Harvard, BDS and the Nazis

by Rafael Medoff

The editors of the Harvard student newspaper are urging a boycott of the Jewish state, and praising a campus group that has celebrated a murderer of Jewish college students. In the 1930s, the editors of the same Harvard student newspaper urged giving an award to a Nazi official who promoted anti-Jewish boycotts and celebrated murderers of Jews.

Is there a basis for comparing today’s editors of The Harvard Crimson to their pre-World War II predecessors?

The Crimson’s editors last week accused Israel of committing “crimes against humanity” and endorsed the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS) movement. Presumably the editors are aware that BDS founder Omar Barghouti has said his goal is not to oppose “settlements” or “occupation,” but rather to “oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine.”

The editorial heaped praise on the “colorful” and “spirited” anti-Israel activities organized on campus by the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee. For some reason, the Crimson editorial did not refer to that committee’s 2015 posting of a video justifying knife attacks against random Israeli Jews, or its 2016 event supporting Rasmea Odeh, the convicted murderer of two Hebrew University students in Jerusalem.

It would not be a stretch to imagine that if Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl were alive today, he would be an enthusiastic supporter of the BDS campaign, the Palestine Solidarity Committee, and Rasmea Odeh.

The shameful story of Hanfstaengl and Harvard was documented in the landmark 2005 book “The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower,” by Prof. Stephen Norwood.

The German-born Hanfstaengl attended Harvard, graduating in 1909. He later returned to Germany, actively supported the Nazi Party from its earliest days, and rose to become Hitler’s foreign press spokesman. Hanfstaengl’s announcement in 1934 that he intended to attend his 25th class reunion sparked a debate over whether he should be welcome on the Harvard campus.

The editors of the Crimson argued that not only should Hanfstaengl be “warmly welcomed,” but also he should be received by the Harvard administration “with the marks of honor appropriate to his high position in the government of a friendly country, which happens to be a great world power—that is, by conferring upon him an honorary degree.” Never mind that the policies of the regime Hanfstaengl represented made a mockery of the ideals of liberty and free inquiry for which Harvard stands.

Harvard also maintained strong ties to Nazi-controlled German universities, especially the University of Heidelberg. Even though Heidelberg fired all its Jewish faculty members, instituted a Nazified curriculum and hosted a mass book-burning, Harvard president James Conant accepted an invitation to take part in celebrations marking Heidelberg’s 550th anniversary, in 1936. He said “political conditions”—such as the mass persecution of Germany’s Jews—should not prevent Harvard from participating. A Crimson editorial agreed, hailing Conant’s decision as “splendid.”

The Harvard administration took additional steps in the 1930s to foster friendly relations with Nazi Germany. Harvard rolled out the red carpet for the crew of a Nazi warship, the Karlsruhe, when it docked in Boston harbor in 1934, the swastika flag flying from its mast. Officers and crewmen from the warship were entertained at Harvard, and professors attended a gala reception in Boston where the warship’s captain enthusiastically praised Hitler,” Prof. Norwood notes. The following year, the German consul general in Boston was permitted to place a swastika wreath in the university’s chapel (in honor of German war veterans who were Harvard alumni).

Certainly there are important differences between the Crimson of 1934 and the contemporary Crimson. For one thing, the quality of the editorial writing has deteriorated noticeably over the years. The journalism students who currently edit the oldest continuously published college newspaper in the United States really should know that the past tense of “strive” is not “strived” and “difficults” is not a real word. Grammatical errors are the least of the current editors’ problems, however.

The more important issue is whether it can be reasonably argued that there is some connection between the Crimson editors’ attitude toward persecutors of Jews, then and now. Obviously, criticism of Israeli policies is not Nazism, and the BDS campaign is not the same as the Holocaust. But there is something noteworthy about the Crimson editors’ explanation that they were moved to embrace BDS by “the weight of this moment.”

Our universities are supposed to train students to engage in free inquiry and independent thinking. The “weight of this moment,” especially on college campuses, is tilted heavily against Israel. Nothing is trendier than accusing the Jewish state of behaving like apartheid-era South Africa, or even Nazi Germany. But the editors of the Crimson should have resisted the temptation to go along with the crowd, to succumb to the “weight of the moment”; they should have opted to side with facts and reason instead of simply aping what all the cool kids are doing.

Here is where the comparison to the 1930s is relevant. Then, too, the editors of the Crimson chose to follow the crowd. From the White House down to the Harvard administration, maintaining friendly relations with Nazi Germany—and ignoring the plight of the Jews—was regarded as the preferred approach. The editors of the Crimson made the wrong moral choice in the 1930s. Their successors are doing likewise.

(May 2022)