It's unlikely that any of those in the packed sanctuary on Harvard University's campus expected the words of Lawrence H. Summers to cause such a stir. Most of those in attendance simply wanted to hear the university's president's annual morning-prayers address.
But what Mr. Summers said that morning last month has been heard far beyond the walls of the Memorial Church. He warned of an "upturn in anti-Semitism" around the world, citing the painting of swastikas on Jewish memorials and the burning of synagogues in Europe.
It was his criticism of some in academe, however, that attracted the most attention. In particular, he said, those who demand that colleges divest their stock in companies that do business in Israel are taking an action that is "anti-Semitic in effect, if not intent."
These academics include 71 Harvard professors who, along with 56 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have signed a petition asking the two universities to take such a step with their holdings, because of what the petition calls "human-rights abuses against Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli government."
Some have praised Mr. Summers for saying aloud what many academics have been thinking. But many others have accused him of attempting to stifle debate on an important issue, and of unfairly labeling as bigoted many professors on Harvard's campus and elsewhere.
The timing of the controversy coincided with the creation of a Web site that asks students to report professors they believe are biased against Israel, and then posts "dossiers" on them so their actions can be "monitored." The site's tactics have been called blacklisting by some faculty members.
At a time of bitter debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and talk of war with Iraq, many scholars suggest that the Summers speech and the Web site hinder academic freedom. Can professors express their opinions -- whether in their writing, in the classroom, or on a petition -- in tense times without acquiring an unwanted label? Supporters of Mr. Summers and the Web site, meanwhile, say that people who are pushing hateful or inaccurate ideas are trying to hide behind academic freedom.
An Unexpected Opinion
Mr. Summers caught almost everyone at Harvard by surprise with his speech. For Alan M. Dershowitz, a professor of law at Harvard and an outspoken defender of Israel, the surprise was a pleasant one. He congratulated Mr. Summers for "saying it like it is." And he issued a challenge in the Harvard Crimson to debate any of the professors who had signed the divestiture petition, which he called "a form of anti-Semitism." He added, "There is no other rational basis why a university would want to divest from Israel but not from Jordan or from China. ... Singling out the Jewish nation for this kind of de-legitimization is bigotry."
Ken Nakayama was among those caught off-guard by the speech, but for a very different reason. The professor of psychology at Harvard helped create the petition. "It is upsetting, because it is the president of the most important university in the United States, and one would hope he would have a more balanced view about the free exchange of ideas, rather than questioning the motives [of those who signed the petition] and linking them in a vague way with terrorists and anti-Semites," Mr. Nakayama says.
No faculty member has asked to have his or her name removed from the petition since the address, Mr. Nakayama says. In fact, he says, he has received e-mail messages from several professors asking whether they can add their signatures. The speech also has put a media spotlight on similar petitions, which are circulating at about 50 colleges. Over the past few months, the movement seemed to have lost its momentum. In fact, a petition against divestiture was signed by 439 Harvard professors and 143 MIT professors, far more than those on the opposing petition. Mr. Summers had previously said there would be no divestiture of Israel-related stocks at Harvard -- and no college appears to be moving in the direction of divestiture.
When Mr. Dershowitz called for a debate with pro-divestiture professors, he singled out Paul D. Hanson, a professor of divinity and Near Eastern languages and civilizations. Mr. Hanson, who is master of Winthrop House, a dormitory at Harvard, has declined the invitation. Some Jewish students who live in Winthrop House have said that his support of the petition makes them uncomfortable.
While Mr. Hanson continues to support divestiture, he now says he wishes that the petition had made clear that Israel is not the only party at fault. "I've met with dozens of our Jewish students to discuss my views on the matter," he says. "Misperceptions resulted, and I regret that."
As for the president's comments, Mr. Hanson says Mr. Summers "certainly has a right to speak out when he perceives the ugly head of anti-Semitism." But, the professor adds, "it's really wrong to utilize terms such as anti-Semitism in such a loose manner."
Some faculty members who didn't sign the petition still objected to Mr. Summers's speech. Marc Hauser, a professor of psychology, says he was "saddened and disconcerted" by the president's implication that those who signed the petition are anti-Semitic. "I thought that the conflation of the two issues was inappropriate, and I hope Larry Summers will apologize for his comments," he says. Mr. Hauser adds that he doesn't take seriously Mr. Summers's contention that he was speaking as a "concerned member of our community" and not as president of the university: "That's like George W. Bush saying, 'Oh, this is off the record.'"
Is Divestiture Anti-Semitic?
The Harvard president's speech has attracted nationwide attention. An editorial in The Wall Street Journal applauded him for speaking his mind with "clarity, precision, and force." Jewish organizations, like Hillel, a national student group, praised the comments as timely and accurate. "President Summers is saying, correctly, that hate speech is hate speech even when it is uttered on a college campus," Richard M. Joel, Hillel's president, said in written statement.
Other college leaders -- several of them, like Mr. Summers, Jewish -- commended Harvard's president for raising the issue of anti-Semitism. Among them are Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president of George Washington University, who says that while he hasn't seen evidence of increased anti-Semitism on his campus, it is important to remain alert to signs of bigotry. "The two heads-up occasions recently are San Francisco State and Concordia," he says, referring to recent unrest on those campuses.
At San Francisco State University, some students yelled "Death to Jews!" and "Hitler should have finished the job," while at Montreal's Concordia University, a speech by Benjamin Netanyahu, former prime minister of Israel, was canceled after protesters smashed windows in the building where he was to speak. "Both of them give us reason to pay attention to what Summers has said, and to be proactive," says Mr. Trachtenberg.
But Mr. Trachtenberg warns against linking divestiture -- which he is against -- with anti-Semitism: "It is possible to be anti-Israel without being anti-Semitic. It is also possible to be pro-Israel and not be particularly pro-Jewish. Politics make strange bedfellows."
Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College of Columbia University, agrees with Mr. Summers that anti-Semitism appears to be on the rise. Recently, when visiting a state college in the Northeast, he says, he noticed graffiti on a men's-room wall that said, "Let's kill the Jews." He said he looked in several stalls and found other graffiti, both anti-Jewish and anti-Islamic. (One of the messages said, "Let's kill Osama bin Laden and everybody who looks like him," according to Mr. Levine.) "The best way I've found to gauge the climate of a university is to look at the walls of its men's rooms," he says.
Like Mr. Trachtenberg, however, Mr. Levine was not willing to support Mr. Summers's contention that those who support divestiture from Israel-related stocks are anti-Semitic. "I can't go as far as that," he says.
Skewing the Truth?
Professors across the country who support divestiture reacted to the speech with shock and anger. "I thought [Summers's comments] were preposterous and quite ludicrous," says Edward Said, a professor of English at Columbia University, whose advocacy for the Palestinian cause includes years of service on the Palestine National Council. "It's the classic Zionist ploy to defame people by identifying criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. It just ain't so."
Ian S. Lustick, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, is against divestiture but nonetheless condemned Mr. Summers's comments. "I think it's absolutely unfair to think of the divestment issue as anti-Semitic," he says. "It's crippling to debate, and it's particularly objectionable for people of responsibility in American universities to say things that cripple debate."
Mr. Lustick has also been involved in the controversy over the new Web site, Campus Watch, that lists professors who its creators say are biased against Israel. He had been listed on the site, but his name was removed after he complained that his views had been misrepresented. The Web site claimed that the professor had been critical of Jewish fundamentalism while ignoring Islamic extremists. In fact, according to Mr. Lustick, he has at times been critical of both.
He isn't the only scholar accusing the Web site of skewing the truth. Juan R.I. Cole, a professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, is one of the eight professors currently listed on the site. "I support freedom of speech, and so I'm glad to be in the company of those other professors, but it's bewildering that they have put me on this list," he says, noting that he has written little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, in fact, calls himself "an outspoken hawk in the war on terror."
The site also criticizes Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Near East languages and civilization at the University of Chicago, for dedicating his study of the Palestine Liberation Organization to "those who gave their lives during the summer of 1982 ... in defense of the cause of Palestine and the independence of Lebanon." Actually, the book is dedicated: "To those who died; to those in Beirut and South Lebanon who survived to face an uncertain future; and to those dispersed by the war. ..." Mr. Khalidi calls Campus Watch "a well-financed campaign of black propaganda."
The site was created by Daniel Pipes, who is director of the pro-Israel think tank Middle East Forum and a columnist for the New York Post. He says that he has received "hundreds and hundreds of letters" that he calls "very disagreeable," but that he is not deterred by those who accuse him of inaccuracy or of McCarthyite tactics. "I'm impervious to insults," Mr. Pipes says. "The strong reaction suggests we have hit just the right note, and that we will be effective, ... and Middle East specialists will behave in a more careful manner."
In one form of backlash, though, some scholars have started "turning themselves in," so to speak, to the Web site to demonstrate their solidarity with those already on the list. Mr. Pipes says that he is not sure whether all of those professors will be listed, but that the site's organizers "will keep an eye on them." He promises that the list will grow significantly.
Rhetoric over Middle East issues has heated up at colleges across the country. At the State University of New York at New Paltz, a scholar withdrew from the planning committee of a women's-studies conference because she objected to one guest's harsh criticism of Israel in a biographical statement. And the university's administration refused to support the event after Jewish groups complained that most of the invited speakers espouse anti-Israel views. Organizers say the conference, scheduled for October 19, will go on as planned, with money raised from sources outside the university.
Meanwhile, at San Francisco State University, some of the outright hostility between the two factions seems to have died down, at least for now. In May, pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli student groups clashed on the campus, shoving each other and hurling epithets. The university reprimanded both groups but doled out harsher punishments to the pro-Palestinian group, which the administration said had left its designated rally area and interfered with the pro-Israeli demonstration.
But these days San Francisco State's campus is quiet, according to its president, Robert A. Corrigan. On the issue of divestiture petitions, he says, he has heard differing views among faculty members and students. "We have all been aware of an increase in anti-Israel sentiment, and a lot of people are reading [the support of a divestiture petition] as having anti-Semitic sentiments to it," he says. "It's a tough line to draw."
While Mr. Corrigan believes that civility has returned to his campus, he remains worried that heated rhetoric could easily turn into something worse again. "As a friend of mine said recently, 'When the bombs start dropping on Baghdad, things might change significantly.'"