Within a few days of the George Floyd killing and Russia’s war against Ukraine, Harvard and other universities issued statements, claiming solidarity with the victims.Immediately after the Hamas attacks in Israel — in which assailants killed women and children — Harvard was quiet even as criticism mounted over an open letter from a student coalition.
The letter, from Harvard Palestine Solidarity Groups, said it held “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.”
The backlash to that letter turned Harvard’s silence into a roar.
On Monday, Lawrence H. Summers, the former Treasury secretary and former Harvard president, condemned the university’s leadership, for not denouncing the pro-Palestinian letter.
“In nearly 50 years of @Harvard affiliation, I have never been as disillusioned and alienated as I am today,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter. Harvard’s silence, coupled with the student coalition letter, he said, “has allowed Harvard to appear at best neutral towards acts of terror against the Jewish state of Israel.”
On Monday night, and again with more force on Tuesday, Harvard spoke. Its president, Claudine Gay, issued two statements, ultimately condemning “the terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas” as “abhorrent.” A spokesman said Dr. Gay was not available for comment.
The debate over Israel and the fate of Palestinians has been one of the most divisive on campus for decades, and has scorched university officials who have tried to moderate or mollify different groups.
But Dr. Summers’s pointed criticism raised questions about the obligation of universities to weigh in on difficult political matters.
A famous 1967 declaration by the University of Chicago called for institutions to remain neutral on political and social matters, saying a university “is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.” But students over the years have frequently and successfully pressed their administrations to take positions on matters like police brutality, global warming and war.
Dr. Summers said in an interview that he could understand the case for university neutrality in political disputes, but that Harvard had forfeited that prerogative by speaking out on many other issues.
“When you fly the Ukrainian flag over Harvard yard, when you issue clear, vivid and strong statements in response to the George Floyd killing,” he said, “you have decided not to pursue a policy of neutrality.”
But the controversy at Harvard is “a moment to think about the virtues of neutrality,” said Tom Ginsburg, faculty director of the newly created Forum for Free Inquiry and Expression at the University of Chicago.
Dr. Ginsburg said he looked at 17 major universities and found that all but two released a statement about Ukraine. (The University of Chicago did not.)
“Not one had a statement about the Ethiopia conflict, which started a year before,” he said, referring to a civil war that left thousands dead and displaced more than two million people.
Avoiding statements allows the university to channel its energy into “more important things,” Dr. Ginsburg said. “But that’s not the trend. Schools seem to be speaking out. And that’s why they find themselves in political trouble.”
The Harvard student letter said, “For the last two decades, millions of Palestinians in Gaza have been forced to live in an open-air prison,” and concluded that as the war unfolded, “the apartheid regime is the only one to blame.” It was signed by groups including Amnesty International at Harvard, the Harvard Kennedy School Palestine Caucus and the Harvard Divinity School Muslim Association.
Several student groups that signed the solidarity statement did not respond to messages. By Tuesday afternoon, organizers concealed the coalition’s groups, citing safety.
In her response on Tuesday, Dr. Gay said that “while our students have the right to speak for themselves, no student group — not even 30 student groups — speaks for Harvard University or its leadership.”
That letter followed a more tepid letter on Monday, signed by Dr. Gay and 17 other deans and administrators, saying they were “heartbroken by the death and destruction,” expressing condolences to members of the Harvard community who had lost loved ones, and calling for “an environment of dialogue and empathy.”
While Harvard faced heavy criticism from politicians, academics and Jewish groups, other universities braced for protest.
On Monday night, there was a vigil organized by pro-Israel students at the University of Florida. On Tuesday, at California State University, Long Beach, a student group held a “Protest for Palestine.”
And Bears for Palestine, at the University of California, Berkeley, has organized a campus vigil for Friday to “mourn the murder of our martyrs in Palestine.”
With a number of like-minded statements coming from pro-Palestinian student groups, a number of university presidents issued their own responses that seemed to place the blame for the conflict squarely on Hamas.
On Saturday, Ron Liebowitz, president of Brandeis University, issued a statement condemning “terrorism such as we have seen today perpetrated against innocent civilians.”
A statement on Tuesday from New York University condemned the “indiscriminate killing of civilian non-combatants” as “reprehensible,” and acknowledged that the violence “will likely intensify the feelings of those on our campus who hold strong views on the conflict.”
Alain Delaquérière contributed research.