Harvard Law School: 'tis a silly place.
The font of innumerable Supreme Court Justices, its students are capable of a sort of conscious, plodding self-seriousness that would make a performance artist soil herself. Important things are treated stupidly and stupid things are treated importantly and everywhere there are reminders that law is a cold-iron tool, usable for both good and evil. Even revolutionaries wear the cloak of pedantic legalism, as when protesters occupy a public space and then hold votes by "plenary committees" to determine what expression is permitted there. Bad parodies of the rule of law are often effective cloaks for lawlessness.
Maybe it was this stultifying formalism that led a law student to act — if you believe his explanation — like an eight-year-old in public. The Harvard Program on Negotiation held a presentation called "The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the U.S.: Negotiation Lessons and Possibilities." One participant was Tzipi Livni, Israel's former Foreign Minister. A Harvard Law School student used the question and answer period to make an articulate argument that Harvard's invitation of Livni endorsed Israeli human rights violations against Palestinians, and that more debate was needed on the very premises of the discussion at hand.
No, just kidding. The student, a leader in the Harvard Law School Justice for Palestine group, called her smelly.
Whoah, sick burn, brah.
The notion that Jews have a distinctive and offensive odor — a trope called foetor judaicus — is an ancient anti-Semitic insult, part of a bigoted bundle that includes things like matzoh made from the blood of Christian babies. Members of the Jewish Law Students Association swiftly wrote a letter to the Harvard Law Record pointing this out. The student has since apologized, sort of.
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.
The young man's apology isn't "I'm sorry that Harvard Law School's Program on Negotiation, which attempts to increase discourse and awareness about how difficult problems can be resolved through discourse, invited a former foreign minister and I reacted by calling her smelly to signify what a bold revolutionary and deep thinker I am." It's more "sorry that you thought that my use of a classic anti-Semitic trope was anti-Semitic instead of just, you know, being a smirking dick."
Thanks for that.
Young Smelly McListofDemands assures us that some of his best friends are (odor unspecified) Jews:
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.
This is, in fact, perfectly credible. Some of the student's online defenders have indicated that they are Jews and that — because they know him — they thought his intent was not to invoke an ethnic slur. One HLS student explained the thinking behind the word, which the student himself did not:
To quickly summarize, the student told me he said "smelly" to protest Livni's presence without legitimizing the event with a real question
If that's his thinking, it — and the defense of it — seem perfectly childish and imbecilic. A person with something worthwhile to say could articulate why they think Harvard's invitation of Livini was objectionable or illegitimate. A mere insult doesn't suggest she's illegitimate; if anything it makes her seem more legitimate by suggesting her critics have no arguments. The same online defender wrung her hands that criticism of his actions might deter people from speaking out in favor of the oppressed — a "your criticism silences me" trope that is familiar but equally foolish.
Did this guy mean to insult an Israeli leader with an anti-Semitic trope? I don't know. He seems a little dim if he didn't mean it that way; "odor" tropes are commonly used against all sorts of ethnic groups. But even if he didn't mean it, he's a punk and an embarrassment to the school, as the Dean's irritated reaction aptly suggested. He does not convey to me "Harvard Law School Justice for Palestine has things to say and I should listen to them." He conveys "Harvard Law School Justice for Palestine is led by a self-indulgent little douche who richly deserves every excruciating second of the soul-crushing BigLaw job he'll probably get effortlessly because he's a Harvard twerp."
I haven't named the unserious twerp in question. [Edited to add: now that the Harvard Law Record has, I have. He's Husam El-Qoulaq.] It's easy to identify him if you want. I don't think he's worth it, and I think he has a hope of becoming a not-twerp. His supporters have very fervently asked that he not be named. I didn't not-name him because of that; I didn't name him in spite of it. I would note that if he used such a slur about just about any other ethnic group but Jews, he'd be doxxed within hours by the Harvard community. All ethnic slurs are not created equal in the hierarchy of outrage. I also think that if he weren't a bien-pensant — someone with the approved viewpoints about the approved things, including Israel — he'd be loudly condemned by name by the Harvard Law community even if he offered the same explanation. But if his apologists want to order their moral lives that way, that's on them, not on me.
Edited to add: Yair Rosenberg, who has pursued this story doggedly but fairly, points out that Harvard has posted the video of the event but carefully cut out the exchange that might help identify and memorialize the student. Oh, Harvard. Don't ever change.
Edited again to add: The Harvard Law Record has closed comments on the post about this incident and has deleted comments that name the student.
Edited again to add: The Harvard Law Record has now printed a letter in support of the student, Husam El-Qoulaq, based in part on his consent to name him. It remains unclear to me why the Record — and Harvard — concealed his name before.