Editor’s note: The following column was first published in City Journal.
Harvard finds itself in an ideological bind. Following Hamas’s horrific terror attack against Israel, the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee issued a statement, co-signed by 33 other student groups, blaming the Jewish state for the murder, rape, and mutilation of its own citizens by Hamas. “Today’s events did not occur in a vacuum,” the statement read. “The apartheid regime is the only one to blame.”
The reaction was swift. The media, the public, and prominent political figures condemned the students for rationalizing atrocities against innocent people, including women, children, and the elderly. Harvard’s administration, long accustomed to toeing the radical line, hesitated for days before releasing a generic statement of condemnation and writing that “no student group—not even 30 student groups—speaks for Harvard University or its leadership.”
Meantime, former Harvard president Lawrence Summers expressed surprise, wondering on social media why the university could not “find anything approaching the moral clarity of Harvard statements after George Floyd’s death or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”
It is hard to believe that Summers is being sincere. As anyone in Harvard’s orbit would know—especially a long-time professor and former university president—the politics of decolonization, critical race theory, and anti-Israel agitation has been a staple of public life on that campus for decades. And it is not a cause driven solely by misguided students: administrators, department leaders, and prominent faculty have all developed it, institutionalized it, or at least publicly deferred to the radicals who did.
One needs only to browse the current Harvard course catalog to see how deeply the rhetoric of “decolonization” has been embedded. One course, “Global Rebellion: Race, Solidarity, and Decolonization,” draws on critical ethnic studies, a subfield of critical race theory, and promises to promote “Black, Asian, Latinx, and Indigenous radicalism”—that is, left-wing ethnopolitics for everyone except whites and Jews. The goal, according to the course description, is to “discuss how BIPOC communities forged cross-racial, internationalist solidarities to rebel against global white supremacy.”
Another course, “Colonialism and its Postcolonial/Decolonial Afterlives,” features readings of Lenin and Frantz Fanon, the latter of whom argued that “violence is a cleansing force” that “frees the native from his inferiority complex” and “restores his self-respect.”
The rest of the course description is a repetition of slogans from the old Third World revolutionary fronts, promising to “explore the relationship between empire and the rise of industrial capitalism, the significance of race, class, and gender in colonial extraction, and the modes of violence on which it was founded.” The solution? The usual metaphors: “refusal,” “resistance,” “postcoloniality,” and “decoloniality.”
What might these terms mean? To answer that question, we can turn to a Harvard-funded program called “Decolonize Harvard.” In 2021, Harvard’s Derek Bok Center hired Marcelo Garzo Montalvo, a visiting assistant professor of Latinx Studies who uses “he/they” pseudo-pronouns, to lead an initiative about “decolonizing” the university. The premise was simple: administrators, faculty, and students, Montalvo said in his recorded lectures, must “understand and frame Harvard as a settler-colonial, genocidal, and Eurocentric institution” built on the “foundational violence” of white Europeans.
The solution, Montalvo said, was to engage in a “decolonizing process” that embeds critical theory, ethno-political struggle, and left-wing pedagogy throughout the university. After this process is completed, Montalvo speculated, “Harvard and the settler university [may] cease to be recognizable as Harvard as such.” The goal could be, ontologically and epistemologically speaking, “to abolish the university” altogether.
Israel, too, figures into this dialectic. In his program to “decolonize Harvard,” Montalvo promoted materials highlighting Harvard student and faculty activism against Israel’s supposed “apartheid regime” and “settlement enterprise.” The student groups accused Israel of “structural and cultural forms of violence” and called for both “scholarly action” and “collective resistance” against the Jewish state.
Five Harvard faculty also issued a statement linking the work of “Palestinian liberation” to the work of decolonizing Harvard, arguing for “a more robust commitment to teaching about Palestine, to incorporating work by Palestinians into our syllabi, to inviting Palestinian scholars and community members to speak at university events, and to supporting campus activism for Palestinian liberation.”
Montalvo and his fellow travelers make clear that “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” as the title of a scholarly paper asserts. As Palestinian militants decolonize Israel, the logic goes, domestic academics should decolonize institutions such as Harvard.
As we have seen since October 7, the outcome of “decolonization” is barbarism. For Hamas, it means murdering women, children, and the elderly, executing innocent people on the street, and mutilating infants in their homes.
For the radical academics, the process is less brutal but barbaric all the same: it means destroying our best institutions, obliterating academic standards, and elevating witchcraft, voodoo, and pseudo-science into positions of prestige. The philosopher Leo Strauss once defined nihilism as opposition to civilization as such—and this is precisely what the decolonizing academics have done, acting out their vengeful fantasies to “abolish” Harvard, once a crowning symbol of Western civilization.
Americans need to understand that the massacre in Gaza is not only a foreign outrage. The same ethno-radicals who cheer Hamas’s destruction of civilization abroad also want to commit civilizational suicide here at home.