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In Harvard Yard

Harvard Yard, Cambridge, Massachusetts, May 4, 2024

When students set up the tents at Harvard on April 24, I was standing with the police on the steps of the building that houses the president’s office. The NYPD had already made its first round of arrests at Columbia’s Gaza solidarity encampment, and two days earlier faculty and students had been arrested trying to set up an encampment at NYU. No one knew what would happen at Harvard. The students involved in the protest had asked me to serve as a “police liaison,” which involved speaking to the officers in charge and acting as a go-between if things got heated. That day dozens of students streamed out of the dormitories around Harvard Yard, joined the hundreds gathered there for a protest, and set up their tents. Since then I have served “shifts” as a police liaison for the encampment. Much of what I have written below is based on my observations.

Unlike the police at so many other American universities and in so many other American cities over the past two weeks, the Harvard University Police did not move in to break the encampment up. The university administration had apparently anticipated the students’ actions: the gates of Harvard Yard had been closed for several days, limiting access to university ID holders. As the protesters ran into the yard, it quickly became obvious that Harvard police were willing to let them set up their tents as long as they did not attempt to occupy either of the two buildings on the yard that house the administration. Harvard would follow a different path than Columbia: rather than panic and apply overwhelming force, it would test the students’ commitment using administrative sanction. But for the moment the mood in the Yard was joyous. In a matter of minutes the students managed to put up a dozen tents and inflate a giant watermelon-slice-shaped balloon; they were celebrating, laughing, and dancing.  

The encampment now includes about fifty-six tents. Most of it sits between the headquarters of the Faculty of Arts of Sciences (University Hall) and the building that houses the president’s and provost’s offices (Massachusetts Hall). It is filled with precisely the diverse range of students that the university has long claimed it wants to bring together: Muslim, Christian, and Jewish; white, brown, and Black; gay and straight; cisgender, trans, and nonbinary; people whose origins lie all over the world as well as those who grew up in small towns in rural America. Students joke that it is the multicultural center that Harvard has never agreed to build.

On a lamppost facing University Hall, they have posted a list of demands: that Harvard disclose investments that connect the university to the occupation of Palestinian land and the war in Gaza; that it divest from those holdings and reinvest the money in academic and direct support of Palestinian communities and culture; and that it drop all disciplinary charges filed against students for their nonviolent actions in the yard. So far the university has refused to negotiate. As the days pass the students have set up a small cluster of tents on the quadrangle (Tercentenary Theater) where commencement is scheduled to occur in two and a half weeks. At the front is a canopy-style tent with a table inside. Above it sits a hand-lettered sign emblazoned with the words DEAR ADMIN., COME TO THE TABLE and an arrow pointing downward to an open seat. 

On Monday morning the university’s response arrived. It took the form of an email to the current university community and all Harvard alumni stating that students involved in “perpetuating” the encampment would be placed on “involuntary leave,” a status usually reserved for those judged to be imminent dangers to themselves or the community. Involuntary leave is immediate—no disciplinary process precedes it—and stays in effect unless the university revokes it.   

Still, the encampment remains busy for most of the day. Groups of students sit on the steps of University Hall writing papers or studying for exams. Others gather and talk in small groups on the broad walkway between the grass and University Hall. Some pass a soccer ball back and forth in a circle. There are teach-ins about the Nakba, the occupation, and the war in Gaza. Anyone is welcome to attend. One afternoon there was a rally with drumming, chanting, and dancing on the walkways. At night some students retreat to tents; others pass through the encampment and along the surrounding sidewalks picking up trash. Many people here have hardly slept in days. A filmmaker colleague described the mood to me as sumud—an Arabic word that is generally translated as “steadfastness”—used in this instance to describe the feeling of joy amid great suffering. Not in spite of the suffering, but because of it.

The encampment includes several large supply tents filled with what a colleague from the medical school referred to as “nearly a ton of simple carbohydrates.” The lawn where the encampment started is bisected by walkways, and each section of grass is cordoned off by a flimsy rope fence. Students and administrators alike have tacitly used these ropes—originally intended to keep pedestrians from walking on the grass—to mark the distinction between the students who are in the camp and those who are there to support or observe them.

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Around the edges, student marshals in yellow vests warn anyone who walks among the tents that they are risking administrative sanction and arrest. For days, when university officials come around to check ID cards, which they do once or twice a day, those in the camp would stay inside the line, and those who are just visiting would stand outside. The officials would photograph their cards and enter them into a database the university is using to track students. More recently they have, it seems, been checking IDs in the yard at random, photographing whoever refuses to comply. At least two professors visiting their students in the Yard have been stopped and photographed in this manner.

The encampment is full of posters, placards, and art. A sign at one end, facing a now-locked gate, reads WELCOME TO THE PEOPLE’S UNIVERSITY – FOR PALESTINE. Others say LIBERATED ZONE, FREE PALESTINE, and CEASEFIRE. On a scrolled-out piece of fabric, about fifty feet long and a yard wide, the students have recorded the names and ages of 5,000 of the 34,000 people who have been killed by the Israeli military in Gaza since October. At the head of the encampment sits the bronze statue of John Harvard, the university’s seventeenth-century benefactor and namesake, atop a six-foot plinth, a keffiyeh wrapped around his neck.

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Over the last seven months some of these students have been defamed and slandered, their names and faces posted on the pro-Israel website Canary Mission, which circulates information about students and faculty critical of the Israeli government’s policies. Their inboxes have filled with hate mail. One told me that a truck bearing a huge photo of her face beneath the legend “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites” had visited her hometown. “There are only five thousand people there,” she said. “Three policemen. We don’t even have a fire truck.”

For much of this time Harvard was the epicenter of the nationwide panic over “antisemitism on American college campuses.” A handful of vocal critics on campus and a number of prominent figures in the mainstream media have reframed the understandable discomfort that some Jewish and Israeli students feel when confronted with insistent public protests against the state of Israel—and some scattered and contemptible incidents of genuine antisemitism—into a misleading claim that they are in constant danger as their fellow students run wild calling for, as Representative Elise Stefanik put it, “the genocide of Jews.” In the face of the McCarthyite congressional investigation that effectively toppled Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, in January and the well-documented revolt of megadonors who perceived its actions in the fall to be insufficiently supportive of Israel, the university administration long stayed largely silent about events on campus. Their silence has allowed those misrepresentations to stand.

In addition to the threat of involuntary leave, the university had already brought disciplinary cases against dozens of students. The charges are confidential, but generally they focus on the encampment’s disruption of university business. By best count there are now close to sixty students, both undergraduate and graduate, facing discipline up to and including expulsion.

The encampment is, of course, intended to be disruptive. That is the purpose of civil disobedience: to call attention to the gap between the course our institutions are following and the path of justice; and to let those institutions discredit themselves with disproportionate reactions to comparatively mild challenges. As the days have gone on, the tone of the campers’ protest has become more confrontational: running a Palestinian flag up the standard affixed to the front of University Hall; setting up the branch encampment in the quad where commencement will soon occur. The administration has responded with still more disciplinary charges and has in some cases declared the belongings that students have set down on the steps while they visit the encampment to be abandoned property, gathered their blankets and possessions (including in one case a bag containing a student’s laptop), placed them in trash bags, and piled them up to await collection.

“Free, free, Palestine!” a hundred students chanted one day last week, arrayed in a circle around the beleaguered dean who had been sent to photograph their ID cards. I felt for him, as I am sure many of the students did. But this is the way the administration has chosen to engage the students: it has met them in the realm of administrative sanction rather than recognizing the moral purpose and institutional seriousness of the issues they raise.

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From time to time a middle-aged man walks through the camp wrapped in an Israeli flag. There are other visitors, too. One day I saw a couple of younger, more intense provocateurs show up dressed in coats and ties, with American and Israeli flags. They walked through the encampment filming people’s faces. Lately I have heard (though I have not witnessed it myself) that counterprotestors come some days and sit in the middle of the encampment for a time. Sometimes they put up their own posters around the John Harvard statue and sing; occasionally they too have photographed the faces of the protesters, even when the latter were kneeling in prayer.

Curious professors and other university affiliates have also passed through. Some have stood among the students and threatened to join the protest if the university calls in the police to break up the encampment, as has happened elsewhere. Though the encampment is easy to avoid, some seem to want to see it without themselves being seen. They hurry by as if caught in a rainstorm, eyes fixed in front, shoulders tensed. Some are dismayed by it. Stephen E. Sachs, Antonin Scalia Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, visited the camp and described it on Twitter as “a bunch of people quietly hanging out and listening to a teach-in lecture, amid handmade signs glorifying violence and urging the destruction of Israel.” The self-proclaimed free-speech advocate Steven Pinker visited the camp one afternoon and later told the Harvard Crimson that it should be torn down because he considered it designed “to make campus life as unpleasant as possible.”

I was especially interested in the response of an Israeli American computer science professor named Boaz Barak, who last fall co-organized a letter that harshly criticized the students in the undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee. This letter, as I have written elsewhere, seemed to me both to misconstrue a statement that the students had made in the aftermath of October 7 and to exacerbate the climate of doxing and personal vilification that followed. And so I was surprised when, on Twitter, he wrote of his visit to the encampment: “Sorry to disappoint but none of them have horns, and no one I talked to supports Hamas. I saw students who care very deeply about what is happening, and mostly want the war to stop and the hostages to return.”

Though he wrote in a Crimson op-ed the same day that he believed the encampment was a distraction from the hard work of actually achieving those goals, his statement nonetheless struck me as remarkable. In addition to the moral panic about antisemitism, there has been a great deal of institutional alarm at Harvard about the inability of the students to sustain the sort of conversation that Barak described. The Council on Academic Freedom, a faculty organization formed in March 2023 to promote “the free and civil exchange of ideas inside and outside the classroom,” has been sponsoring a series in the Crimson that invites selected faculty members to model civil disagreement for the rest of the university community by staging debates on questions like whether meritocracy or legacy status is a better principle around which to organize college admission. Over the course of the spring, the university administration convened three blue-ribbon committees devoted in one way or another to promoting dialogue and civility.

Outside of all that, my colleagues have written tens of thousands of words in national publications and the Crimson about “academic freedom,” “civil discourse,” and “institutional neutrality.” Most of them come with lists of proposed principles, rules, and codes, almost all of which provide only a restrictive and marginal allowance for on-campus protest, or at least these protests. Few propose a standard as asinine as pleasantness for suppressing dissident speech, but almost all have treated the protests as a problem.

These efforts are united in the presumption that it is the protesters who need to be taught to behave, not the professors and other campus leaders who accuse students critical of Israel of being “antisemitic in effect if not intent” or even (as the president of Harvard Chabad, Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi, put it) “below an animal…a monster.” But civil discourse and critical inquiry are not abstract concepts in the encampment. They are active principles: the pro-Palestinian students and the Israeli American professor having a conversation, agreeing to disagree about some things, finding common ground about others.

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In the last six months Harvard’s administration has revived, reinterpreted, and selectively enforced Vietnam War–era rules governing campus protest. In the days before the encampment went up, the undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee was decertified for violating a rule against cosponsoring events with unregistered student organizations, including Jews 4 Palestine. Left unsaid was that the university had placed an embargo on the registration of new student organizations at the beginning of the fall semester. There was, then, no authorized way that J4P and the PSC could have organized events together—events that surely would have contributed to a climate of “civil discourse” and mutual understanding on the campus.

Virtually every tactic employed by the protesters in the encampment has been deployed before and tolerated at Harvard: unregistered assembly in public spaces, amplified speeches, even putting up tents and sleeping in the yard. In a recent example of disruptive (and arguably illegal) assembly, more than a hundred students ran naked through the yard and around the encampment in Primal Scream, an annual ritual celebrating the beginning of final exams. Once the words “Ceasefire Now” or “Free Palestine” are spoken, however, students’ on-campus gatherings become the subject of extraordinary attention, concern, regulation, and threatened sanction. Indeed, because the rules in question were effectively tightened by a new administrative “guidance” in the middle of January, which interpreted the university’s Statement on Rights and Responsibilities to forbid a wide spectrum of assembly and protest, there is an odd sort of circularity at work here: your protest broke the rules we just formalized to keep you from protesting.

There has been a great deal of discussion about proportional response. Most faculty who have spoken publicly hate the idea of deploying the police to break up the encampment. Even the former Harvard president Lawrence Summers said in the Crimson that he hopes the university will rely on its own disciplinary apparatus to address the encampment, at least in the short run. The administration has so far resisted calls to redefine the violation of rules regulating campus decorum as a “clear and present danger” to public safety that can be resolved only by deploying the police.

The students in the encampment are, of course, aware of the difference between sanction imposed by deans and the deployment of riot police. (For quite a few of them, it must be said, a sanction that threatens their visa status or health care coverage or suddenly renders them unhoused is a good deal more serious than a trespassing charge, even if enforced by university administrators rather than riot police.) Some have explained to me, however, that they ground their action not in the rules of the university or even in their constitutional rights to assembly and expression, but in the ruling of the International Court of Justice in response to South Africa’s case against Israel. These students agree with the ICJ that some statements by Israeli government officials and some actions of the Israeli army constitute a persuasive case that there is a genocide occurring in Gaza. In their view, by investing in companies that support the occupation and supply the Israeli military—and refusing to disclose what those investments are so that they might be reasonably discussed—Harvard has failed to take a stand in support of international law and against genocide, and so they must.

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