Claudine Gay: plagiarism

Showing exceptional weakness

Claudine Gay wants to defend the status quo against the radical right. But since the status quo is indefensible, it’s a lost cause, says Daniel Lazare

The rightwing offensive that brought Claudine Gay down as president of Harvard shows two things. One is that Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ movement continues going from strength to strength. The other is that liberals are powerless to stop it. Everything they do seems to make matters worse.

This became clear on December 5 when Gay, a 53-year-old sociologist who had acceded to Harvard’s top role only five months earlier, testified before a House of Representatives committee about campus anti-Semitism. With her were two other university presidents, Liz Magill of the University of Pennsylvania, who would also be forced to step down, and Sally Kornbluth of MIT, who is so far holding onto her job.

The setting could not have been more hostile. Just a few hours later, the House would approve by 311 to 14, with 92 Democratic abstentions, a resolution equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. After calling for a minute of silence in behalf of “all the Israelis and others who have been killed, injured, or taken hostage by Hamas terrorists,” Virginia Foxx, the ultra-right Virginia congresswoman in charge of the hearing, informed the witnesses that they would get “a chance to answer to and atone for the many specific instances of vitriolic hate-filled anti-Semitism on your respective campuses that have denied students the safe learning environment they’re due.”

“Institutional anti-Semitism and hate are among the poisoned fruits of your institutions’ cultures,” she went on, in her best hanging-judge style. As one might expect, no mention was made of the thousands of Palestinian civilians who have perished from Israeli bombs.

Bad as this was, the three university presidents made matters worse by agreeing at the outset that “Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish nation” - not as a Hebrew-speaking people, that is, with all the democratic rights any such population is entitled to, but as a religious state.


This placed anyone who dares question Israeli theocracy beyond the pale. Pro-Palestinian protesters are thus guilty before they even take to the streets because they oppose the Jewish supremacy that Jewish statehood necessarily implies. Or so both sides seemed to concur.

Things went even further downhill an hour and a half later when Elise Stefanik, a Republican congresswoman from upstate New York, got five minutes to question Gay head on. The results were not pretty:

Stefanik: Dr Gay, a Harvard student calling for the mass murder of African-Americans is not protected free speech at Harvard, correct?

Gay: Our commitment to free speech …

Stefanik (raising her voice): It’s a yes-or-no question. Is that ... OK for students to call for the mass murder of African-Americans at Harvard? Is that protected free speech?

Gay: Our commitment to free speech …

Stefanik: It’s a yes-or-no question.

Did we mention that Gay, the 53-year-old daughter of Haitian immigrants, is black? The racially provocative nature of Stefanik’s questioning was all too apparent. The interrogation went on:

Stefanik: You are president of Harvard, so I assume you’re familiar with the term “intifada”, correct?

Gay: I’ve heard that term, yes.

Stefanik: And you understand that the use of the term intifada in the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict is indeed a call for violent armed resistance against the state of Israel, including violence against civilians and the genocide of Jews. Are you aware of that?

Gay: That type of hateful speech is personally abhorrent to me.

Stefanik: And there have been multiple marches at Harvard with students chanting, “There is only one solution, intifada revolution,” and, “Globalize the intifada”. Is that correct?

Gay: I’ve heard that thoughtless, reckless, and hateful language on our campus, yes.

Stefanik: So, based upon your testimony, you understand that this call for intifada is to commit genocide against the Jewish people in Israel and globally, correct?

Gay: I will say again, that type of hateful speech is personally abhorrent to me.

Stefanik: Do you believe that type of hateful speech is contrary to Harvard’s code of conduct or is it allowed at Harvard?

Gay: It is at odds with the values of Harvard.

And so on, as Gay conceded point after point while falling back on the constitutional formula that pro-Palestinian speech is protected, no matter how offensive, abhorrent, etc, until and unless it crosses over into outright harassment.

So while calling for rebellion or uprising, the literal meaning of “intifada”, threatens Jews worldwide, it is still permissible - if barely - only because the US constitution says so. Otherwise, it’s not the sort of thing that any decent person would want to hear, especially a president of Harvard. Instead of standing up for the rights of the oppressed, Gay bobbed, weaved, and quibbled. Inspiring it was not.

One could write a book about the many ways the confrontation was a triumph for the radical right. One reason, of course, is the Israeli-Palestinian war, an area in which Republicans, for all their new-found isolationism, are every bit as interventionist as neo-conservative Democrats, if not more so. Republicans would like nothing better than to expose Democrats as soft when it comes to defending the Jewish state - and failing to shut down pro-Palestinian protests is one of their best opportunities in years.

But that’s not the only reason. There are also those Jews whose pro-Democratic loyalties could conceivably shift as Stefanik continues driving home the point that genocide and intifada are one and the same and liberals more or less agree.

There’s Stefanik, who is being touted as a possible Trump running mate and whose highly effective take-down of Gay and the others has boosted her profile all the more. A Harvard graduate herself, she’s an American version of Giorgia Meloni or Marine Le Pen, which is to say: someone who’s bright, articulate, and hyper-aggressive when it comes to advancing the interests of the ultra-right.

She’s also a demagogue. For all her pro-Jewish rhetoric, she’s an advocate of “replacement theory” - the belief that international elites are intentionally flooding advanced societies with non-white immigrants in order to advance a globalist agenda. This is a far-right conspiracy theory that dovetails all too neatly with paranoid fantasies about an international Jewish cabal secretly manipulating world events.

“Radical Democrats are planning their most aggressive move yet: a PERMANENT ELECTION INSURRECTION,” a Stefanik campaign ad screamed in 2021. “Their plan to grant amnesty to 11 MILLION illegal immigrants will overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington.”1

This was just four years after “Unite the Right” protesters, chanting “Jews will not replace us”, staged a torchlight parade through Charlottesville, Virginia. It was just three years after Robert Gregory Bowers blamed the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society for the same thing, before killing eleven people at a Pittsburgh synagogue. “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people”, he posted minutes before the assault. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”2

Calling for intifada is impermissible because it makes Zionists nervous. But trumpeting the “Great Replacement” is fine, even though it makes Jews dead.

Finally, there’s a third reason why Gay’s downfall was such a triumph: Harvard. It would take yet another volume to fully explain why Harvard offers such rich pickings for the radical right. The oldest university in America, it’s not only an intellectual powerhouse but, with its $50.6 billion endowment, a key element in the US class structure. Students who achieve the near-impossible feat of getting in - the admissions rate is a scant 3.2% - earn a median salary of $129,000 a year within a decade of receiving their baccalaureate, 58% more than what other college grads make.3 Once on the job market, they’re able to tap into an ultra-powerful network that includes four Supreme Court justices, seven members of Joe Biden’s cabinet, plus 41 Fortune-500 CEO’s, nearly twice as many as that of any other university.4


If Harvard elitism didn’t exist, Republican populists would have to invent it. Harvard is also a liberal stronghold, which makes it a near-irresistible target as well. According to a 2018 survey, 83% of Harvard faculty describe themselves as liberal or very liberal, while only 3% thought Trump was doing a good or even a passable job.5 Democrats, of course, will reply that all this means is that Harvard professors are smart enough to recognize presidential incompetence when they see it. But it doesn’t explain why 73% supported Hillary Clinton, according to the same survey, even though she’s been a marvel of incompetence ever since voting for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, for military intervention in Libya in 2011, or for military aid for Syrian rebels led by Al Qaeda beginning in 2012.

It also doesn’t explain the many “woke” excesses that play straight into Republican hands. In 2019, Harvard dismissed law prof Ronald Sullivan as dean of Winthrop House, a famous residential dormitory, merely because he had joined a legal team defending Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein against sexual-assault charges. (The dismissal earned a sharp rebuke from the American Civil Liberties Union.)6 In 2021, a director of a Harvard “diversity and inclusion task force” denounced an evolutionary biologist named Carole Hooven as “transphobic and hateful”, after she declared in a TV interview:

The facts are that there are … two sexes … there are male and female, and those sexes are designated by the kinds of gametes we produce … The ideology seems to be that biology really isn’t as important as how somebody feels about themselves or feels their sex to be, but we can treat people with respect and respect their gender identities and use their preferred pronouns, so understanding the facts about biology doesn’t prevent us from treating people with respect.7

Ostracized by her fellow researchers and all but abandoned by the university, Hooven resigned. In January 2023, Harvard withdrew a fellowship offer to Kenneth Roth, former executive director of Human Rights Watch, because he had criticised Israel. (The decision was reversed following an outcry.)8 How could Republicans resist sailing into an institution like this? And how could growing numbers of Trump supporters resist cheering from the sidelines?

But while Gay might have been able to survive the episode, what brought her down in the end was the question of plagiarism, ie, the fact that she had used entire blocks of text without attribution and with only minimal word changes. John McWhorter, a Columbia professor of linguistics, wrote in the New York Times that her use of unattributed material “qualifies less as stealing argumentation than as messy.” But he argued that she should still go because the “problem runs through about half of Dr Gay’s articles, as well as her [PhD] dissertation.”9

Perhaps. Still, it’s clear that if Gay got into trouble for three reasons - failure to crack down on pro-Palestinian protests, failure to footnote, and standing for an institution that Americans increasingly resent - the first was the real reason for her dismissal, the second was just an excuse, and the third is why her performance on December 5 was so dismal. It’s difficult to imagine her not agreeing that the Jewish state is sacrosanct. After all, a Harvard president’s duty is to shore up the imperial line. But after offering her head in such a fashion, it was inevitable that Republicans would tighten the noose.

“My hope is that by stepping down I will deny demagogues the opportunity to further weaponize my presidency in their campaign to undermine the ideals animating Harvard since its founding: excellence, openness, independence, truth”, Gay wrote in a farewell op-ed in the Times. “... This was merely a single skirmish in a broader war to unravel public faith in pillars of American society.”10

But that’s the problem. Faith in American institutions is rapidly unravelling. Claudine Gay wants to defend the status quo against the radical right. But since the status quo is indefensible, it’s a lost cause.

  1. washingtonpost.com/powerpost/rep-stefanik-claims-in-ads-that-democrats-are-seeking-a-permanent-election-insurrection-by-providing-pathways-to-citizenship/2021/09/16/7372011a-16eb-11ec-a5e5-ceecb895922f_story.html.↩︎

  2. newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/why-the-tree-of-life-shooter-was-fixated-on-the-hebrew-immigrant-aid-society.↩︎

  3. cbsnews.com/news/harvards-admissions-trial-the-value-of-a-harvard-diploma.↩︎

  4. academicinfluence.com/rankings/schools/which-colleges-most-alumni-ceos-fortune-500-companies.↩︎

  5. thecrimson.com/article/2018/5/2/faculty-survey-part-2.↩︎

  6. www.aclu.org/news/free-speech/harvard-was-wrong-dismiss-its-dean-representing-harvey-weinstein.↩︎

  7. whyevolutionistrue.com/2022/11/11/the-cancellation-of-carole-hooven.↩︎

  8. nytimes.com/2023/01/19/arts/harvard-israel-antisemitism-roth.html.↩︎

  9. nytimes.com/2023/12/21/opinion/harvard-claudine-gay.html.↩︎

  10. nytimes.com/2024/01/03/opinion/claudine-gay-harvard-president.html.↩︎