Antisemitism skyrockets on Harvard’s social media after Claudine Gay’s departure
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Antisemitism'It's not about Israel anymore, it's outright hatred of Jews'

Antisemitism skyrockets on Harvard’s social media after Claudine Gay’s departure

With former president stepping down amid controversies over antisemitism on campus and allegations of plagiarism, a new avalanche of hate speech has been unleashed

A pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel rally held at Harvard University, October 15, 2023. (Screenshot: X; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
A pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel rally held at Harvard University, October 15, 2023. (Screenshot: X; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

In the wake of Claudine Gay’s January 2 resignation from the Harvard presidency, Harvard students are reporting that the anonymous campus social media platform Sidechat has become inundated with an unprecedented level of overt antisemitism.

Sidechat requires all participants on its Harvard platform to have a Harvard email address — meaning that while all posters are anonymous, they must be current undergraduates, graduate students, continuing education students, alumni, faculty or staff.

Comments range from pure hate (“stfu pedo lover! All of you Zionists are the same. Killers and rapists of children!”) to allegations of Jewish pedophilia (“of course someone who’s on epstein [sic] list would defend Israel,”) to offensive stereotypes (“She looks just as dumb as her nose is crooked”).

Harvard Divinity School graduate student Shabbos Kestenbaum told The Times of Israel that he finds it particularly concerning that the conspiracy theories and Jew-hatred are appearing in an online community exclusively made up of Harvard students, who are supposed to represent part of the academic elite.

“On the Sidechat app, people take off their masks,” Kestenbaum said. “It’s not about ‘context’ anymore, or anti-Zionism: it’s out-and-out hatred for Jews.”

Antisemitism was already on the rise at Harvard and other universities around the United States amid an uptick of anti-Israel activism following the October 7 massacre in which thousands of Hamas-led terrorists brutally murdered 1,200 people in southern Israel and abducted roughly 240 more to the Gaza Strip.

Gay, Harvard’s first Black president and shortest-tenured one, refused to say outright that calls on campus for the genocide of Jews are a violation of her school’s conduct policy during a December 5, 2023, congressional hearing on campus antisemitism. She resigned just shy of a month later at the center of multiple controversies involving her testimony, her response to campus antisemitism, and allegations of plagiarism that surfaced following her testimony.

Kestenbaum, who is an Orthodox Jew, said that Gay’s resignation letter and subsequent op-ed piece in The New York Times about the resignation — neither of which took either responsibility for any wrongdoing or any explicit position against antisemitism — were rife with ambiguity as to the cause for her resignation and thus opened the door “for all sorts of speculation and hatred.”

Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi, who runs the Harvard Chabad House, said that many Jewish students are rightly “shaken” by the vitriol of the antisemitic comments and conspiracy theories going around on Sidechat.

“In my role as a rabbi to Harvard Jewish students, I’m an address they come to regularly to express their horror, and in some cases, their fear, that they are living among people who wish for and call for and celebrate the death of Jews,” Zarchi said, noting that he is regularly sent examples of Sidechat hate from Jewish members of the community.

In written testimony before the US House Committee on Education and the Workforce last month, then-Harvard president Gay wrote, “We encourage the vigorous exchange of ideas but we will not, under any circumstances, permit speech that incites violence, threatens safety, or violates Harvard’s policies against bullying and harassment. My administration has repeatedly made crystal clear that antisemitism and other forms of hate have no place at Harvard. Threats and intimidation have no place at Harvard.”

In an email last week responding to one student’s allegations and screenshots of antisemitic posts on Sidechat, the Harvard Office for Equity Diversity Inclusion and Belonging (OEDIB) noted that Sidechat is “not offered, managed, or endorsed by Harvard,” but that nonetheless, the OEDIB has “begun taking steps immediately to try to address the concerning content.”

The steps listed include forwarding sample Sidechat content to the Harvard University Police Department to determine if any posts constitute direct threats warranting law enforcement action, as well as reaching out to Sidechat’s leadership.

According to the email, OEDIB requested “more clarity on [Sidechat’s] sign-up process and who can post content to the Harvard community space.”

Sidechat is run by and was created by Flower Ave Inc, a developer studio of mobile apps that also created YikYak, another anonymous messaging platform. Its community guidelines state that the site doesn’t “allow content that perpetuates the oppression of marginalized communities by promoting discrimination against (or hatred toward) certain groups of people,” or “allow anything that could be interpreted as bullying or harassment, both toward individuals and groups.”

That being the case, Daniel Kelley, the Anti-Defamation League’s director of strategy and operations for the Center for Tech and Society, holds the platform, rather than the institutions using it, responsible for dangerous content posted on it.

“It’s not a Harvard problem, in a sense — it’s a Sidechat problem,” Kelley told The Times of Israel. “Ensuring the community at Harvard is inclusive and welcoming is something that Harvard should try to do, but if you’re talking about the problem of hate proliferating on a third party platform… well, there’s a role for Harvard to play to advocate with Sidechat to prioritize the safety of their students, but the ultimate responsibility for the proliferation of hate on the platform is on the platform itself.”

“They have to create rules, abide by them and enforce them when people are experiencing hate,” Kelley said, noting that the ADL is also in discussions with Sidechat “to escalate content complaints and try to educate the platform about the nature of people’s experiences.”

Sidechat did not respond to Times of Israel requests for comment.

Regardless of whether or not the platform is ultimately responsible, those on the ground want to see a more proactive approach from university officials.

“There should be no tolerance of antisemitic harassment at Harvard, whether online or on campus. We’re speaking with various members of the university administration, urging them to take action to counter this antisemitism and protect Jewish students, and are here for students who need help and support,” said Rabbi Getzel Davis, campus rabbi at Harvard Hillel.

Zarchi agreed, adding that Jewish students, faculty and staff should make efforts to actively report the antisemitic hate they see transpire on the platform to provide a fuller picture of the scope of the problem.

“I encourage people to report it to Harvard administrators because they should be aware of the mindset of members of the Harvard community and understand how students are thinking and acting and posting, so that they can understand what role they, as a university, can play in educating a student body which is clearly filled with students who have very hateful and very distorted views of the Jewish people,” Zarchi said.

For now, the online hate continues unchecked, leaving students to fear that a significant — but as of now unverifiable — number of their peers harbor a simmering hostility toward Jews that threatens to boil over at any time.

“As a Jewish student, I don’t feel safe coming back to campus two weeks from now,” Kestenbaum said. PJC

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