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Opinion: I’m Jewish and I work at Harvard. Antisemitism there is real, but it’s complicated

Editor’s Note: Erica Licht is Research Projects Director at the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. She is also an alumna who received her Master’s in Public Administration. She co-hosts the podcast Untying Knots and posts on Twitter/X under the handle @Erica_Licht. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Conversation. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.

If last week’s news that Harvard has been subpoenaed by a US congressional committee showed anything, it is that the controversy over antisemitism on campus, and attacks on DEI programs, are far from over.

Erica Licht - Courtesy IARA Project, Harvard Kennedy School
Erica Licht - Courtesy IARA Project, Harvard Kennedy School

A national debate on antisemitism on college campuses erupted in December, after a contentious congressional hearing that led to the resignation of University of Pennsylvania’s president Liz Magill, followed a few weeks later by the resignation under pressure of Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, amid plagiarism accusations that some feel would never have been raised if not for the hearing.

The ongoing controversy has fractured the Harvard community and led some on campus to challenge diversity initiatives meant to support students from racial minority groups, suggesting that some of those efforts come at the expense of Jews and foment anti-Jewish biases.

I see it all quite differently. I’m Jewish and have long ties to Harvard as an employee and alumna. The research I and others conduct, as well as my lived experience, refute the notion that the fight for greater diversity on campus and the battle against antisemitism are in conflict.

When my Ashkenazi Jewish family immigrated to the US from Poland and Ukraine at the start of the 20th century, they and others like them were labeled by American society as “aliens” and “a menace.” By the 1920s, the scapegoating of Jews, along with an emboldened resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, resulted in increased bigotry, including restrictions on educationhousing and immigration of their loved ones. Many of those same prejudiced beliefs informed policies at Harvard, which for its first 300 years of existence actively excluded would-be students from many backgrounds, including my own.

It’s clear that Harvard was not built for me. The history of Harvard discriminating against Jews was baked into the institution, which for many years had a quota limiting Jewish enrollment. In the 1920s, Jews accounted for about a quarter of students enrolled at Harvard, which then began implementing policies to restrict their numbers.

To this day, antisemitism remains pervasive throughout the United States and yes, it undeniably remains a problem at my alma mater and employer. It is systemic and structural, cultural and societal. Yet, any discussion about discrimination against Jews in the US is complex because even as many Jews were discriminated against, a number of us also became the beneficiaries of privilege based on race.

The racialized assimilation of Jewish European immigrants meant that their legal status on census forms changed over time from “alien” to White. This shift meant they gained the right to important benefits earmarked for White people, through measures like the GI Bill which included access to education and small business loans — as well as admission to institutions like Harvard.

That history of discrimination and privilege is the backdrop to my enrollment in and subsequent employment at Harvard. It’s the same backdrop against which I consider current critiques of campus initiatives on racial equity. It’s important to note that the same bigoted ideology that resulted in the restriction of Jews at Harvard also prohibited Black people until 1847 and kept their numbers low for many years.

As with antisemitism, racism permeates every facet of our American society and remains present at Harvard, too. Even today, Black students make up only 10%  of the student body at Harvard, while Black faculty are just 5% of those tenured.

I understand how my people have been marginalized, but I also know the many ways in which I benefit from my status as White. There is no question that my skin tone, complexion and presentation allow me to be greeted with unrestricted access when I enter my office at Harvard, drive around Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the university is situated or shop at stores around Harvard Yard.

As a White person, my work credentials are consistently assumed valid when I participate in meetings, and I am presumed to be in a position of authority and expertise when I attend events around campus. But just a few months ago, I entered a university event without the security guard checking my name, while a Black colleague directly behind me was stopped, list-checked and denied entry. This is what it is like to be White, regardless of your ethnic group.

There are those who would have me believe that the fight against antisemitism at Harvard and elsewhere in this country is in direct conflict with the struggle for greater rights by other groups. They are wrong. Nor is antisemitism an outgrowth of antiracism. Antisemitism is the toxic result of White supremacist discourse. It is rooted in historical myths about who deserves entry to elite institutions. White supremacy is a poison that affects both Jews, as well as people of color.

Like many Jews of European ancestry, I feel I’ve been presented with a false choice: Am I White and privileged, or Jewish and oppressed? The answer is clear: I experience marginalization in a Christian dominant society, but as someone socially and legally labeled as White, I don’t experience racism. I benefit directly from it. That’s why, despite Harvard’s history of discrimination against Jews, I refuse to be a wedge against the advancement of rights of Black people, as well as Indigenous and other people of color.

In recent months, I have watched the ideological and political attack on institutions of higher education gain ground not just on schools, but on any organizational program labeled Diversity Equity, Inclusion (DEI) or doing work for racial equality. The congressional political hearings held back in December and the orchestrated campaign to pressure the presidents of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard to resign, were not about protecting Jewish people; they were a strategic takedown of diversity initiatives.

The same strategic takedown has continued this past week with the subpoenas issued by the House Education and Workforce Committee, chaired by GOP Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina. The subpoenas order Harvard officials to produce a series of documents based on the accusation that the school is obstructing the committee’s investigation and “willing to tolerate the proliferation of antisemitism on its campus.”

But as a Jewish Harvard University alum and employee who studies diversity programs, I will not perpetuate the false and dangerous narrative that antiracism equals antisemitism.  And I’m disappointed by the attempt by some to use the discussion about antisemitism at Harvard and other institutions of higher learning as a tool to divide us. It’s reminiscent of a similar effort to weaponize longstanding criticisms of affirmative action that centered on Asian American students at Harvard in 2022. Regrettably, the Supreme Court sided with the plaintiffs and struck those programs down.

Academic literature demonstrates that colleges benefit broadly from diversity, equity and inclusion programs. And like universities, organizations benefit directly from DEI programs — including financial returns above the industry mean. Diversity programs have proven time again to reduce bias and promote peer acceptance on college campuses — not the opposite. And one of the facts that I have documented as a researcher and experienced as an alum, is that DEI programs not only make better students, but better citizens.

Some people over the course of our history have tried to play marginalized groups at institutions like Harvard against each other, especially Jews and Black people.   But despite Harvard’s history of discrimination against Jews, I refuse to be a wedge against the advancement of rights of Black people, Indigenous people or other people of color.

In my work at Harvard, I will push back against the weaponization of antisemitism. I will not be a prop in the takedown of student facing resources, research institutes and programs working to create better and more fair places of learning. My own family’s history of marginalization and my understanding of it has shown me that my Jewish identity is not in conflict with my racial justice work. Rather, it is in direct service to it.

Now, more than ever, we must redouble our efforts for diversity, equity and inclusion, and support Black, Indigenous and students of color, as well as Jewish, Muslim, and Arab students, as they navigate campuses that are increasingly under attack for their academic integrity and services they critically provide.

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