Professor Risse, posters of kidnapped Israelis are being torn down at American universities, and Jewish students are being threatened and attacked. At the same time there are Islamophobic attacks. These are not isolated cases; this is happening at universities across the country. Do you have an explanation?

The nerves are on edge. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one that a lot of people have a connection to. The Jewish population in the USA does not make up three percent, but is very present at many universities, including Harvard. We have few Palestinian students here, but many from a larger Arab context. So we have large groups with completely different perspectives on the Middle East conflict. Each side feels like it doesn’t get enough attention. It is against this background that such attacks occur.

There are many reported cases of anti-Semitism at US universities. Has it always been like this, but was it simply ignored until now?

That’s not entirely clear to me yet. We are basically experiencing two things: anti-Semitism and strong criticism of the policies of the State of Israel. Some people become anti-Semitic because of their strong criticism of Israel’s policies. And at the same time, there is a certain tendency among those who show solidarity with Israel to describe any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic. It’s good that the events are being reported and discussed. But in my opinion a final assessment is not yet possible.

At the rallies for Palestine you see people with Palestinian or Arab backgrounds, supporters of Black Lives Matter and people from a more left-wing, white background. What is the connecting element?

On the one hand, it is about direct solidarity with the Palestinian civilian population, who are experiencing enormous suffering. On the other hand, it is about the colonialism debate. One position in the left camp is that the existence of the State of Israel is a remnant of the colonial era. This idea goes back to the return immigration of Jews to this part of the Ottoman Empire from the 1880s. It continued with the Balfour Declaration in 1917…

…at that time Great Britain supported the Zionist movement in its goal of creating a “national home” for the Jewish people.

Yes, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, more and more Jewish migration took place into the British mandate. From the perspective of the people who lived in the area at the time, the arrival of the Jews was an act of colonialism.

What Jewish Israelis see completely differently.

For them, the area is their ancient homeland, from which they were expelled in the 2nd century because of a failed uprising in the Roman Empire. The Jews have always viewed the area as their homeland to which they returned. And part of the later immigration into the already existing State of Israel was based on the fact that Jews were expelled from Arab countries. This is not classic colonialism like in 1830, for example, when the French took over Algeria and henceforth saw it as their territory. Israel is not a colony of Europeans; the country’s history is much more complex.

When Israel is described as a colonial power at pro-Palestinian demonstrations today: is that a legitimate political statement or anti-Semitism?

When someone uses such terms, you can quickly see what political context they are coming from. I don’t talk like that and I can’t do anything with such bold words because the differences to actual colonialism are quite obvious. I would put it this way: the Palestinians live in a state of dependence on another political group, the Israelis. This dependence has existed for decades and varies greatly depending on the territory. The political situation in the West Bank is different than in Gaza. Gaza’s borders and airspace are controlled by Israel. The United Nations is therefore also talking about an occupation in Gaza, even though Israel withdrew there in 2005. So you can certainly understand why some people talk about colonialism here – but it does more harm than good.

At universities and at demonstrations you often see and hear the phrase “From the River to the Sea – Palestine will be Free”. The Israelis see this as a call for the destruction of their state. Rightly so?

This slogan is intended to convey certain territorial claims from the perspective of the Palestinians. Not everyone who says or writes this sentence has the destruction of Israel in mind. Anyone who adopts such a slogan should not be surprised if they are put in the same corner as the worst anti-Semites. I don’t think it’s particularly wise to express your concerns in such terms. We fundamentally need a different attitude at universities. You make peace with your enemies, not your friends. It takes an openness to the other perspective.

Do slogans like “From the River to the Sea” have to be tolerated as part of freedom of expression?

There has been a very broad understanding of freedom of speech in the United States for about 100 years. In principle, you can say whatever you want as long as it doesn’t directly incite violence. I can’t stand in Harvard Square and say these people are hateful and I can’t turn others against them. But you can deny the Holocaust and say things that are factually wrong and refuted. At universities, the reality of life differs from this legal understanding. Students have increasingly said in recent years that they want to be protected from offensive words and that there needs to be safe places, including on campus.

Protection against extreme language is a demand that comes primarily from the left spectrum. Now Jewish students feel threatened, often from the left.

In fact, this demand originally comes from the left – and the point is that statements from the right-wing spectrum should tend to be restricted. But the other side of course picks up on this and says: We are also being attacked. Jewish groups say we don’t feel safe. Palestinians and people with darker skin say the same thing. It is abundantly clear that physical attacks on students should never be tolerated.

How can debates about the Middle East conflict work at universities?

That depends a lot on who is in the room at the time. I attended an event with supporters of the Palestinian cause who declared that the repatriation of Jews since the 1880s was the great moral evil. I try to talk people out of thinking about history that way. There is no single date on which everything can be fixed. These are decades-long developments that must be viewed in their entirety. I also took part in an event that gave the impression that only terrorists live in Gaza. Occasionally there are events that recognize that two groups claim a region for different reasons.

There is a lot of criticism of the crisis management of the new Harvard President Claudine Gay. How do you perceive this criticism?

I wish the university’s initial statement had been different. The attacks on October 7th should have been condemned immediately and unequivocally – without any ifs or buts. And at the same time, the moral complexity of the Middle East conflict should have been addressed, because decisions are now being made that will influence world politics for many years or decades. Unfortunately, the university did not do this and instead made a deliberately weak statement. And that was a mistake because from that point on the university just kept following.

The conservative camp says that Claudine Gay is too weak, too woke, and that she tolerates anti-Semitism.

I now find the criticism of our president completely excessive. She is now accused of being virtually solely responsible for the many cases of anti-Semitism. That is absurd. A lot has happened at universities in the last few years: Black Lives Matter and MeToo were major social debates – and now the Middle East. Maybe that’s why principals are becoming a little too risk-averse, that’s possible. They know they may have to do damage control for a week or more.

Gay clearly condemned anti-Semitism in a statement at the beginning of November. She is now being sharply criticized for this in a letter from 100 Harvard employees.

We experience waves. At first her reaction to the attacks on October 7th appeared to be too weak, for which she was criticized. Then she reacted unequivocally and was criticized for it. Rectors are just people, and there are fewer and fewer people who still want to do this job. This development concerns me.

What’s next at the universities? This war could last a while.

We have to watch closely how the situation develops. In principle, things can escalate at any time. We live here day by day and try to do our best.

Should there be disciplinary procedures for anti-Semitism?

We have a set of rules for this. Physical violence is clear and such cases should be clearly condemned. Anyone who attacks a fellow student must leave the university. Certain statements could also violate university rules. But how do you deal with someone who speaks out for Hamas? These would be difficult proceedings in which allegations would have to be proven in detail.

But there is no alternative to doing nothing.

No, we urge that people treat each other with respect and accept each other’s opinions. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always work. The problems cannot be solved overnight. But you don’t have to lose hope either.