Ben Clerkin

Meet the student suing Harvard over antisemitism

Jewish undergraduate files lawsuit saying the university turns a blind eye to blatant antisemitism


Supporters of Palestine gather at Harvard University to show their support for Palestinians in Gaza at a rally in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 14, 2023. Thousands of Palestinians sought refuge on October 14 after Israel warned them to evacuate the northern Gaza Strip before an expected ground offensive against Hamas, one week on from the deadliest attack in Israeli history. (Photo by Joseph Prezioso / AFP) (Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images)

January 23, 2024 14:21

Has Harvard had enough of Jews? Or have Jews had enough of Harvard? Two sad but inescapable questions in light of a staggering 60 per cent population decrease on campus in the last ten years.

Shabbos Kestenbaum, 25, who is suing the most prestigious of Ivy League colleges for promoting antisemitism, has reluctantly come to the conclusion it’s the former.

The Harvard Divinity School student cites the startling figure in his lawsuit to highlight a festering problem that the college has failed to deal with since long before October 7 when it exploded on campus.

Harvard has cause to be concerned. Last year it lost a similar case that it had violated Title VI Civil Rights Act by discriminating against Asian students. In a major ruling, the Supreme Court held that affirmative action in college admission is unconstitutional.

Kestenbaum, who is also making claims under Title VI, wants Harvard to start implementing its own anti-discrimination policies to protect Jewish students. Over 77 pages he, along with five others who wish to remain anonymous, alleges a devastating litany of antisemitic incidents.

“We're not asking for special treatment, we're simply asking for equal treatment under the law,” he tells the JC.

Kestenbaum believes the resignation of former Harvard president Claudine Gay for alleged plagiarism, instead of for being non-committal in testimony to Congress about whether calls for genocide against Jews constituted harassment under university policy, only served to show how little Harvard cares about the issue.

In his suit, he reveals how after Gay resigned antisemitic messages were plastered all over Harvard’s community group on social media app Sidechat, which requires a Harvard email address to join.

They included “all of you Zionists are the same. Killers and rapists of children”, “The ‘nova massacre’ that our zionist classmates were using as propaganda was carried out by the IDF,” and “I support Hamas as representatives of Palestinian frustration and Oct 7 as a moment of decolonization”.

Kestenbaum also highlights the disturbing allegations about two students who “physically assaulted Jewish students” at a protest that was recorded on video and which the FBI is investigating.

Kestenbaum says he has had enough. In the last semester he missed around half of his lectures over fears of “antisemitic mobs”, and says he has been shunned by classmates.

He has watched with sadness as antisemitic speaker after antisemitic speaker addressed students. One activist invited to address students this year defended October 7 on social media as a “Palestinian protest” against “our oppressors”.

It’s galling for Kestenbaum that Harvard warns freshmen that “sizeism” and “fatphobia” are harmful discriminatory behaviour perpetuating “violence” in violation of Harvard policy when, he says, it doesn’t take antisemitism seriously.

The university even withdrew Sabra hummus from its dining halls after it was targeted by BDS.

Kestenbaum’s lawsuit is demanding Harvard implements “institutional, far-reaching, and concrete remedial measures”, to include “disciplinary measures against deans, administrators, professors responsible for antisemitic abuse”. It calls for Harvard to return “any donations, whether from foreign countries or elsewhere, conditioned on the hiring or promotion of professors who espouse antisemitism”.

“Before October 7, there was antisemitism, this did not come out of the blue,” Kestenbaum says. “It was something that Jewish students were aware of. I'd like to think the administration was aware.

“Post-October 7 it just exploded. It became an everyday occurrence, constant. It became something you had to defend yourself from in a way that pre-October 7 it was sort of swept under the rug.

“On October 7 we had students who jumped out of bed still in their pyjamas, drafting a statement while blood was being spilt, blaming Jews for their own murder. Blaming Jews for the largest murder of Jews since the Holocaust.

“And the immediate response from the administration was silence.”

Kestenbaum believes there is something very rotten at the very heart of Harvard.

“What is it about a Harvard University education that has allowed students to believe that openly supporting and identifying with terrorist organisations, blatant antisemitism in some way or another, is an acceptable form of discourse?

“That is at the heart of this lawsuit: that there is an unhealthy, unnatural, arguably antisemitic focus on the singling out of the only Jewish state in the world, to an extent whereby a more holistic or nuanced perspective is never properly explored.

“And that's what leads to students yelling ‘globalise the intifada’, ‘from the river to the sea’ and ‘deliver glory to the martyrs’.”

He believes that one of the culprits is the college’s Diversity Equity and Inclusion programme.

“This general framework creates a binary narrative of oppressor versus oppressed and has characterised Jews as white and therefore oppressor.

“I think that's sort of permitted or justified, perhaps subconsciously, a lot of antisemitism.”

Kestenbaum comes from an Orthodox family and felt compelled to speak up.

“I come from a proudly Jewish family. Part of that means advocating for the values that I believe are fundamental.

“I don't want to be doing this. I should be enjoying my last semester at Harvard. I could be in the library. I should be organising clubs. I should be doing whatever a typical student does.

“That is a really sad indictment, not just of Harvard University, but the state of higher education in the United States today, where Jewish students can't get guarantees from their universities that they will be protected.”

Kestenbaum is worried about how he and other Jewish students will be received on campus when they return from winter break.

“My parents are very concerned. But they are Jewish parents, they're always concerned. I'm certainly apprehensive. I certainly would not be surprised if there was physical violence on campus.

“Harvard to this day has not articulated what they're going to do to protect Jewish students. I am hoping for the best, but anticipating the worst.”

Harvard has appointed Alan Gerber, its provost and chief academic officer, as interim president while it begins the search for a permanent replacement for Claudine Gay.

But Kestenbaum has little hope that the new president will improve the situation.

“In terms of who the next president is, it's almost irrelevant because if they do not learn those lessons and apply those lessons, it'll just be more of the same, if not worse.”

The next president might want to start by considering exactly why the Jewish student body on campus has fallen from 25 per cent in 2013 to less than 10 per cent in 2023. Did Harvard think that one in four students being Jewish was too high and restructure its student population? (In the 1920s the college imposed an unofficial quota of 15 per cent.) Or did Jews just stop applying?

Kestenbaum would rather prick Harvard’s conscience with his legal action than its $50 billion pocket, which would go unnoticed anyhow. While he believes there has been “a deliberate effort by Harvard to minimise its Jewish student population”, it’s clear he would gladly settle for a change of heart from the college. The key question for Claudine Gay’s successor is: who gave up on whom?

Harvard declined to comment on the legal action. 

January 23, 2024 14:21

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive