Harvard University president Lawrence H. Summers this week entered the nationwide campus debate about Israel and the Palestinians, using unusually personal language to criticize some Harvard professors and students for recent actions that he says are "anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent."
Summers, who holds perhaps the most visible bully pulpit in American intellectual life, told an audience at Harvard's Memorial Church Tuesday that recent calls for Harvard, Tufts, Princeton, and other schools to divest from Israel were anti-Semitic.
He also cited student groups at Harvard and elsewhere that sought to raise money for Arab organizations linked with terrorists - meeting with "at least modest success and very little criticism" - as well as antiglobalization rallies where protesters denounced Israel and compared its current prime minister, Ariel Sharon, to Adolf Hitler.
"Profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities," said Summers, who said he was speaking as "a concerned member of our community" and not as president. "Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent."
The speech was later posted on Summers's page on the Harvard Web site.
Officials at Tufts, Princeton, and other schools have privately expressed concerns about the divestment movement, but Summers's comments were the most forceful public statements yet against it. The movement, which has spread to more than 40 campuses, condemns Israel for human rights abuses against the Palestinians and calls on schools to sell their investments in several companies with significant operations in Israel. Summers had previously rejected a divestment petition signed by 69 Harvard professors, but he is rarely so publicly critical of Harvard faculty and students.
Several Harvard professors who support divestment reacted with surprise to Summers's comments, saying that he was jumping to an unfair conclusion: raising the specter of anti-Semitism to criticize what amounts to a political protest of the Sharon government.
"I don't consider myself anti-Semitic at all, but I'm definitely hostile to the aggressive eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth policies of the current Israeli leadership," said Peter Ashton, a research professor of forestry.
"People see all sorts of things where they don't exist: Children see ghosts and goblins under their bed. Grownups see enemies where there aren't any," said John Womack, a professor of history. Both Womack and Ashton signed the divestment petition.
The Summers speech, which was first reported yesterday by the Harvard Crimson, comes as the Israeli divestment campaign has spread to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which drew support from 55 faculty members, as well as to Tufts, Cornell, Princeton, and the University of California system. The divestment movement is believed to have started two years ago after a speech by a University of Illinois professor suggested a strategy similar to that of the South African divestment movement in the 1980s, which is credited with helping to end apartheid.
No school has announced plans to divest from Israel, but leaders of the campaign are seeking to ratchet up the pressure, and plan to plot strategy at the University of Michigan in mid-October.
Supporters of Israel in academia have been organizing as well. The Middle East Forum, a non-profit organization led by several scholars and writers, this week began compiling "dossiers" on professors who criticize Israel and offer "biased" views about the Middle East, Islam, and foreign policy issues.
Martin Kramer, editor of the forum's Middle East Quarterly, said he agreed with Summers that faculty and student activists may not be overtly anti-Semitic, but some of their actions cross the line.
"Calling for condemnation and special measures only against Israel when other states have similar policies is effectively anti-Semitic," Kramer said.
Summers delivered his remarks at Tuesday's morning prayers, a brief daily service held before classes at Harvard. He described himself as a secular Jew who had always been "put off by those who heard the sound of breaking glass in every insult or slight, and conjured up images of Hitler's Kristallnacht at any disagreement with Israel." But he said that several events have led him to see such views as "rather less alarmist" over the last year.
He cited incidents abroad - synagogue burnings and physical assaults on Jews "in every country in Europe" - as well as efforts by academics in Europe to cut off support for Israeli researchers.
Summers also contended that some student groups have raised money for "questionable political" organizations that were later found to have ties to terrorist groups. He did not name the groups. Summers did not return a phone call seeking comment.
The Harvard Islamic Society has publicly acknowledged that it has considered donating funds to the Holy Land Foundation, a group with some humanitarian programs that the United States has linked to the radical Islamic group Hamas. The society ultimately donated to an organization affiliated with the International Red Cross.
Wasim Quadir, a Harvard senior who is the society's president, said yesterday he did not take Summers's comments personally, but did question Summers's statement that he wasn't speaking as Harvard's president.
"It's never completely possible for a person in a high-profile position to step entirely out of his official role," Quadir said.
Elizabeth Spelke, a professor of psychology who signed the divestment petition, praised Summers's denunciation of anti-Semitism and his acknowledgment that parts of Israel's defense and foreign policy should be "vigorously challenged." But she said that his criticism of anti-Israeli viewpoints was misguided.
"If we're going to have a vigorous, open, clear debate about any foreign policy issue, it's important that the debate not be stifled by confusing criticism of a government with racism against a people," said Spelke, who is Jewish.
"To dismiss this petition as anti-Israeli is to make a highly questionable assumption - that the escalation of violence in the Middle East, which we denounce, is good for Israel," she added.