Opinion: Cambridge to Gaza: Yearning to be Free

Dr. Claudine Gay, President of Harvard University, testifies before the House Education and Workforce Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building on Dec. 5, 2023, in Washington, D.C. The Committee held a hearing to investigate antisemitism on college campuses. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images/TNS)

Dr. Claudine Gay, President of Harvard University, testifies before the House Education and Workforce Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building on Dec. 5, 2023, in Washington, D.C. The Committee held a hearing to investigate antisemitism on college campuses. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images/TNS) Kevin Dietsch


Published: 01-14-2024 6:00 AM

Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.

I have to admit I struggled with this column for days; conflicting thoughts percolated for days, some ideas discarded, others added. Much of it had to do with personal attitudes toward white privilege, racism, and expectations; other parts on attitudes toward settler-colonialism and the war of ethnic cleansing and genocide raging in Palestine. Still, other thoughts formed over a dinner I had with old friends who listened with love and attention as I vented my frustrations with conventional establishment perspectives.

And the more I vented the more I realized how intersectional both conflicts were.

First, my thoughts on plagiarism:

There are two forms of plagiarism. While neither is acceptable, the first, and most pernicious, is the stealing of another person’s original concepts and opinions, appropriating their creations and presenting them as one’s own. While that does not appear to be Dr. Claudine Gay’s sin, even venial sins have consequences.

Indeed, sometimes, as in Dr. Gay’s case, venial sins morph into mortal wounds — especially if not immediately confronted — and become perceived as unforgivable.

Gay was sloppy beyond belief: as a Phillips Exeter Academy, Princeton, Stanford, and Harvard-educated scholar she should have known better, and I believe she deserves whatever intellectual disapprobation comes her way. Dr Gay, whether she ever considered becoming a university president or not, should have known that her work as a progressive Black scholar would always be scrutinized more critically than interest rate projections from the Federal Reserve. Gay was too casual and careless with her work and, I believe, although she remains on Harvard’s faculty her resume will forever be stamped with a scarlet P.

But, on this particular January morning, I’ve come to believe that the public lynching isn’t about whether she was qualified to be president of Harvard, or a diversity hire, or not, isn’t about plagiarism, isn’t about footnotes and quotation marks; it’s about race, about the persistence of race in America and America’s refusal to confront the evil and malevolent presence that has been poisoning this land for over 400 years.

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It’s not about whether Harvard put Dr. Gay out on a “glass” cliff or not.

Dr. Claudine Gay was lynched because competing, conservative interests — including some members of her own community — oppose Critical Race Theory, oppose diversity, equity, and inclusion, and who together acted not to protect Harvard, Israel, or academic freedom but their own nationalist, economic, corporate and institutional interests.

That’s why three university presidents, all highly-accomplished women, were publicly pilloried for allegedly failing to fully embrace Elise Stefanik’s false definition of genocide, a definition falsely conflating the Arabic word Intifada with genocide.

That’s why Bernie Steinberg, executive director of Harvard Hillel from 1993 to 2010, wrote in the Harvard Crimson:

“As a leader in the Jewish community,” he wrote, “I am particularly alarmed by today’s McCarthyist tactic of manufacturing an antisemitism scare, which, in effect, turns the very real issue of Jewish safety into a pawn in a cynical political game to cover for Israel’s deeply unpopular policies with regard to Palestine...”

“What makes this trend particularly disturbing,” Steinberg continued, “is the power differential: Billionaire donors and the politically-connected, non-Jews and Jews alike on one side, targeting disproportionately people of vulnerable populations on the other, including students, untenured faculty, persons of color, Muslims, and, especially, Palestinian activists.”

While the targeted presidents, within the context of Western colonization and liberation were correct to take the stand they did, the deniers of liberation and freedom demonstrated that they will go to unprecedented lengths to protect their privileges and power, especially at the expense of people of color, whether Black academics in America or poets in Palestine.

It didn’t take long for the University of Pennsylvania’s Liz Magill — who had already been under attack for allowing UPenn to host the Palestine Writes Literature Festival in September, the “only North American literature festival dedicated to celebrating and promoting cultural productions of Palestinian writers and artists” — to resign and the stage was set for the high-value lynching of Harvard’s Claudine Gay.

That Harvard, with it’s $50 billion endowment and a highly-competent stable of accomplished advocates, intellectuals, could not defend itself or its president against a campaign of lies, misinformation, and intimidation speaks, I believe, more to the fact that they could not recognize the nature of threat confronting it.

A threat that intends to delegitimize and disenfranchise people unlike themselves; a threat that espouses book banning, demonizing LGBTQIA+ peoples, limiting American history to white history, marginalizing minority communities and people of color, denying bodily autonomy and reproductive rights to women; a threat that expresses solidarity with authoritarian and repressive regimes internationally.

Simply expressed, the attack on three university presidents is an attack on the diversity of America, on the promise that all people are created equal.

Gay was lynched not because she was an antisemite or a plagiarist, but because her academic success and high-profile progressive interests challenged established mythologies of white nationalists and settler colonialist interests.

From Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali to Palestinian support for resistance in Ferguson, Mo. intersectional conversations are not new to anyone who knows Black history. Black Americans have often perceived the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a prism of resistance and liberation, preferring Frantz Fanon and Paulo Freire to Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.

The war is not over. In their attempts to overturn affirmative action, overturn diversity, equity and inclusion efforts and until America returns, in their fevered imagination, to a nation where white dominant ideology is triumphant.

It’s snowing outside. As it falls I’m reminded of one of my daughter’s favorite books, Jan Brett’s “Annie and the Wild Animals.” Its first two lines, which we often quote, usually metaphorically, are “It had been snowing for days. Winter was lasting too long.”

Perhaps, I wonder, as I consider whether to go outside and start cleaning the snow off my car, is if we should consider whether the truth of Harvard is if their most pressing problem today is whether they can find enough qualified teachers to meet student demand for a course on Taylor Swift.

Recently, on X, a message inquired “Are you a Taylor Swift ‘Lover’? Harvard University is seeking teaching assistants for a new course in the spring that is all about the superstar singer-songwriter and her global impact.”

300 students signed up for the course: Winter, indeed, is lasting far too long.