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Jesse Lava: Harvard Students Slam School’s Bigotry

28 September 2010 Huffington Post No Comment Email This Post Email This Post

(updated below)

Elite institution, indeed.

Harvard University, where I’m pursuing a master’s in public policy, has now honored Marty Peretz, editor-in-chief of the New Republic and world-class bigot. This honor has come in the form of a $650,000 fund that the Department of Social Studies is creating in Peretz’s name — a nice celebration for a man with a sordid history of bigoted comments, mainly (though not entirely) against Arabs and Muslims. Students have been protesting for weeks (see the petition), but the administration ultimately decided to stick with Peretz. Awesome.

See what follows for an open letter that student groups have written in response — and if you’re so inclined, please feel free to write to Harvard President Drew Faust at president@harvard.edu.

Dear organizers of the Social Studies 50th anniversary commemoration:

We regret the fact that the Social Studies program at Harvard University is choosing to honor Martin Peretz, given his long history promulgating bigotry and hatred. Such a decision sends the wrong message to Muslim students — indeed all students — at Harvard. It is a sad testament to the state of our public discourse that sweeping generalizations that demonize Muslims as a group are not rebuffed in the strongest terms.

Most recently, Peretz publicly asserted that it is “a statement of fact, not value” that “Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims… So, yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.” It is impossible to imagine a more straightforward, open-and-closed demonstration of bigotry. Just picture the reaction if the word “Muslim” in that statement were replaced with “Jewish” or “black” or “Latino.” Peretz would (rightly) be scorned by all respectable institutions and certainly would be receiving no recognition from Harvard.

To be sure, once under fire, Peretz backtracked on the First Amendment claim and conceded that Muslims should have free speech rights. Tellingly, however, he repeated that he believed that Muslim life is cheap, most notably for Muslims. Sadly, this incident is not the first for Peretz. He has a history of xenophobic comments, including the assertion that “Arab society” is “hidebound and backward” and that “We have higher standards of civilization than [Arabs] do.” He has stated that “Latin societ[ies]” enjoy “characteristic deficiencies” such as “congenital corruption” and “near-tropical work habits,” and that “So many in the black population are afflicted by cultural deficiencies.” Peretz should be isolated and the views he has expressed should not be lent any legitimacy — from Harvard or any other public institution.

Thus far, we remain unimpressed by the university’s response and distressed by its lack of moral courage. We saw a similar posture when faculty member Martin Kramer said last year that Palestinian young men are “superfluous.” The attempt by university officials to distance themselves as individuals from the views expressed by Peretz, while at the same time defending the invitation, is puzzling.

We also remain unconvinced by the argument that this is a question of free speech. This is not a disagreement over Peretz’s right to hold whatever views he wishes. Rather, it is a disagreement over the institutional decision to honor a person holding such views and create a fund in his name.

Repeatedly, we are being disappointed by our own university and seeing our moral principles betrayed. We call upon the university, the Social Studies Program, and all those who are involved to exercise moral judgment by rescinding the invitation to honor Peretz.

Sincerely,

Arab Caucus at Harvard Kennedy School

Co-Chairs of Human Rights PIC at Harvard Kennedy School (Afreen Akhter, Natalie Black, Katy Peters, Elliott Prasse-Freeman)

Co-chairs of Progressive Caucus at Harvard Kennedy School (Jesse Lava, Jesse Wilderman, and Emily Polak)

Harvard Longwood Muslims (umbrella organization for various groups at Harvard Medical School, Public Health School, and Longwood hospitals)

Islamic Society at Harvard Business School

MENA Club at Harvard Business School

Pakistan Student Group at Harvard Kennedy School

NAACP at Harvard Law School

J Street U

Justice for Palestine at Harvard Law School

Middle East Law Students Association at Harvard Law School

Muslim Student Group at Harvard School of Public Health

National Lawyers Guild at Harvard Law School

Palestine Caucus at Harvard Kennedy School

Update: When Marty came to be honored, we decided to hold an “unwelcome party” for him. He tried to avoid the protesters by leaving through the back door, but we found him:

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