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Harvard Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 said in an interview on Thursday that he has regrets about the University’s initial statement on the war in Israel and Gaza and called the bitter divisions on campus the most serious crisis Harvard has faced over his 12-year tenure.
“I certainly have regrets about the first statement,” he said. “Our goal is to ensure that our community is safe, secure, and feels well supported — and that first statement did not succeed in that regard.”
Affiliates slammed the University over its initial statement on Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which critics condemned for failing to denounce Hamas and respond to a controversial letter signed by more than 30 Harvard student groups that called Israel “entirely responsible” for the violence.
The criticism prompted Harvard President Claudine Gay to release a second statement less than 16 hours later, in which she explicitly condemned Hamas and distanced the University from the statement signed by the student organizations.
“President Gay’s follow-up statement was important in rectifying some of the misimpressions that we created with that first statement,” Garber said.
During the interview, Garber said the backlash against the University — which started just as Gay reached the 100th day of her presidency — and the heightened tensions on campus constitute the most serious challenge he has faced since joining Harvard’s top ranks.
“I’ve been provost for over 12 years, and in that time, we’ve confronted many crises,” Garber said. “But in my view, none has been as serious for the University as this one — and I’m even including Covid in that.”
The unprecedented nature of this crisis, Garber said, stems from the deep divisions it provoked on campus.
“The community was immediately divided, and that is not true of every crisis that we face,” he said. “It is a combustible situation, and one in which many people are grieving.”
The past month has also been an exercise in damage control for Gay’s administration, as senior Harvard officials released more than six statements about the war in Israel and Gaza after the outrage caused by the University’s initial messaging.
In a speech during a Harvard Hillel Shabbat dinner held over Family Weekend, Gay announced the establishment of an advisory group to combat antisemitism that will work closely with her and Garber.
Garber and Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana were also present at the dinner, part of what Garber said was an intentional effort to demonstrate support for Harvard’s Jewish affiliates.
“At a time when there was rising concern over antisemitism at Harvard, when the parents of the students were concerned about antisemitism, and the students themselves were reporting their discomfort about antisemitism, it was particularly important to be there to show that this mattered to us,” Garber said.
Garber said while the University recognizes Islamophobia is “an ongoing problem at Harvard,” he added that Harvard has placed increased resources into combating antisemitism due to its sharp rise nationwide.
“In general, if you look at the national statistics, the other forms of hate had not grown as rapidly over that period,” Garber said. “So there was a sense of great urgency about addressing antisemitism.”
In another University-wide statement released minutes after Garber’s interview with The Crimson on Thursday, Gay condemned the use of the pro-Palestine slogan “from the river to the sea” and announced a new effort to implement antisemitism education and training for Harvard affiliates.
Garber said in the interview that while he also condemns the use of the slogan, the University “will remain concerned about free speech and freedom of expression on campus.”
“At a time like today, when there is a great deal of conflict on campus and protests and counter-protests, it is all the more important for us to protect speech rights,” Garber said. “So this is a top priority for us as the University.”
Garber said the divisiveness of the issue means there is an opportunity for institutions of higher education to educate on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“Universities have a great deal more to contribute in advancing public understanding of the issues,” Garber said. “That does not necessarily mean neutrality, but I do hope that it means that we can approach each other with greater empathy.”
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