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Remarks at Harvard Hillel

Remarks as delivered by President Claudine Gay at Harvard Hillel Shabbat Dinner

It’s an honor for my husband Chris and I to be here tonight to celebrate Shabbat with you. I’m told that this week’s Torah portion recounts the story of Abraham, the founder of the world’s great monotheistic faiths. In this week’s reading, God tells Abraham that Abraham will “be a blessing” – not that Abraham will receive a blessing, but that he will be a blessing. He is tasked with becoming a blessing in the lives of others, taking an active role in bringing light into a world that is so often full of darkness.

That responsibility to be a blessing – to bring light, to each other and to the world—resonates with me, and with my hopes for Harvard.

The past few weeks have been full of darkness. First came the horrific terrorist attacks on October 7th, in which 1400 Jewish people were murdered by Hamas, and more than 200 others were taken hostage. Then came the escalating humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Here in the U.S., we are witnessing a surge in anti-Jewish incidents and rhetoric across the nation — and on our own campus. The ancient specter of antisemitism, that persistent and corrosive hatred, has returned with renewed force. According to one report, incidents of antisemitism, nationally, have almost tripled over the past six years. Here at Harvard, I’ve heard story after story of Jewish students feeling increasingly uneasy or even threatened on campus. We should all be alarmed by this. I am.

I want to acknowledge the profound toll this has taken, especially on our Jewish students, faculty, and staff. Your grief, fear, and anger are heard and felt deeply.

As we grapple with this resurgence of bigotry, I want to make one thing absolutely clear: Antisemitism has no place at Harvard.

As President, I am committed to tackling this pernicious hatred with the urgency it demands. Antisemitism has a very long and shameful history at Harvard. For years, this University has done too little to confront its continuing presence. No longer.

Harvard’s mission, and legacy, is the pursuit and dissemination of truth. And the core of antisemitism is a lie – specifically, the denial of Jewish identity and experience. This lie has taken many forms, from Holocaust denial to the blood libel to conspiracy theories to the denial of the Jewish peoples’ historical ties to the land of Israel. Harvard is a place for inquiry and vigorous debate about our world’s greatest challenges. A place to reveal truth, not to deny facts.

To begin the vital work of eradicating antisemitism from our community, I have assembled a group of advisors whose wisdom, experience, and counsel will help guide us forward. These trusted voices include faculty, staff, alumni, and religious leaders from the Jewish community, and some of them are here tonight. I am enormously grateful for their conviction and generous spirit, and for the hope and high expectations for Harvard.

In the weeks ahead, these advisors will work with me, Provost Garber, and the School deans to frame an agenda and strategy for combating antisemitism at Harvard. They will help us to think expansively and concretely about all the ways that antisemitism shows up on our campus and in our campus culture. They will help us to identify all the places — from our orientations and trainings to how we teach — where we can intervene to disrupt and dismantle this ideology, and where we can educate our community so that they can recognize and confront antisemitism wherever they see it. They will help us find opportunities to foster the empathy, literacy, and understanding across identities and beliefs that we need to be the Harvard the world is calling for and that our community deserves.

Our Jewish students have shared searing accounts of feeling isolated and targeted. This shakes me to my core – as an educator, as a mother, as a human being. Harvard must be a place where everyone feels safe and seen. It is just the right thing to do.

The amount of work before us may seem daunting. And I know the goal that I have set for this institution will not be achieved tomorrow. Any problem that has been allowed to fester for this long will defy easy remedy.

Where we go from here will require courage, humility, and perseverance. It will demand fearless self-reflection about our own assumptions and biases. But we have done this before. We have the wisdom and resilience to meet this challenge. We have confronted legacies of injustice in the past and emerged stronger for it. Guided by our shared values, and our love for Harvard, I have faith we can turn pain into durable, hard-won progress. By lifting each other up and speaking truth even when difficult, the light of justice will scatter the shadows of hate and antisemitism.

I ask for your partnership in this effort. There is so much important work for us to do, but I have never been more hopeful that Harvard can lead the way. I am confident that we can rise to the challenge once given to Abraham, to become the blessing needed for our shared future.