Great Joy and Urgent Sorrow

This week Harvard Hillel honored Henry Rosovsky, twice acting President of Harvard, longtime beloved Dean, great friend, and great inspiration to many in our Jewish and wider Harvard communities – on the occasion of his 90th year and the 25th of Harvard Hillel’s home, our aptly named Rosovsky Hall.

On the verge of this week, at afternoon services last Shabbat, I heard a new bat mitzvah say, with remarkable insight, that the angelic visitors of our present Torah-portion were made to visit Abraham and Sarah’s tent first of all during their earthly sojourn so that they would encounter worthy human beings as a point of reference before proceeding onward to judge their next port of call, the corrupt and inhospitable city of S’dom.

In remarks conveyed by video to our celebration of Henry this week – in which all four living Harvard Presidents took part – emeritus Harvard President Larry Summers said: “There was no one so committed both to decency and what was right and to the maintenance of academic freedom and openness as Henry Rosovsky.”

I think of this as I take stock of the following, which tragically mars this week at Harvard – and I ask myself, as so often, ‘What would Henry do?’ I cannot say I know the answer yet. It is such a blessing to be able to discuss such matters with Henry, as surely I will do in the days ahead. As always in these messages, I speak here only for myself, as a Jewish chaplain and director of Harvard Hillel.

I wish my message this week could be only joyous. You will hear more about our celebration in due course I promise.

Right now, the following urgently must be said:

On honoring Nihad Awad at Harvard:

It is dismaying – and more than that, it is truly dangerous – that the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA), a student-led public service nonprofit organization housed in the heart of Harvard University’s campus, is honoring Nihad Awad with its Coles Lecture and Call of Service award.

Awad was once the head of an American student wing of the P.L.O., whilst that group was in the forefront of terrorist opposition to Israel’s existence. He then shifted his allegiance to the murderous Hamas movement when the P.LO. recognized Israel and participated in peace negotiations. Also prior to his current work, Mr. Awad was the Public Relations Director of the Islamic Association for Palestine. That organization (one month after Mr. Awad’s departure from it, so he contends) published, as the tenth in a series of pamphlets, a screed entitled “America’s True Enemy! THE JEW: and an Unholy Alliance!” which contains some of the most blatant and scurrilous anti-Semitism I have ever seen.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which Mr. Awad currently heads, has declared some worthy aims, and many who admire and take part in the work of CAIR know only those. It is also an organization of which the FBI has said: “CAIR was named as an unindicted co-conspirator of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development in United States vs. Holy Land Foundation et. al. In that trial, evidence was introduced that demonstrated a relationship among CAIR, individual CAIR founders (including its current President Emeritus and its Executive Director) and the Palestine Committee. Evidence was also introduced that demonstrated a relationship between the Palestine Committee and Hamas, which was designated a terrorist organization in 1995. In light of that evidence, the FBI suspended all formal contacts between CAIR and the FBI. The FBI’s decision to suspend formal contacts was not intended to reflect a wholesale judgment of the organization and its entire membership. Nevertheless, until we can resolve whether there continues to be a connection between CAIR or its executives and Hamas, the FBI does not view CAIR as an appropriate liaison partner.”

Some remonstrate that Mr. Awad expressed his support of Hamas in the 1990s, before Hamas was declared a terrorist organization by the United States, and that he has since disavowed terror. However, Hamas’ charter, with its explicit anti-Semitism and calls for the murder of Jews worldwide, was promulgated in 1988, long before Mr. Awad declared his support; and, as late as 2004, when asked about another terrorist group, Hezbollah, Mr. Awad refused to denounce it and said of such movements, “We will not condemn any organization.” It is clear from various statements that Mr. Awad continues to purpose the ending of Israel.

One must ask: since when does PBHA honor a person who has ever said “I support the Hamas movement?” And since when does Harvard play host to such a celebration?

Until now, PBHA has developed a sterling reputation for public service, so that many young people trust its say-so. With its choice of honoree this year, PBHA seems to be applying its good name and reputation to a normalizing or countenancing of support for terror. It is wrong for PBHA to teach by way of example to others in this way that support of terror can be accepted or ignored.

For my own part, along with many in our Jewish circles, I stand with Muslim community at Harvard and beyond against prejudice, and for good relations and friendship between Muslims and all people of good faith in this country and around the world. I stand with good work done to promote peaceable relations and to combat bigotry. I wish to send a clarion signal of support to Muslim siblings when they are unjustly judged.

In view of past statements by Mr. Awad in support of the Hamas movement, in view of his leadership in another organization that has promulgated anti-Semitism, and in view of the fact that many people in our community regard those issues as insufficiently explained and unresolved on his part, I cannot take part in bestowing an award upon Mr. Awad, and I do not believe others should do so.

I have strong distaste for McCarthyism, slander, and conspiracy theories. In this instance, it is irresponsible for a Harvard organization to hang an heroic wreath upon Mr. Awad. One should rather seek to understand his present views and aims and those of CAIR’s leadership. It is possible to do that while expressing faithful friendship with Muslim peers and community.

If such vital nuance cannot be manifest at Harvard, where can it prevail?