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At Public Event, Harvard Law Student Asks Tzipi Livni: ‘How Is It That You Are So Smelly?’

After the incident was forcefully condemned by student leaders and Harvard Law School’s dean, the questioner apologized

Yair Rosenberg
April 20, 2016
Langdell Hall, Harvard Law School.Wikimedia
Langdell Hall, Harvard Law School.Wikimedia

This past Thursday, Harvard Law School hosted a panel discussion on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, featuring longtime U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross and longtime Israeli politician and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni. In the Q&A portion of the event, something transpired that shocked many present: a student publicly asked Livni why she was “so smelly.”

The following is taken from a transcript provided by the Harvard Program on Negotiation to students, and obtained by Tablet:

STUDENT: OK, my question is for Tzipi Livni, um, how is it that you are so smelly?

(panel looks confused)

STUDENT: Oh, it’s regarding your odor.

MODERATOR: I’m not sure I understand the question.

STUDENT: I’m question (sic) about the odor of Tzipi Livni, very smelly

As Harvard’s Jewish Law Students Association pointed out in their condemnation of the remarks, the student invoked a classic anti-Semitic stereotype:

Discussions about Israel cannot devolve into ad hominem attacks against Jews. A quick Internet search will show that the stereotype of “the Jew” as “smelly” or “dirty” has been around since at least the 1800s. The Nazis promoted the idea that Jews “smell” to propagandize Jews as an inferior people. The idea that Jews can be identified by a malodor is patently offensive and stereotypes Jews as an “other” which incites further acts of discrimination. The fact that such a hate-filled and outdated stereotype reemerged at Harvard Law School is nothing short of revolting…

To be clear, we encourage dialogue. The Jewish Law Students Association is an umbrella organization for all Jews at HLS across a spectrum of ideologies. We believe that law school is a marketplace of ideas and a forum for constructive debate, and to that end we encourage all students to attend our events and to ask difficult questions as part of those discussions.

But derogatory terms and stereotypes are not constructive. They are divisive. They breed hatred and inhibit mutual understanding and respect.

When this student suggested that Tzipi Livni was a “smelly Jew,” he not only vilified her, but he vilified every Jewish student, faculty, and staff member at Harvard Law School. This anti-Semitic rhetoric is not acceptable. It is not dialogue. It is not productive. Rather, it is hate speech. It is offensive. It is wrong. A statement like this denigrates our school and our shared purpose, and we as a community cannot tolerate it.

Sahand Moarefy, the president of Harvard’s Middle East Law Students Association, also condemned the question asker, labeling his words anti-Semitic:

I unequivocally and unwaveringly condemn the recent anti-Semitic remarks at Thursday’s event on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. As the President of an organization dedicated to representing and serving students across the Middle East, including Israel, I deplore any attack on individuals based on their race, religion, or cultural heritage. Whatever political differences may exist within the student community, I hope that we can all unite in condemning ad hominem, discriminatory attacks and work together to build an environment that facilitates respectful, constructive dialogue.

Following this outcry, Harvard Law dean Martha Minow sent out an email to the entire school community condemning the episode:

The comment was offensive and it violated the trust and respect we expect in our community. Many perceive it as anti-Semitic, and no one would see it as appropriate. It was an embarrassment to this institution and an assault upon the values we seek to uphold. The fact that speech is and should be free does not mean that hateful remarks should go unacknowledged or unanswered in a community dedicated to thoughtful discussion of complex issues and questions.

This morning, the student, a leader of Harvard Law’s Justice for Palestine chapter whose identity is being withheld at both his request and that of the Jewish Law Students Association, apologized:

I am writing to apologize, as sincerely as I can via this limited form of communication, to anyone who may have felt offended by the comments I made last week. To be very clear, as there seems to be some confusion, I would never, ever, ever call anyone, under any circumstances, a “smelly Jew”. Such a comment is utterly repugnant, and I am absolutely horrified that some readers have been led to believe that I would ever say such a thing. With regards to what I actually did say, I can see now, after speaking with the authors of this article and many other members of the Jewish community at HLS, how my words could have been interpreted as a reference to an anti-Semitic stereotype, one that I was entirely unaware of prior to the publication of this article. I want to be very clear that it was never my intention to invoke a hateful stereotype, but I recognize now that, regardless of my intention, words have power, and it troubles me deeply to know that I have caused some members of the Jewish community such pain with my words. To those people I say, please reach out. Give me an opportunity to make it right.

The full apology can be read here. While it takes great pains to disavow any prejudiced intent, it does not explain how the “smelly” remark would have been appropriate in that forum even if it had not echoed anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.