Rhodes Scholarship Recipient Is Leading Harvard's Anti-Israel Encampment

'We're here to stay … until Palestine is free,' says Asmer Asrar Safi

Asmer Safi (via
May 10, 2024

A Pakistani Rhodes Scholar at Harvard College is one of the key organizers of the school's anti-Israel encampment.

Asmer Asrar Safi, a Harvard senior and international student from Pakistan, has distinguished himself as a primary organizer of the ongoing encampment, which has successfully maintained its presence for over two weeks. Months earlier, in November, Harvard congratulated Safi on being named a Rhodes Scholar, highlighting his intention to study "progressive political messaging" at the University of Oxford. Harvard students interested in applying for the Rhodes Scholarship must first receive the Ivy League school's endorsement, a selective process in which half of Harvard's prospective applicants are rejected.

Safi is an organizer with the Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine coalition, an anti-Israel group leading the encampment. In an interview with the Boston Party for Socialism and Liberation, conducted on the first day of the encampment, Safi outlined the group's demands—mainly that the Ivy League school divest from Israel and pledge not to punish anti-Israel protesters who have violated university policies. He went on to say that students at the encampment are there to stay until Harvard meets their demands.

"We have three demands," said Safi. "The first is that Harvard disclose all of its investments in occupied Palestine. The second demand is that it divest from all said investments and reinvest them in the propagation of Palestinian art, academia, literature, and culture. And the third demand is that it drops all disciplinary and legal charges against individuals for their student activism and advocacy."

"Our idea is to show the world that despite that repression, pro-Palestine students will keep coming out and keep speaking out for the people of Gaza," Safi went on. "We're here to stay and stand ground and demand divestment until Palestine is free."

A week later, the now-suspended undergraduate Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee—for which Safi is also an organizer—posted a video of Safi leading chants against the school administrators, including interim president Alan Garber. Safi's Palestine Solidarity Committee is also the student group behind the infamous Oct. 8 statement that blamed Israel for provoking Hamas's terror attack. The statement said the Jewish state is "entirely responsible for all unfolding violence" and the "apartheid regime is the only one to blame."

Garber on Monday told protesters encamped on campus that they must disband or would be placed on "involuntary leave," after nearly two weeks of chaos on campus. Four days later, according to the Palestine Solidarity Committee, Harvard began issuing suspension notices to student protesters, "effective immediately." It is unclear whether Safi is among those suspended and, if so, how that affects his visa status, upcoming graduation, and Rhodes Scholarship.

Safi's role in the anti-Israel occupation comes as the Rhodes Scholarship program is facing scrutiny over its apparent political bent. A recent analysis from the American Enterprise Institute found that just 1 of the 157 Rhodes scholars over the past five years expressed interest in a conservative issue. Centrist issues are similarly outnumbered. The AEI analysis found that immigrants' rights received more interest from Rhodes Scholars than cybersecurity, mental health, and national security combined.

At Harvard, prospective Rhodes applicants must receive approval from a two-tiered endorsement committee before they are allowed to apply. After securing Harvard's endorsement, Safi flew 7,000 miles to Pakistan for his interview and was subsequently selected as one of his nation's two Rhodes Scholars. His Rhodes profile notes that at Harvard he majored in "Social Studies and Ethnicity, Migration and Human Rights, with a focus on the intellectual history of the interactions between Islamic and Marxist political thought in South Asia."

Neither Safi nor Harvard responded to requests for comment.

Safi was listed last month as one of the two student organizers behind a petition that triggered a referendum asking students whether Harvard should divest from entities linked to "Israel's occupation of Palestine." In an interview with the Harvard Crimson, Safi said he helped draft the petition in response to similar resolutions from the Harvard Law School Student Government and Harvard Divinity School Student Association. Those resolutions call on the Ivy League school to divest from "illegal Israeli settlements," and Safi said he hopes to "capitalize off of [the resolutions'] momentum."

"One thing that we want to definitely emphasize is that Harvard has a responsibility to listen to us," Safi said.

Safi's anti-Israel activism at Harvard goes back to 2021, when he authored an op-ed for the Crimson. He accused Israel's "apartheid regime" of imposing "a hegemonic, authoritarian rule over Palestinians." That year, he also signed a divestment statement that called on the university to remove its "nearly $200 million in public, direct and indirect investments in companies that are involved in the illegal Israeli settlement enterprise."

In 2022, meanwhile, Safi appeared in a series of now-archived Palestine Solidarity Committee videos in which he told listeners that it is their "duty" and "role" to "stand up, fight back, and stand in solidarity with Palestinians."

"Given the precise state-sponsored nature of the violence that ensues against Palestinians every single day—and the fact of the matter is that the Israeli government sponsors a settler colonial project—it is very pertinent for us to understand about how particular this power dynamic exists," Safi said in one video. "And as a consequence of that, it is very important for us to realize that it is our job as allies to stand up and speak up in solidarity with Palestinians across the world."