A recent report, “Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery,” notes that university faculty, staff, and leaders held more than 70 black slaves between 1636, when Harvard was founded, and 1783, when Massachusetts abolished slavery. In atonement, reports President Lawrence Bacow, the university intends to dedicate $100 million of its endowment to help combat “the continuing corrosive effects of these historic practices on individuals, on Harvard and on our society”.
A Harvard Crimson editorial speaks with even stronger moral conviction about the desire for legitimate justice that spreads “like wildfire” when oppression strikes anywhere in the world. Determined to right past wrongs, the editors offer to help “liberate Palestine” through boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, which is accused of pushing “Palestinians into indefinite statelessness, combining ethnonationalist legislation and a continued attack on the sovereignty of the West Bank through illegal settlements that [sic] the prospect of a two-state solution.
Despite the differences in literacy and goals, the initiatives of the president of Harvard and the students of Harvard are eerily similar. Addressing genuine distress – black Americans in one case, Palestinian Arabs in the other – both gestures misidentify the cause and, by deflecting responsibility for the misery, make it impossible to improve deplorable conditions.
Black Americans indeed still struggle to overcome the corrosive effects of slavery, but the Harvard administration would not have interfered in the problem by deflecting guilt from acts it did not commit in the past, unless that means covering up the wrongs she has done in the past. present.
In the America we inherited, citizens bear responsibility for their actions, not for institutional history. Far longer than it was home to slave owners, Harvard has worked to pass on the principles and founding texts of this country to those who are to inspire and strengthen the next generation of Americans. A truthful investigation would have featured professors who taught and students who fought to defeat slavery, 117 of whom were killed in this courageous cause.
Self-indulgence is an evasion of moral responsibility and, in this case, of the proper purpose of the university. Harvard harmed African Americans — and all other minorities — by violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which belatedly, in what Martin Luther King Jr. called “a second emancipation,” banned racial discrimination . Rather than fostering an integrated intellectual community, Harvard used group preferences for hiring and admissions. The resulting explosion of racial politics should have inspired an inquiry into the relationship between stated intentions and their outcome. Instead, Harvard intends to double down on its misdirected benevolence.
Compensating further, Harvard is now trying to appease the campaign to shame white Americans into self-denial. He thus betrays the founders of the school, its former students and the descendants of slaves who know that the only antidote to slavery is autonomy. The emphasis on white guilt robs African Americans of free will.
The fake atonement also obscures what a daring Harvard professor has described as the “hate sport of victimology” that converts “a tragic past into a game of recrimination.” The sport, played against Jews and once encouraged by a handful of unscrupulous black leaders, has become the hippest grievance movement on campus. Anti-Semitism was already a problem when Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates lamented it in 1992. Rather than investigate its meteoric rise in the form of anti-Zionism, Harvard suppresses Jewish visibility (in 2020, for example, by removing the word “from the name of a museum which had been created to demonstrate the common origin of the “three Abrahamic religions”). Meanwhile, Harvard allows rogue students to harass Israeli speakers.
As for the Crimson editorial, Arab claims of Jewish victimization are the boldest policy reversal since Wilhelm Marr preached anti-Semitism to prevent Jews from “conquering Germany from within.” The 21 Arab countries occupy 640 times more land than Israel. The Arab League, not the Jews, refused to partition Palestine in 1947, the better to guarantee their refugees a permanent casus belli. The Crimson editors cannot use stupidity as an excuse for their slander, unless they claim they got in through preferential treatment for underachievers.
I had the privilege of teaching at Harvard for 21 years, and the gratitude I feel is in no way diminished by my dismay at seeing this great university succumb to ideas which, if left unchallenged, could still bring down the republic. This country was not founded on slavery but on ideas of human worth, and Harvard was entrusted with their protection. May he still surprise us by rediscovering his moral compass.
Ms. Wisse is Professor Emeritus at Harvard and author of the memoir “Free as a Jew”.
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Appeared in the print edition of May 14, 2022.