The prominent role of wealthy Jewish donors – including in particular the billionaire financier Bill Ackman (illustrated) – in the controversy that led to the resignation of Claudine Gay, a Black woman, as President of Harvard University has increased tensions between Blacks and Jews. Some of the same wealthy Jews have actively opposed the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policies of American universities aimed at correcting historical and structural gender and racial disparities which, they argue, unfairly favour Black applicants at the expense of Asian and White applicants including Jews. Their support for Israel and the tendency of Black students to identify with the plight of the Palestinians threatens a crisis in relations, as the following account in Haaretz describes.

In America, Black-Jewish Relations Feel the Strain in Wake of Harvard President’s Ouster – U.S. News –

Judy Maltz  Jan 16, 2024 6:17 pm IST

NEW YORK – In an op-ed published in The New York Times on January 3, a day after she resigned as president of Harvard University, Claudine Gay did not explicitly blame wealthy Jewish donors for her departure.

But there is no doubt Jewish donors – one in particular – played a key role in her downfall and were likely on her mind when she wrote: “Those who had relentlessly campaigned to oust me since the fall often trafficked in lies and ad hominem insults, not reasoned argument. They recycled tired racial stereotypes about Black talent and temperament. They pushed a false narrative of indifference and incompetence.”

After all, Jewish hedge fund billionaire and Harvard graduate Bill Ackman had relentlessly gone after Gay since the October 7 massacre – first demanding her ouster for her weak response to the Hamas assault that killed some 1,200 Israelis, making Jewish students feel unsafe on campus. When that didn’t work, he used his huge social media presence to amplify allegations that she was a serial plagiarist.

At one point, he claimed to have inside information that she was hired because of her race and not because of her professional credentials.

“I learned from someone with first person knowledge of the @Harvard president search that the committee would not consider a candidate who did not meet the DEI office’s criteria,” he wrote on X last month, referring to the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative that has angered many conservatives and has been criticized for excluding Jews.

However, Ackman was not the only wealthy Jew to turn against the first Black president of Harvard due to her handling of events following October 7, when pro-Palestinian protests turned the campus into an unsafe space for many Jewish students.

Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer and his wife Batia both quit the executive board of the Harvard Kennedy School in protest; the Wexner Foundation ended its long-standing Israeli leadership program at the Kennedy School; and a large group of Jewish alumni announced an end to all Harvard donations, save a token $1 a year.

Gay may have preferred not to frame what transpired in her last three months in office as a Black-Jewish confrontation (certainly not when some of her key defenders were Jewish – a prominent example being billionaire Penny Pritzker, president of the Harvard governing board that hired her). But Cornel West, the left-wing former Harvard professor, seemed to have no problem with that.


A truck driving around Harvard last month, calling then-president Claudine Gay a national disgrace.Credit: Joseph Prezioso/AFP

In a post on X, where he has 1 million followers, the Black presidential candidate pointed his finger at a group of Jews. “How sad but predictable that the same figures and forces enabling the ethnic cleansing and genocidal attacks on Palestinians in Gaza – Ackman, Blum, Summers and others – push out the first Black woman president of Harvard!” he wrote on January 3.

Summers was a reference to former Harvard President Lawrence Summers, who had been very critical of Gay’s response to the Hamas attack, but Edward Blum – a well-known opponent of affirmative action – did not attend Harvard and had never addressed the issue.

“This racism against both Palestinians and Black people is undeniable and despicable!” added West in his post. “I have experienced similar attacks from the same forces in academia with too many of my colleagues remaining silent! When big money dictates university policy and raw power dictates foreign policy, the moral bankruptcy of American education and democracy looms large!”

To be sure, when Jews are seen to be orchestrating a campaign to get the first Black president of America’s top university removed from her job, it cannot bode well for Black-Jewish relations. Even though she was not the only university president to come under pressure to resign over her widely criticized performance at the “antisemitism on campus” congressional hearing, where she refused to say that calls for the genocide of Jews might constitute harassment. (Liz Magill, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, resigned days after the hearing.) And even if the reason she eventually resigned was not her response to antisemitism, but rather her history of not citing sources properly in her academic work.

‘Either-or’ paradigm

Regrettably, says Cornell Brooks, a Harvard professor and former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), what many observers will take away from this ordeal is that for Jews to be safe, Blacks must be held back.

“We start off in a conversation about antisemitism and protecting Jewish students, and end up in a conversation about attacks on programs for Black and brown people,” he says in a phone interview.

“In terms of its implications for Black-Jewish relations, it creates a point of tension because we are not able to have a conversation about addressing antisemitism without that conversation being weaponized in ways that are harmful to Black people.”

While he believes that Jewish students at Harvard had good reason to feel threatened and unsafe after October 7, the former NAACP leader also believes the university’s first Black president lost her job because of racism.

“The way in which she was treated, the fact that she was called the ‘N’ words, the fact that her opponents called her a ‘DEI’ hire – this was really a campaign of intimidation and humiliation,” Brooks says. (In her New York Times op-ed, Gay wrote that she had “been called the N-word more times than I care to count.”)

In terms of its implications for Black-Jewish relations, it creates a point of tension because we are not able to have a conversation about addressing antisemitism without that conversation being weaponized in ways that are harmful to Black people.

Cornell Brooks, former president of the NAACP

“My experience has been that when there’s a spike in one type of hate in this country, there’s also a spike in the other type of hate. And instead of dealing with that, we have billionaires here checking footnotes. I mean, seriously?”

Jeremy Burton, CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, calls Brooks “an incredibly solid ally” of the Jewish community and “a moral compass on all things.” When someone of his caliber – a respected national figure in the civil rights movement – is blaming Gay’s ouster on racism, says Burton, Jewish Americans need to take heed.

“I am hearing this in conversations with other local allies as well, and I know I’m not alone in hearing this,” he says. “There is a genuine sense that legitimate Jewish concerns about antisemitism at Harvard have been weaponized in the service of an agenda that puts down Black advancement. They are experiencing this as an ‘either-or’ paradigm: that the answer to antisemitism is to roll back efforts against racism. That’s a problem for them, and rightly so, but it is also a problem for us.”

Amy Spitalnick, CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, worries that the wedge being driven between Blacks and Jews in America because of events at Harvard serves the agenda of right-wing extremists.

Two things can be true at the same time. One is that Harvard and its president clearly missed the mark on antisemitism. And the other is that right-wing extremists weaponized Jewish pain and fear for their own agenda.

Amy Spitalnick, CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs

“Two things can be true at the same time,” she says. “One is that Harvard and its president clearly missed the mark on antisemitism. And the other is that right-wing extremists weaponized Jewish pain and fear for their own agenda.

“Their goal is to tear apart communities whose interests are inextricably linked. This is a very deliberate tactic on their part, and I fear that we are falling prey to it.”

‘Entirely predictable, sadly’

For a Black Jew like Ilana Kaufman, CEO of the Jews of Color Initiative, the past few months have presented unprecedented challenges. Watching Harvard’s president testify in Congress, she recounts, made her feel completely torn.

“Not that I have any idea what it’s like to be the president of Harvard, but watching Claudine Gay – I felt complete empathy for her as a Black woman,” says Kaufman. “At the same time, I was really disappointed by her responses.”

As someone with deep connections to both the Jewish and Black communities, Kaufman says she gets more and more flak from both sides these days.

“My colleagues in Jewish leadership who are not people of color began asking me after October 7 why the Black community was not calling out the horrific terrorism of Hamas,” she says. “Then you had Claudine Gay, who was unable to state in clear terms that calls for Jewish genocide violate Harvard’s code of conduct. I think it made a lot of leaders out there question the commitment of a lot of Black folks to fighting antisemitism.”

Meanwhile, her Black colleagues who are not Jewish have been pestering her about why Israel is killing so many Palestinians in Gaza. “So, there’s a lot of tension in the air,” notes Kaufman.

Marc Dollinger, a professor of Jewish studies at San Francisco State University, is the author of “Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s.” In his view, what transpired at Harvard “was entirely predictable, sadly, and not surprising.”

He adds: “It will definitely have an impact on relations between Blacks and Jews, but I think it probably reflects the current state of affairs more than it says anything about the damage we can expect to see in the future.”