An Open Letter to Harvard: Concerning Protest & Palestine

A group of disciplined students implore Harvard to demonstrate ethical forbearance and drop all of the dubious charges leveled against students who nonviolently protested for Palestine.

This spring saw students across the world protest Israel’s campaign in Gaza through solidarity encampments on college campuses; as well as many university administrations responding to the students’ direct actions with force. In accordance with our mission to make the ideas, people, and movements within and surrounding the university accessible to the broader public, Public Books sent out a call for submissions for on-the-ground narratives from individuals participating in, supporting, and observing these encampments.

We remain open for submissions and will later publish a selection of testimonies. As an introduction to this portfolio, we are sharing a letter from a group of students who faced disciplinary action following their participation in Harvard’s Gaza solidarity encampment. Recently, Harvard has agreed to talks as well as to the retraction of disciplinary action against these students. Read on for a first-hand account of why these students were protesting, and their decision to make a “faith act” despite the risk of police violence.


To President Alan Garber, Harvard Deans, and Administrative Boards at Harvard University,

 

In 1963, during a direct-action campaign against segregation and job discrimination in Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was dealt a serious blow of bad news: a planned act of civil disobedience was sure to get him arrested, but all the money fundraised to bail people out of jail had been spent. “Martin, this means you can’t go to jail,” one organizer insisted. “We need money … You are the only one who has the contacts to get it. If you go to jail, we are lost.” There were already around 300 protestors languishing in detention in Birmingham, and around 50 more were to be arrested with Dr. King in the original plan. “There were our people in jail, for whom we had a moral responsibility,” King reflected in his 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait. “This would be the largest single group to be arrested to date. Without bail facilities, how could we guarantee their eventual release?”1

Faced with this dilemma, King’s mind raced. He contemplated all the black protestors risking arrest that day, ready to put into practice what he had preached for several days in local church services, and he wondered how his failure to submit to arrest could be explained to the local community. “What would be the verdict of the country,” he asked, “about a man who had encouraged hundreds of people to make a stunning sacrifice and then excused himself?” He then thought of the alternative: going to jail without having made proper preparations for bail, and thus leaving not only himself but also hundreds of other demonstrators in jail for longer than anticipated, without a sense of when or whether they would “walk out once more into the Birmingham sunshine.” Soon, King stopped thinking. He felt the “deepest quiet” he had ever experienced, and despite being surrounded by more than twenty organizers in Room 30 of the Gaston Motel, felt that he “was alone in that crowded room.” He walked to another room in the back of the suite. Then, suddenly, he realized, “There was no more room for doubt.” He changed his clothes and walked back to the other room to tell the organizers that he had decided to go to jail. “I don’t know what will happen; I don’t know where the money will come from,” he said. “But I have to make a faith act.” 2


Those of us who face disciplinary charges for association with the anti-genocide encampment at Harvard also chose to make a faith act. We did so in the spirit of Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolent direct action.

Despite the risk of police violence, we decided that we have a moral obligation to use our bodies to bear witness to the violence unfolding against Palestinians in Gaza.3 We called on Harvard to disclose investments in Israel, the ongoing genocide in Gaza, and the occupation of Palestine; to divest from all such investments; and to re-invest resources in Palestinian academic initiatives, communities, and culture. And for this, Harvard University is now attempting to discipline more than 60 of us, across the undergraduate College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Law School, the Business School, the School of Education, the Divinity School, the School of Design, and the School of Public Health. The same university that celebrates the civil rights movement’s legacy of nonviolent direct action each school year on Martin Luther King Day is now attempting to discipline students who, in King’s words, “present our bodies as personal witness” against injustice through direct action.

Dr. King believed that the universal human principles of equality, justice, and freedom from violence could only be the basis of a new society if people fought for those principles. And the fighting style of choice, for Dr. King and for the thousands of people who participated in the civil rights movement, was nonviolent direct action: action which disrupted business as usual, which clogged the arteries of existing systems until they were forced to change for the better. Sometimes, this meant activists were tasked with disobeying overtly unjust laws like segregation. Sometimes, it meant disobeying seemingly neutral laws to bring attention to a just cause.

Of course, Dr. King’s faith act took place in a specific context: in the age of de jure segregation, in the Deep South, amid the popular upheavals of the civil rights movement. But his political vision extended far beyond that context, and he understood that the method of nonviolent direct action was applicable far and wide. From the Indian subcontinent where he and other Afro-Americans learned from the struggle against British colonialism to campaigns against poverty in the northern United States to protests against militarism and war (including the war in Vietnam), nonviolent direct action proved a critical tool for expressing dissent and demanding an end to an immoral status quo.4


Since the beginning of Israel’s assault on Gaza in October, more than 35,000 thousand Palestinians have been murdered, 14,000 of them children.5

We watched as lawyers who came of age under South Africa’s apartheid regime took Israel to task for these murders at the International Court of Justice.6 We watched that court, after careful and unprejudiced consideration of the evidence, rule that actions committed by Israel “in Gaza appear to be capable of falling within the provisions of the [Genocide] Convention.”7

And yet we subsequently watched the bombing of hospitals and schools.8 We watched every single university in Gaza be destroyed.9 We watched parents hold the body parts of their children in plastic bags.10

Closer to home, we watched our fellow students getting doxxed for speaking out against Israeli state terror and apartheid. We watched our university fail, not only to defend these students, but to stand up to disingenuous members of Congress and their spurious accusations of antisemitism.11

Then, we watched students at Columbia stand up to their university’s financial and ideological complicity with the ongoing violence in Gaza and the West Bank. We watched those students bravely and nonviolently face the police.12 We watched them getting brutalized and arrested en masse. And then we watched students singing while being beaten at Emory, and professors at that institution being body-slammed by the police, arrested, and hospitalized.13 We have watched more than 100 students at Northeastern get arrested.14 And we continue to watch students, faculty, and staff at the University of North Carolina; New York University; University of Michigan; University of Texas; University of California, Los Angeles; and countless other schools face repression and discipline for protesting against what associate professor of Holocaust and Genocide studies at Stockton University Raz Segal has called a “textbook case of genocide.”15

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We watched, and we decided: enough is enough. We decided we must, in solidarity with a national student movement and with Palestinians worldwide, demand an end to our university’s complicity in violations of international law. Not all of us made the same kind of faith act. Some of us camped, some of us didn’t; some of us submitted to ID checks, some of us didn’t; some of us spent hours at a time in the Yard, some of us didn’t; some of us planned, some joined in later; some of us prepared to submit to unjust arrest, some of us planned to bail out students and colleagues. But all of us stand together with the same demand: that this university demonstrate respect for human life by disclosing any continued investments in violations of international law, divesting where appropriate, and dropping all charges against students who, in this moment, reflect a moral clarity that the university lacks.

We, the more than 60 students targeted by the administration for disciplinary action—bolstered by the hundreds of students, faculty, and staff who visited us at the encampment, and who share our values and demands—write this statement to affirm our continued commitment to nonviolent direct action and our respect for international law. We write this statement to request that the university demonstrate moral leadership in this moment by exercising forbearance and dropping all disciplinary charges related to the Harvard Liberated Zone encampment brought before the College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Law School, the Business School, the School of Education, the Divinity School, the School of Design, the School of Education, and the School of Public Health.


Today, Harvard can choose to be a moral leader. Harvard can choose to make the right choices in a moment that will undoubtedly become a historical reference point. “Veritas” is only as true as we have the courage to make it.

We know these things to be true: that Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, B’Tselem, and several other organizations use the word apartheid to describe Israeli governance16; that Bolivia, Chad, Chile, Colombia, Honduras, Jordan, South Africa, and other countries have severed diplomatic relations or withdrawn diplomats from Israel in protest of their ongoing attacks in Gaza17; that the New York Director of the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights resigned in protest of the failure of the international community, and of the UN in particular, in intervening in what he described as an ongoing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza18; that many of the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of Shoah survivors, in organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now, also describe Israel’s actions as constituting genocide19; that dissent cables within the US Department of State demonstrated, as early as November, that, for the first time, a majority of State Department employees disagree with US policy supporting Israel’s apartheid regime.20

This list is not exhaustive; it does not address the findings of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) or the extensive scholarship on the history of settler violence in Palestine, nor does it detail the transgenerational consequences of mass deaths, mass displacement, the mass disabling of survivors (some of whom must now learn to live without limbs), the long-term cognitive effects of war trauma and famine, or the far-reaching effects of all this on our international culture, our collective humanity.

Amid this terror, we find ourselves at an institution which refuses to disclose its financial ties to the ongoing destruction, thereby potentially remaining complicit in active violations of international law. This is merely a rough sketch of the situation in which we find ourselves, which only gets more harrowing and urgent each hour that passes without radical action. This is the “Veritas” of the day.


In the context of these truths, we see it as imperative for the university to demonstrate moral leadership by refusing to discipline students whose only crime is nonviolently protesting overt and well-documented violations of international law.

The university has a history of exercising disciplinary forbearance. When a flag was raised behind the statue of John Harvard to protest sexual violence at the university, no charges were brought against those thought to be responsible. Yet when the Palestinian flag was raised, the university documented the IDs of students in the vicinity, and is now attempting to railroad those students through a draconian disciplinary process.

Similarly, each school year, undergraduates participate in Primal Scream, which frequently includes naked streaking in the Quad. This streaking, an act of disinhibited recreation, makes no political or ethical claim but certainly violates the university’s conduct policies. Yet students who participate in it are rarely disciplined. In fact, university administrators warned encampment marshals that Primal Scream was due to happen a couple days prior, and encouraged the activists to observe quiet hours beginning at 11pm (before the midnight Scream ritual).

The university also does not discipline those who routinely urinate on the John Harvard statue (yes, this is a Harvard ritual among some students), but we imagine that if campers in the Liberated Zone were to urinate in public, this violation of university conduct (and the law) would be the first justification for the use of police force or further disciplinary action. The cumulative evidence strongly indicates that what is at stake here—that what these disciplinary cases are about—is not the violation of rules as such, but who is in the Yard, and why. These are political charges.

Most recently, in a university-wide email, President Alan Garber threatened encampment participants (broadly and loosely defined) with “involuntary leave from their Schools”: meaning, suspension without due process. Days later, at least 20 students were suspended. After a series of negotiations, President Garber agreed to further discussions about disclosure in the future, and to reinstate students if the encampment ended. Harvard Liberated Zone participants discussed the offer and voted, after 3 enduring weeks of action, to de-camp. But President Garber’s logic justifying the suspensions—as well as the processes for reinstatement—remained the same: according to him, the encampment “present[ed] a significant risk to the educational environment of the University” due to a misleading and untrue account of the encampment as a space of rampant harassment against passers-by.

All of us stand together with the same demand: that this university demonstrate respect for human life by disclosing any continued investments in violations of international law, divesting where appropriate, and dropping all charges against students who, in this moment, reflect a moral clarity that the university lacks.

Misleading narratives and false accounts of nonviolent direct action protests during the civil rights movement were frequently used in attempts to discredit the legitimacy of protestors and their cause. Such accounts decried the tension produced by demonstrations, but, as Dr. King wrote in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “fail[ed] to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.”21 Like Dr. King and the millions of everyday people who participated in nonviolent protests during the now-celebrated civil rights movement, we believe that tension can lead to growth. And we turned to nonviolent direct action after having exhausted attempts at good faith negotiations with Harvard’s administration, which has now only agreed to meet with students to seriously discuss our demands after our action successfully mounted pressure unto the university.

In the name of demonstrating respect for King’s philosophy of nonviolence, of demonstrating moral leadership, and of making good on President Garber’s promise to ask disciplinary boards to “evaluate expeditiously, according to … existing practices and precedents, the cases of those who participated in the encampment,” we call on the university to now do what they do so often in other cases of protest and political speech on other issues: to not unduly discipline students. We call on the university to demonstrate intentional, ethical forbearance and drop all of the dubious charges leveled against us. It is not enough to simply refrain from re-creating the horrific scenes of violence witnessed at Columbia, Emory, and elsewhere. Especially in the context of ongoing far-right attacks on higher education in this country, Harvard must affirm that the beautiful scenes like those that unfolded at the encampment—scenes of a diverse group of students communing with one another over meals, religious services, music, and chants for justice—will not lead to punishment of any kind. The American Civil Liberties Union recently issued a public letter calling on university presidents to do just this. 22

Harvard now has the chance to demonstrate respect for student voices and a commitment to international law. The choice is simple: to support those of us who are asking the university to be more accountable to the standards of international law, or to punish us and continue to refuse to disclose potential financial ties to war crimes. As student activists, we have already disclosed our investments: we are invested in justice and a better world, regardless of personal risk. It is time for Harvard to do the same.

 

Sincerely,

 

A group of disciplined students
  1. Martin Luther King Jr., Why We Cant Wait, p. 80.
  2. King, p. 80–81.
  3. King, p. 78.
  4. Dr. King was one of several Afro-Americans who visited India before and during the civil rights era to learn about Gandhian nonviolence. See: “My Trip to the Land of Gandhi,” Ebony, vol. 14, no. 9 (July 1959), pp. 84–92. Dr. King elaborated on the potential uses of nonviolent direct action in several essays, books, and speeches. For his perspective on direct action as a force to combat poverty, educational inequalities, and war, see Martin Luther King Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?” in I Have A Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World, First Edition (Harper Collins, 1992).
  5. Michelle Nichols and Emma Farge, “UN says Gaza death toll still over 35,000 but not all bodies identified,” Reuters, May 13, 2024.
  6. Isabel Kershner and John Eligon, “At World Court, Israel to Confront Accusations of Genocide,” The New York Times, January 10, 2024.
  7. U.N. Court Says Israel Must Prevent Genocidal Acts in Gaza,” TIME, January 26, 2024.
  8. See “Hospitals Have Special Protection under the Rules of War. Why Are They in the Crosshairs in Gaza?,” AP News, November 11, 2023. Also see Emine Sinmaz, “Gaza’s Largest Hospital Being Bombarded, WHO Says,” The Guardian, November 10, 2023.
  9. Education under Attack in Gaza, with Nearly 90% of School Buildings Damaged or Destroyed, and No University Left Standing,” ReliefWeb, April 16, 2024.
  10. Peter Beaumont, “A Father Opens a Plastic Bag: ‘This Is My Son,’ He says, Killed by an Israeli Shell,” The Guardian, July 18, 2014. Also see Elena Salvoni, “Doctors and Rescuers Describe Aftermath of Gaza Hospital Bloodbath,” Daily Mail Online, October 18, 2023.
  11. See “As Students Face Retaliation for Israel Statement, a ‘Doxxing Truck’ Displaying Student’s Faces Comes to Harvard’s Campus,” October 12, 2023, The Harvard Crimson. Also see Anemona Hartocollis, “Republicans Try to Put Harvard, M.I.T. and Penn on the Defensive About Antisemitism,” the New York Times, December 5, 2023.
  12. Columbia Students Risk Arrest, Suspension to Maintain Gaza Solidarity Encampment on Campus,” Democracy Now!, April 18, 2024.
  13. Rachel Treisman et al., “Mass Arrests Roil College Campuses amid Pro-Palestinian Protests,” NPR, April 25, 2024.
  14. Mary Markos and Lara Salahi, “Police Raid Encampments, Arrest over 100 People during Protests at Northeastern University,” NBC Boston, April 27, 2024.
  15. Raz Segal, “A Textbook Case of Genocide,” Jewish Currents, October 13, 2023.
  16. See “Israel’s Apartheid against Palestinians,” Amnesty International, February 1, 2022. Also see “Israel’s Occupation of Palestinian Territory Is ‘Apartheid’: UN Rights Expert,” UN News, March 25, 2022. Also see Omar Shakir, “A Threshold Crossed,” Human Rights Watch, April 27, 2021. Also see “A Regime of Jewish Supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This Is Apartheid,” B’Tselem, January 12, 2021.
  17. Ivana Saric and Mukherjee Rahul, “Which Countries Have Withdrawn Diplomats over Israel’s Actions in Gaza,” Axios, November 16, 2023.
  18. David Matthews, “United Nations Human Rights Official Resigns over ‘Text-Book Case of Genocide’ in Gaza,” New York Daily News, October 31, 2023.
  19. Genocide Will Continue—Even If the Bombs Stopped Tomorrow,” Jewish Voice for Peace, April 4, 2024.
  20. Robbie Gramer, “The Storm of Dissent Brewing in the State Department,” Foreign Policy, November 1, 2023.
  21. King, p. 87.
  22. Open Letter to College and University Presidents on Student Protests,” Amnesty International, April 26, 2024.
Featured image: Harvard University Free Palestine Camp, organized in April-May 2024 in support of the Palestine. Dariusz Jemielniak. / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)