On Friday, I was sitting in an Israeli-American café just off Harvard Square, trying to fathom the fraught scene taking place outside my window. Parked immediately outside the café was a now infamous mobile billboard truck that has been driving around campus, displaying the names and faces of undergrads from the thirty-four student groups that signed a letter by the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee blaming Israel for Hamas’s vicious, barbaric attack.
The billboard, paid for by the conservative group Accuracy in Media, declares these students, in Old English font, to be “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites,” and its presence in Cambridge has created a stir. Tensions have flared across campus as Harvard professors and administrators struggle, in tense email threads, to address the acute and contrasting sensitivities of its cosmopolitan student body and distinguished alumni (including Bill Ackman, who is seeking to blacklist the students who signed the letter, and Larry Summers, who condemned university leadership for not denouncing it immediately). Outside the café, a lone security guard fitfully tried to disperse gathering crowds, with limited success—a fitting metaphor, perhaps, for the school’s limited response.
While there should be no moral ambiguity about the massacre that took place on Saturday at the hands of Hamas, it was all too predictable that these events would trigger the third-rail of American political discourse. As Jon Stewart memorably put it nearly a decade ago, there is no way to talk about Israel without being shouted at (it is far easier, he noted in 2014, to talk about Ukraine). From a media perspective, too, every editorial decision—phrasing, framing, etcetera—leaves one vulnerable to scrutiny. And indeed, the shouting and the scrutiny has begun. On Thursday, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough took his “friends at Axios” to task over a headline that characterized the students’ letter as “pro-Palestinian,” rather than “pro-Hamas.” “The media needs to do a better job of clarifying!” he shouted at the camera (and into Andrew Ross Sorkin’s earpiece). “Let’s be exact in our language! Let’s be exact in our headlines!”