A Statement on Recent Anti-Semitic Comments

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include an apology from the individual who made the comments in question. The full apology is included at the bottom of this piece. 

Dear HLS Community,

Anti-Semitism is still very real today, and it just showed itself in our community at Harvard Law School.

At the Q&A section of an event last Thursday, an HLS student asked Jewish, Israeli dignitary Tzipi Livni: “How is it that you are so smelly? . . . A question about the odor of Ms. Tzipi Livni, she’s very smelly, and I was just wondering.”

We are writing to condemn what we view as blatantly anti-Semitic rhetoric. We demand a public apology to Ms. Livni, the Jewish students of HLS, and Harvard Law School at large. Further, we demand respectful behavior from students at our events in the future.

Thursday’s event was hosted by the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School and co-sponsored by the Jewish Law Students Association and Harvard Hillel. It was titled “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict & the U.S.” The event was a conversation between former Israeli Foreign Minister (and current Israeli Parliament Member) Tzipi Livni and American Diplomat Dennis Ross. It was a civil discussion, moderated by HLS Professor Robert Mnookin, on the complex and important topic of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Given the opportunity to ask a question and to engage in productive dialogue with an Israeli political leader, this HLS student, who is the president of a student organization on campus, revived the antiquated and offensive notion of the “smelly Jew” – a term reeking of anti-Semitism – in order to insult her.

Discussions about Israel cannot devolve into ad hominem attacks against Jews.  A quick Internet search will show that the stereotype of “the Jew” as “smelly” or “dirty” has been around since at least the 1800s. The Nazis promoted the idea that Jews “smell” to propagandize Jews as an inferior people. The idea that Jews can be identified by a malodor is patently offensive and stereotypes Jews as an “other” which incites further acts of discrimination. The fact that such a hate-filled and outdated stereotype reemerged at Harvard Law School is nothing short of revolting.

To be clear, we encourage dialogue. The Jewish Law Students Association is an umbrella organization for all Jews at HLS across a spectrum of ideologies. We believe that law school is a marketplace of ideas and a forum for constructive debate, and to that end we encourage all students to attend our events and to ask difficult questions as part of those discussions.

But derogatory terms and stereotypes are not constructive. They are divisive. They breed hatred and inhibit mutual understanding and respect.

When this student suggested that Tzipi Livni was a “smelly” Jew, he not only vilified her, but he vilified every Jewish student, faculty, and staff member at Harvard Law School. This anti-Semitic rhetoric is not acceptable. It is not dialogue. It is not productive. Rather, it is hate speech. It is offensive. It is wrong. A statement like this denigrates our school and our shared purpose, and we as a community cannot tolerate it.

Jeremy Salinger ’17, Co-President of the Jewish Law Students Association 2016-2017
Jacqueline Wolpoe ’17, Co-President of the Jewish Law Students Association 2016-2017
Jonathan Gartner ‘16, President of the Jewish Law Students Association 2015-2016

Editor’s Note: The event referenced in this article was recorded by the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation. According to the authors, as of the time of publication the HLS administration has not publicly released a video of the event. The authors, however, did obtain a transcript of the comments in question. The views expressed in all opinion pieces, including factual allegations, belong solely to the authors.

Update: The individual who made the comment has issued an apology. That statement is included below:

“I am writing to apologize, as sincerely as I can via this limited form of communication, to anyone who may have felt offended by the comments I made last week. To be very clear, as there seems to be some confusion, I would never, ever, ever call anyone, under any circumstances, a “smelly Jew”. Such a comment is utterly repugnant, and I am absolutely horrified that some readers have been led to believe that I would ever say such a thing. With regards to what I actually did say, I can see now, after speaking with the authors of this article and many other members of the Jewish community at HLS, how my words could have been interpreted as a reference to an anti-Semitic stereotype, one that I was entirely unaware of prior to the publication of this article. I want to be very clear that it was never my intention to invoke a hateful stereotype, but I recognize now that, regardless of my intention, words have power, and it troubles me deeply to know that I have caused some members of the Jewish community such pain with my words. To those people I say, please reach out. Give me an opportunity to make it right. I will assure you, as I have already assured many, that had I known it was even possible that some listeners might interpret my comments as anti-Semitic, there is absolutely no chance that I would have uttered them. I trust that those that know me and have engaged with me on a personal level will not find this at all difficult to believe. Many members of the Jewish community—some of whom hold strong differences of opinion with me—have reached out to me on their own to let me know that they did not interpret my words as anti-Semitic, because they know me well enough to know that that is not at all consistent with who I am as a person. I want to thank them and any others who have given me the benefit of the doubt, and I am writing this note in the hopes that more of you will do the same. I say this, however, fully cognizant of the fact that no amount of writing can serve as a substitute for genuine human interaction. So please, if there remains any doubt at all, do take me up on my offer above and reach out so that I can make this right to you on a more personal level.”

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