Many of my friends tell me that they feel intimidated and uncomfortable speaking out on campus because of the hostile environment.”
“It’s sad that students on both sides of the aisle are afraid to express their opinions,” Mr. Miller said. “Especially at a college that prides itself on the pursuit of truth.”
Stephanie Saul And -Vimal Patel Contributed to the reporting. Susan Beachy Contributed to research.