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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Harvard: Jews Better Than Muslims

According to Professor Harry Lewis
Letter to the Editor of the Boston Globe
Dear Editor:
Harvard Professor Harry Lewis should probably spend more time in working on computer programs and less in writing op-ed columns like A separate and unequal exercise (Boston Globe, March 25, 2008, see below).
Setting aside six hours so that Muslim women can exercise without the presence of men is just a minor supplement to providing separate locker rooms for men and women.
Such minor accommodation has no similarity to the ROTC total exclusion of homosexuals.  If Lewis fails to understand the difference, perhaps he should find a less prestigious school where he can become a member of the faculty.
In any case, some religious Jewish female students as well as lesbians uncomfortable with male harassment will probably avail themselves of the women-only six hours at Harvard athletic facilities.
Lewis crossed the line into Jewish Islamophobic incitement by suggesting that Jews are somehow ethically superior to observant Muslims when he comments, "Everyone can enjoy Harvard's kosher food."
Lewis is wrong. Kosher wine that has not been "cooked" according to halakhah (Jewish law) becomes ritually unfit if a non-Jew touches or pours it. While Harvard Hillel is unlikely to provide such wine at services or meals, Chabad does use it at invitation-only gatherings that exclude non-Jews in order to increase the feeling among Jews that they are separate or "chosen."
With even more obnoxiousness both Harvard Hillel and Harvard Chabad sponsor Birthright Israel.
This program gives Jewish students a free trip to Israel as their birthright even though the vast majority of modern Jews have no ancestral connection to Palestine whatsoever as the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has recently pointed out in Shattering a National Mythology (Ofri Ilani, March 21, 2008) and in An invention called 'the Jewish people' (Tom Segev, February 29, 2008).
Birthright Israel excludes descendants of the native Palestinian population that Eastern European Jewish invaders ethnically cleansed in 1947-8.
The program is a racist slap in the face to all Palestinian members of the Harvard community.
Jewish faculty and staff should engage in some self-examination before dumping on Harvard Muslims, and the University administration should carefully consider whether Jewish bigots have enmeshed Harvard in a pattern of racist practices jeopardizing the University's status as a 501 (c) (3) organization to which contributions are tax deductible.
Harry Lewis should apologize to Harvard Muslims forthwith, and the University should discipline him for the moral turpitude associated with public expression of prejudice.
Joachim Martillo HC '78
Boston, MA

A separate and unequal exercise

PERHAPS it is simple politeness for Harvard University to close its secondary gym to men for six hours a week so conservative Muslim women can exercise without men seeing their skin.

Religious accommodations are usually uncontroversial, but this is different. Everyone can enjoy Harvard's kosher food; half the students are excluded from the gym, however briefly.

Surely only those with the most mean-spirited interpretation of gender equality could object - yet complain they did.

"Today I was forced to wait outside in the cold until 5," wrote one man. "The policy seems sexist and discriminatory."

"These hours have been put in place for equality reasons," read Harvard's announcement. The decision apparently resulted from a paradoxical collaboration between the Women's Center, which greets visitors with a sign reading "All Genders Welcome," and adherents to a religion that imposes unequal social strictures on men and women.

Harvard didn't explain its thinking, but it seems to have adopted a postmodern version of equality: Equality might be achieved only by imposing unequal access, if those seeking equality do not share the consensus view. Freedom is useless without comfort, so liberation of some might require exclusion of others.

Whatever the logic, the university failed in its educational responsibility. It missed an opportunity to model for its students the kind of moral reasoning it expects of them. The resulting standards are inconsistent, and the muddle has a history.

This conflict is rooted in Harvard's uncompromising interpretation of equality since 1977, which was a response to its decidedly unequal treatment of women for most of its past. When Harvard assumed full responsibility for women's education from Radcliffe, it adopted an absolute nondiscrimination standard. Everything is open to men and women on an equal basis - nothing is "separate but equal" except some athletic teams and choral singing groups. Most student organizations desegregated voluntarily. The venerable all-male Final Clubs, which the dean's office used to coordinate, refused to admit women and were severed from the university.

Harvard's nondiscrimination policies now cover "race, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, age," and a few other things, and the same absolutism applies to all categories. Harvard has no ethnic or single-sex housing. Women's groups have to allow male members. The Black Students' Association can't close white students out of its meetings.

And, until now, the athletic department didn't bar the doors of the gym against male students.

Absolutism is not the only ethical approach to discrimination issues. Fraternities and sororities fall afoul of Harvard's equal-access policy, but most colleges find them unproblematic in principle. Perhaps Harvard has just been out of step with that "real world" in which constructive segregation and special interests sometimes trump integrationist principles.

The new stance seems generous and tolerant: Be nice to people, even if it means excluding others, as long as the benefit is significant and the injury is minor.

Which brings us to ROTC. Harvard bans ROTC because the military violates the "sexual orientation" part of Harvard's nondiscrimination policy. Harvard students can participate in ROTC at MIT, but Harvard will not provide them meeting space or any other support - even bus fare down Massachusetts Avenue.

If there were ever a special case, this is it. ROTC's discriminatory policy is US law. Until Congress repeals that law, Harvard should accommodate ROTC anyway, in the interests of the nation and of Harvard students wishing to serve it.

The counterargument goes, however, that if ROTC were accommodated, the benefit to cadets would be far less significant than the injury to gays and lesbians. Indeed, some claim that no price would be too high for Harvard to pay for uncompromising adherence to its nondiscrimination policy, even the loss of all government funding, if it came to that.

Is the gym exception merely a reasonable kindness to conservative Muslim women? Then Harvard's failure of courtesy to its cadets suggests that politics determine what forms of discrimination are inoffensive.

That is not what Harvard should be teaching. Tolerance is good, but absolute nondiscrimination is preferable to such politicized tolerance.

Harry Lewis is professor of computer science at Harvard and former dean of Harvard College. He is the author of "Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future?" and coauthor of "Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion," which will be published in June. 

© Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company
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Anonymous said...

Lesbians? All women, most likely. Ever heard of Healthworks in Porter Sqare? MANY women much prefer working out without the presence of men. I sure did. Some men hog equipment and treat women like they are wasting their time taking it up. And some consider it a good place to hit on women. Women do not get equal access in an "equal access" facility just like women don't get equal access to Harvard faculty positions, to walking alone at night. I can asure you that most of the women availing themselves of the special hours will not be Muslim.

Anonymous said...

Good letter, Joachim!

Anonymous said...

Dear reader,

Thank you for your submission to the Globe's letters page. Because of the volume of letters we receive, we cannot print all the letters we would like to.

In the event that we are unable to publish your letter, we hope that you will write to us another time.

The Boston Globe

Joachim Martillo said...

I mentioned lesbians because they seem to be the group most likely to complain about male harassment, but I accept that many other women besides religious Jews, religious Muslims and Lesbians would appreciate women-only hours at athletic facilites.

The book Harvard Rules contains some interesting information about Harry Lewis, Lawrence Summers on the controversy over the "Jihad" commencement speech.

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