Swastika Drawn on Harvard Law Classroom Desk

Last Thursday, November 5, a first-year Harvard Law student noticed a swastika penned in a desk in Wasserstein room 2004 during class. After another student submitted a picture of the swastika to the Dean of Students Office, cleaning staff was sent to remove the mark from the desk.

The person who drew the mark has not yet been identified. Rooms in Wasserstein are generally open during business hours, and it is quite possible that a non-HLS affiliated person made the mark. Several HLS classes were scheduled to meet in WCC 2004 during the days leading up to the discovery, along with a few events hosted by student organizations. HLS events are open to the public and frequently attended by people who do not work at or attend the Law School.

This incident occurred on the heels of other major debates happening at higher-education institutions like Yale and the University of Missouri. An email from Dean of Students Marcia Sells asked students to report symbols of hatred, stating, “As a community of people seeking knowledge and raising ideas, we can engage in challenging and difficult discussion, but we should never lose sight that this is meant to gain insight and not to inflict pain. There is never a time when it is appropriate to deface school property with images or symbols meant to degrade or demean any member or group of people in our community or beyond.”

Jonathan Gartner ’16, president of the Jewish Law Students Association, was deeply disturbed that someone would draw a swastika on a desk. “The symbol is understandably distressful to Jewish students, especially since many come from families of Holocaust survivors or individuals who fled Nazi persecution. We appreciate the Administration’s prompt condemnation of this unacceptable act,” he said.

According to the Harvard Law School Handbook of Academic Policies, “The Law School’s commitments to fairness, respect for the rule of law, and free inquiry require an environment of trust and mutual respect, free expression and inquiry, and a commitment to truth, excellence, and lifelong learning. Students, program participants, faculty, staff, and alumni accept these principles when they join the HLS community and thereby agree to respect the rights, dignity, and differences of others, pursue honesty and integrity in dealing with all members of the community in person and on-line, and accept personal responsibility in these efforts.” How to create such an environment where students can speak respectfully and freely is still the topic of much debate. Dean Marcia Sells referred to the academic policies in the HLS handbook, along with the e-mail statement, as how the Law School weighs free speech and discrimination.

“We—Harvard Law School—aspire to have a community where people speak openly and respectfully—in the classroom, in social settings, and at events,” Dean Sells told The Record. “The Dean of Students Office has a mission, to help foster those conversations. We welcome the opportunity to discuss these issues.”

Some students believe, however, that this was a missed opportunity to discuss an issue often overlooked at Harvard Law School: that anti-Semitism is real. One Jewish student told The Record that many people were taken aback by the DOS email not naming the hateful symbol as a swastika, and were disappointed by the mute reaction of the student body. While many students at the Law School have taken positions on the allegations of racism at other schools—both supporting student-led efforts and condemning them—conversations about other minority groups, religious, political, and otherwise, have been less evident.

The Alliance for Israel has hosted events this semester on contentious issues affecting the Jewish State. “In a time when higher education unequivocally denounces anti-Semitism, this swastika demonstrates that hatred of the Jewish people can unfortunately still exist even at a place like Harvard Law School,” a statement from the group read. “Alliance for Israel hopes the presence of such a symbol at HLS will generate reflection on the many manifestations modern anti-Semitism can have, both explicit and implicit.”

“The truth is that anti-Semitism is not a thing of the past,” said a first-year student. “This is especially apparent in the Israel context. There are legitimate differences of opinion that should be discussed. However, today, many under the guise of being critical of Israel are spewing pure anti-Semitism.”

The tension between free speech and protecting marginalized groups certainly will continue to be the subject of much debate. How to balance two very important values remains a question that will pervade campuses across the country, including Harvard Law School.

“I think the proper way to address tough issues is to speak to one another,” said the source. “Silencing people you disagree with—like handing out flyers with false ad-hominem attacks about people you disagree with or bullying people to resign—should be replaced with open-mindedness and dialogue.”

Editor’s Note: The Record is in possession of a photo of the swastika but has decided not to publish that photo. Students with questions about that decision can email Editor-in-Chief Michael Shammas at mshammas@jd16.law.harvard.edu.

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