Harvard President Claudine Gay Shows Support for Jewish Community Amid Donor Pressure

"Harvard has your back. We know the difference between right and wrong," Gay said during a surprise appearance at a Shabbat dinner organized by Harvard Chabad.

Claudine Gay
Claudine Gay is the first Black president of Harvard. Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Claudine Gay, the newly appointed president of Harvard University, has been caught between a rock and a hard place in the past week as some Harvard students and the school’s influential donors, including billionaire investors Bill Ackman and Ken Griffin, bitterly divided on the latest conflict between Israel and Palestine. In a series of public appearances in the past few days, Gay was seen striving to find a delicate balance between supporting Harvard’s Jewish community and protecting students’ right to free speech.

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On Oct. 13, Gay unexpectedly showed up at a Shabbat dinner hosted by Harvard Chabad, a Jewish student organization, in a display of solidarity with the university’s Jewish community, according to an Instagram post by Harvard Chabad yesterday (Oct. 17). In a brief address, Gay said she’d canceled a trip to New York to make time for the event because “this is really the only place I wanted to be.

“This has been a very, very challenging week. I don’t need to tell you that. But I do want to say that I feel your pain, and I feel your loss,” Gay said before an audience of about 1,000 students, alumni and faculty members. “What I want to say is that Harvard has your back. We know the difference between right and wrong. We are gonna find ways every day to affirm your sense of belonging here and to remind all of those who doubt it.”

Earlier that day, Gay released a three-minute video on YouTube in which she defended the university’s commitment to free speech, after two pro-Palestine student groups issued a statement last week that appeared to justify Hamas’s sneak attack on Israel on Oct. 7 that killed more than 1,300 people, mostly civilians.

“People have asked me where we stand. So let me be clear, our university rejects terrorism. That includes the barbaric atrocity perpetrated by Hamas,” Gay said in her Oct. 13 video. She added, however, “Our university embraces a commitment to free expression. That commitment extends even to views that many of us find objectionable, even outrageous.”

“We don’t punish or sanction people for expressing such views,” Gay said, adding, “But that is a far cry from endorsing them.”

A day after Gay delivered her message, the same two student groups—the Palestine Solidarity Committee and the Graduate Students For Palestine—organized a rally on campus pressing university leaders to condemn Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in retaliation to Hamas’s attack on Oct. 7.

Gay, 53 and of Haitian origin, is the first Black president in Harvard’s 368 years of history. She assumed office in July, succeeding Lawrence Bacow. Previously, she was the dean of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Major donors threaten to pull out

Harvard’s leadership has been embroiled in controversies since the Israel-Palestine conflict broke out. Major Jewish donors have criticized the student groups’ pro-Hamas comments and the university’s vague stance on the issue.

Ken Griffin, the founder of hedge fund Citadel, who has donated more than half a billion dollars to Harvard over the years, called the leaders of the university’s board to complain about the lack of response from President Gay, the New York Times reported on Oct. 15.

Pershing Square founder Bill Ackman, who donated $17 million to Harvard in 2014, condemned the student groups’ pro-Hamas statement in a tweet on Oct. 15. “Something is profoundly wrong with the state of universities in America when the Palestinian President disavows Hamas while student groups from some of our most prestigious universities support the terrorists,” he posted when retweeting a news article about Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas criticizing Hamas.

The Wexner Foundation, a nonprofit founded by former Victoria’s Secret owner Leslie Wexner, has cut ties with Harvard altogether after donating more than $56 million in the past three decades. “We are stunned and sickened by the dismal failure of Harvard’s leadership to take a clear and unequivocal stand against the barbaric murders of innocent Israeli civilians,” the foundation’s leaders wrote in a letter to the Harvard board of overseers on Oct. 16.

Harvard’s Office of the President didn’t immediately reply to Observer’s request for comment on donors’ criticism. Harvard runs the world’s largest university endowment, valued at more than $50 billion as of 2022.

Harvard President Claudine Gay Shows Support for Jewish Community Amid Donor Pressure