Not Just at Harvard: An Historical Precedent

Oxford University and Israel's government did no better.

Daniel Pinner

OpEds Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

March 17, the day of the ill-conceived visit to Arafat's grave, just happened to be Shushan Purim.
Jewish communities in the USA, Israel, and the world over have been in a buzz over the recent visit by Harvard students to the grave of the mass-murderer and father of modern terrorism, Yasser Arafat, in Ramallah. What has irked so many is that “Harvard College Israel Trek 2014”, as it is officially called, “is made possible by the generous contributions of a number of family foundations and Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies. The Trek is supported by Harvard Hillel”.

While it is no secret that these students’ pilgrimage to Arafat’s grave occurred on March 17, I have not seen anyone else point out that March 17 just happened to be Shushan Purim.

Maybe it was all some kind of student gag? A Purim-spiel, albeit in hideous taste? Or were they maybe Arab terrorists, dressed up as Harvard students?

Alas no. Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, tried first of all to justify the visit, then later apologised for it.

Now Harvard students are supposed to be the best and the brightest of them all, America’s future, the leaders of tomorrow. They are supposed to represent the pinnacle of modern civilised thought, the best-educated minds that the Western world can produce.

Still, as King Solomon, the wisest man ever, wrote millennia ago: “that which was is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

Almost exactly 81 years before these Harvard students abased themselves and the university they represent by paying homage to this most vicious of mass-murderers, the students in Oxford University, England, similarly disgraced the ancient and noble university which they represented.

It was 9th February 1933, just a week and a half after Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany, and the Oxford University debating society debated the motion “that this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country”. The motion was carried by 275 votes to 153.

Kenelm Hubert Digby, who had proposed the motion, argued that “It is no mere coincidence that the only country fighting for the cause of peace, Soviet Russia, is the country that has rid itself of the war-mongering clique”. Such was the logic of a brilliant student, who argued for an utterly indefensible and immoral cause.

The motion sent shock waves throughout Britain, and indeed Europe. Newspapers throughout Britain denounced it; the Liberal Member of Parliament Robert Bernays told the House of Commons that he had been asked about the debate later in 1933 by a prominent Hitler Youth leader: “There was an ugly gleam in his eye when he said: ‘The fact is that you English are soft’”.

And a year and a half later, on 7th July 1934, Alfred Zimmern, Professor of International Relations at Oxford, wrote from Geneva to the former Union president responsible for the debate: “I hope you do penance every night and every morning for that ill-starred Resolution. It is still going on sowing dragons’ teeth. If the Germans have to be knocked out a second time it will be partly your fault”.

Though the influence of “that abject, squalid, shameless avowal…this ever-shameful motion” (as Winston Churchill referred to it just eight days after its adoption) was probably over-estimated, there can be no doubt that it had at least some influence in encouraging the Nazi dictator Hitler and the fascist dictator Mussolini in their aggression.

And no doubt it also encouraged the communist dictator Stalin. For that psychopathic mass-murderer to hear himself, his country, and his genocidal policies described as “the only country fighting for the cause of peace…the country that has rid itself of the war-mongering clique” surely convinced him that he could get away with mass murder, as long as he committed in the name of “socialism”.

Fifteen long years, a World War and a Holocaust later, Churchill recalled that motion: “It was easy to laugh off such an episode in England, but in Germany, in Russia, in Italy, in Japan, the idea of a decadent, degenerate Britain took deep root and swayed many calculations. Little did the foolish boys who passed the resolution dream that they were destined quite soon to conquer or fall gloriously in the ensuing war, and prove themselves the finest generation ever bred in Britain. Less excuse can be found for their elders, who had no chance of self-redemption in action” (The Second World War, Volume 1: The Gathering Storm, chapter 5).

Eighty-one years on, those Harvard University students disgraced themselves and their exalted home of erudition no less than those “foolish boys” of Oxford University disgraced themselves and theirs.

As Churchill noted, those “foolish boys” of Oxford University redeemed themselves in the coming years by fighting for their King and Country against the most evil tyranny the world has even seen.

These Harvard students, who have justified the cause of terrorism in general and Jew-hatred in particular, are probably far too highly-educated and isolated from real life to understand the immense damage they have caused. Unlike the Oxford students three generations earlier, it is supremely unlikely that any of them will ever fight for their country, or for any of the ideals they claim to believe in – freedom, democracy, even socialism.

Digby, who had proposed the notorious motion in Oxford, died 68 years later. After he died, his widow Mutal said that “that Oxford Union motion haunted him. It dogged him wherever he went”.

One hopes some of the Harvard students have enough conscience to be haunted by what they committed.

But having said all this, one also stands wondering at ramifications of the condemnation. The condemnation comes down to the argument that a trip funded almost entirely by pro-Israel donors included a pilgrimage to the shrine of the most vicious Jew-murderer since World War II.

And yet, after all, it was the Israeli government that sanitized Arafat before Harvard University and its students.

It was Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin who first shook his bloodstained hand while he still directing his terrorists to murder Jews. It was Shimon Peres – then Foreign Minister, later Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, today President – who publicly called Arafat “my friend, my brother, my partner”. It was the Israeli Government that gave 70,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles, jeeps, machine-guns, training bases, explosives, and immunity from prosecution to his murderous thugs.

When Binyamin Netanyahu was voted in as Prime Minister for the first time in 1996, he too publicly met with Arafat, shook his hand, hugged him, pleaded for the entire world to recognise him as our “partner in peace”. 

Ehud Barak, famously hailed as Israel’s most decorated war hero ever, in his capacity as Prime Minister and Defence Minister, met him in Camp David, hugged him, laughed with him, gave him even more military hardware.

After him, even Ariel Sharon – the only Israeli Prime Minister since Rabin who never shook Arafat’s hand – tried desperately to give him yet more land, money, weapons, international legitimacy, political power.

All those people who condemned the Harvard students – have they ever condemned the Israeli Government for their open collaboration with Arafat, his henchmen, and his successors? 

Why focus only on this group of students, the leaders of tomorrow's America, terrible as their action was? Why not take a clear stance against those Israeli Government actions which brought Arafat to Israel in the first place and built him up into the icon that he became, while continuing up to this very day to collaborate with his successors?