Speaking Tuesday at the university's Memorial Church, Summers described himself as a "hardly devout" Jew for whom anti-Semitism has been remote. But he said he was nonetheless concerned about an upturn in anti-Semitism globally and at the university, pointing out the petition that circulated last spring at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We should always respect the academic freedom of everyone to take any position. We should also recall that academic freedom does not include freedom from criticism. The only antidote to dangerous ideas is strong alternatives vigorously advocated," he said in the speech, which has been posted on the university Web site.
Proponents of the petition campaign said they were criticizing Israel's human rights record, not endorsing anti-Semitism. "He's a Jew. He's concerned about anti-Semitism. I'm a Jew. I'm concerned about anti-Semitism," said Danny Fox, MIT assistant professor of linguistics. "I think it's bizarre to relate the actions like the divestment campaign to anti-Semitism, and it's also dangerous. I don't quite understand what he means by that."
The petition drive, launched with an MIT teach-in last spring, was in response to Israeli policies in the occupied territories. Eventually signed by 590 Harvard and MIT faculty, students, staff and alumni, it called on the two schools to divest their endowments from Israel, and for the U.S. government to end aid unless Israel abides by U.N. human rights resolutions.
An opposing drive urging both schools not to divest eventually dwarfed the original effort. More than 5,800 people signed the petition, which condemned the original drive "as a one-sided attempt to delegitimize Israel."