Chair of Harvard University History Department Belongs to Group Behind Grotesque Anti-Semitic Cartoon

Sidney Chalhoub pledged to support 'Palestinian liberation' as part of Harvard Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine

Sidney Chalhoub (Dilma Rousseff/Wikimedia Commons), Harvard's FSJP's anti-Semitic cartoon (@harvardfsjp/Instagram)
February 20, 2024

The chairman of Harvard University's history department is a member of a faculty group, Harvard Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine, that posted an anti-Semitic cartoon over the holiday weekend depicting a hand emblazoned with the Star of David holding a noose around the necks of one black man and one Arab man. In the background, a black arm swings a machete scrawled with the phrase, "liberation movement."

The image was posted alongside a message from the faculty group arguing that blacks and Palestinians are natural allies: "African people have a profound understanding of apartheid and occupation," it read.

Several prominent members of the Harvard faculty belong to the group, including History Department chairman Sidney Chalhoub. The Brazilian historian has sparred with Harvard leadership in the wake of Hamas's Oct. 7 attack on Israel—in November, he signed a letter condemning the school's "Combating Antisemitism" initiative, which he and other signees called "dangerously one-sided."

As chair of Harvard's history department, Chalhoub "play[s] a key role in the life of the department," according to a 2022 university handbook. He is responsible for developing the department's "curricular plan"—the history classes Harvard will offer—as well as recruiting and promoting faculty and overseeing "the process for graduate student admissions." Chalhoub also resolves "departmental disputes," holds "regular department meetings and social occasions that help to build community," and monitors "tenure-track faculty," according to the handbook.

Harvard condemned the image on Monday, calling it "despicable," and the faculty group said it did not "condone" the images "in any way." Yet Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine circulated an amended graphic with an image of Stokely Carmichael, a Black Panther Party leader who praised Adolf Hitler in 1970 as the "greatest white man" and later complained, in a 1990 address, that "zionist pigs have been harassing us everywhere."

Chalhoub did not respond to a request for comment.

The ordeal comes as Harvard grapples with a federal investigation into its handling of campus anti-Semitism, an issue that contributed to former president Claudine Gay's resignation in December. Gay's replacement, interim president Alan Garber, responded in January by announcing the formation of an anti-Semitism task force.

Chalhoub's history department colleague, Derek Penslar, leads the task force. It is unclear if Penslar and his group plan to address the Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine post—Harvard's Presidential Task Force on Combating Antisemitism did not respond to a request for comment.

In its statement, the Harvard Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine said it "has come to our attention that a post featuring antiquated cartoons which used offensive antisemitic tropes was linked to our account." The group declined to name the individual responsible for posting the image to its Instagram account.

The image originated from two Harvard student groups, the Palestine Solidarity Committee and the African and African-American Resistance Organization. While both groups apologized, saying they "regret inadvertently including an image that played upon antisemitic tropes," neither said who had created and posted the image. On Monday, Harvard Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine reposted the Palestine Solidarity Committee and African and African-American Resistance Organization's apology statement, which included the updated graphic featuring Carmichael.

In a follow-up statement issued Tuesday evening, the two student groups said the anti-Semitic cartoon originated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a defunct organization that was associated with the Black Panther Party and led by Carmichael. While the groups said the cartoon "should have never been published to begin with," blaming "a combination of ignorance and inadequate oversight," they again refrained from naming who created and posted the graphic.

Chalhoub and other Harvard faculty members launched Harvard Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine in January, vowing to support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement and rally behind "the cause of Palestinian liberation." While the group's founding statement initially included a list of its 112 members, the group removed that list from its statement amid backlash over the anti-Semitic cartoon.

An archived version of the statement shows that Chalhoub is not the group's only prominent member. Walter Johnson, a fellow history professor who directed Harvard's Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, is the group's faculty sponsor. Harvard law professor Duncan Kennedy is also a member.

Johnson spoke at a student-led "sit-in" against the Jewish state in November, and he also signed a letter defending the use of the slogan, "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free."

A number of Harvard professors condemned Harvard Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine's anti-Semitic cartoon.

"Note to Harvard faculty members of 'Harvard Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine'—it's good you apologized for the grossly anti-Semitic cartoon you put up, but you should be deeply embarrassed and question your membership in a group that could do this 'inadvertently,'" Harvard Medical School professor Jeffrey Flier wrote Tuesday.

Harvard declined to comment beyond its public statement on the cartoon, which said the school is "determined to combat any such hate and bias in our community."

"The matter is being reviewed by the University and is being referred to the Harvard College Administrative Board, which is responsible for the application and enforcement of undergraduate regulations and social conduct," the statement said.

Harvard Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine's full membership roster can be viewed here.