Weekly On-line Rabbi's D'var-Torah
January 04, 2024
22 Tevet 5784
So, on Tuesday, Dr. Claudine Gay stepped down as president of Harvard University. I cannot name the person whom she succeeded as president of Harvard. I surely didn’t go to Harvard. I’ve never even stepped foot on the campus of Harvard. And yet, it was, somehow, an important story to me. I have to admit that my initial response was one of relief and satisfaction—not quite celebration. After all, Dr. Gay’s demise may be linked to two incidents related to Jewish life on Harvard’s campus. First, her response to the October 7 attack on Israel and its impact on Harvard’s Jewish students was underwhelming. Then, her testimony on Capitol Hill regarding hypothetical calls for the genocide of Jewish students on campus was embarrassingly bad. Of course, these two incidents did not, ultimately, lead to her resignation. It was the numerous examples of plagiarism in her academic work that forced her to concede. It was the disingenuous outrage by political actors who hate what Harvard represents and were happy to jump on the anti-Claudine-Gay bandwagon. But, as I reflect on her resignation—even though no one has asked me!—I’ve come to realize that I never want to find myself rejoicing in someone's losing their job, especially someone who had only been in her job for six months. I know that it took me more than six months to figure out how to do my job. It took much longer than that to start doing it well. Further, I think that there was an opportunity here to help Dr. Gay do her job better rather than run her out of her office. On top of all that, I’m ready to live in a world where all the seats of power and influence are NOT occupied by white Christian men. I’m ready to live in a world where an African American woman is allowed to make some mistakes and still stay in her job—just as a white man would probably have been allowed to do. For me—as a rabbi and as a Jew with no real connection to Harvard—Dr. Gay represents a problem for Jewish students on many campuses. Namely, Jews are not afforded the same protections on campuses that other minority groups enjoy. Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI) offices around the country have policies regarding students of color, LGBTQ+ students, immigrant students, Latino students, and other minority students. However, none of these safeguards is extended to Jewish students. DEI has failed Jewish students. This was an opportunity to build a bridge between the Jewish students on campus and those other groups of students who have been targets of hate and bigotry. Instead, many of those students who saw Dr. Gay as a role model will now likely blame Jews for helping to end Dr. Gay’s presidency before it had a chance to really start. Besides, who knows if the next president will be any better on the issue of campus antisemitism? I believe that Dr. Gay recognized that she needed to do better, but she’ll never get the chance. In this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, we read the ominous words, “A new king arose over Egypt (Exodus 1:8).” It would be this new Pharaoh—who did not remember Joseph—who would enslave the Hebrews in Egypt. It is a reminder that we should always be careful when wish for a change. We Jews have always understood that a change in leadership does not always lead to the kinds of changes we envisioned. So, I hope that this change of leadership at the country’s most prominent university will lead to a reduction in antisemitism on college campuses across the country. It’s possible that Harvard’s new president could lead the way in making Jewish students feel safer on campus. But, today, I’m not really in the mood to celebrate.Shalom,RAF.