Harvard commencement roiled by student walkouts, confrontation involving Chabad rabbi
A graduate displays a Palestinian flag during the 373rd Commencement at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, May 23, 2024. Photo: Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

By Andrew Lapin
May 24, 2024

(JTA) – More than 1,000 people walked out of Harvard University’s commencement ceremony Thursday in protest of the school’s decision not to award diplomas to 13 pro-Palestinian student demonstrators.

The ceremony was also marred by the director of Harvard’s Chabad-Lubavitch center, Rabbi Hirshy Zarchi, personally confronting the commencement speaker, Nobel Prize-winning journalist Maria Ressa, onstage. Zarchi disputed a line of Ressa’s speech that he believed was antisemitic.

The two incidents closed out the most contentious school year for Jews in recent memory at Harvard, which has been more impacted by protests over the Israel-Hamas war than nearly any other U.S. campus. In the immediate aftermath of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, some student groups at the school declared Israel “entirely responsible” for Hamas’s actions. The school’s president, Claudine Gay, resigned only six months into her tenure after coming under immense criticism for telling a Congressional committee in December that calls for the genocide of Jews may not necessarily violate the school’s code of conduct (she also faced plagiarism allegations). 

Gay was replaced by a Jewish interim president, Alan Garber, but Harvard remained wracked with tensions over the war: Multiple members of a committee formed to address campus antisemitism stepped down, and Jewish alum Bill Ackman led a revolt of large donors. More recently, an encampment sprouted up at the school as part of a movement that began at Columbia University. 

This week nearly 400 pro-Israel Harvard alumni signed an open letter to Garber demanding “significant consequences” for the encampment’s leaders.

While Garber came to an agreement with student protest leaders to disband the encampment, 13 pro-Palestinian seniors remained “not in good standing” with the school over their behavior during the protests, according to the Harvard Corporation, the school’s board. Just before commencement, the Corporation rejected an effort by the school’s faculty to reinstate the students’ degrees — an unprecedented veto that more than 1,000 students voiced opposition to during the ceremony by chanting “Let them walk” and then staging a walkout.

At commencement, two of the school’s student speakers also addressed the controversy. “I am deeply disappointed by the intolerance for freedom of speech and the right to civil disobedience on campus,” senior Shruthi Kumar said while departing from her prepared remarks, according to student newspaper The Crimson. “The students had spoken. The faculty had spoken.”

Zarchi also departed from the ceremony’s protocol when he confronted Ressa, a Filipino journalist who has gained renown for her commitment to press freedom and reporting on authoritarianism in the Philippines. Zarchi wanted to talk to Ressa following her address because, he told the Crimson, he believed she had made an antisemitic comment during her speech, in which she said she had been “called antisemitic by power and money because they want power and money.”

Right-wing media and lawmakers had sought to paint Ressa as antisemitic prior to commencement, pointing to a Filipino-language editorial published in November in her media outlet, Rappler, calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, and to her signing of an open letter calling on Israel to protect journalists in Gaza. The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative site, claimed that the Rappler piece compared Israel to Hitler. That claim was amplified on the social network X by New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik, who has gained attention for her combative questioning of university leaders, including Gay, at congressional hearings on campus antisemitism. 

“Harvard chose an antisemitic commencement speaker,” Stefanik wrote earlier this month, sharing a link to the Free Beacon article. “The university has failed to stand up for Jewish students at every turn, revealing the depths of its moral delinquency.” 

A Rappler spokesperson said the piece had been mistranslated, and Ressa denied the antisemitism charges to Time Magazine, saying, “Since when does calling for an end to journalist killings in Gaza or a ceasefire become antisemitic?” 

She said she has also been accused of being too deferential to Israel, telling Time, “Now, apparently, I’m antisemitic and a Zionist… None of these are true, but these lies are distributed, with impunity, by social media.”

Ressa’s defense of herself from these charges led Zarchi to fear she had employed an antisemitic trope. He told the Crimson that he confronted her in order to ask her to publicly clarify the “power and money” line in her speech, but that he couldn’t hear her response and decided to walk off the stage immediately afterward. Harvard Chabad’s Instagram account shared the clip from Ressa’s speech, along with the Crimson article.

Gay, who is Black, was honored in absentia during a separate Harvard commencement ceremony Thursday for Black graduates. The speakers at that ceremony donned keffiyehs, and one denounced “the apartheid state of Israel.”

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