A Heartfelt Letter to Harvard’s President, Claudine Gay

Avi Loeb
6 min readDec 10, 2023

--

At the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, there is a rose on every concrete block in memory of the October 7 Israeli victims (Photo taken today, December 10, 2023, by Dr. Frank Laukien, Visiting Scholar at Harvard CCB department and Harvard Origin of Life Initiative).

Dear Claudine,

First, let me state the obvious. We all agree that genocide of Jews is not a matter of context and should be denounced.

Here is where I come from: 65 members of my father’s family, namely all his relatives except for my grandparents, were killed in concentration camps during the holocaust.

Here is the context: my father’s family had its roots in Germany for seven centuries. My grandfather, Albert Loeb — after whom I am named — served as a German Cavalry officer during World War I. He survived the deep mud during the Battle of Verdun and was awarded a medal for his bravery when Hitler rose to power as Germany’s chancellor in 1933. Within a couple of years, there was a gathering in his town Waldeck-Netze, where a member of the Nazi party argued forcefully that the Jews are using up the national resources for their benefit. My grandfather asked the speaker: “How dare you say all of this after you dodged the draft in World War I while I was on the German front?” The speaker replied: “We all know about your patriotic contributions, Mr. Loeb … I was talking about the other Jews.” After hearing this, my grandfather decided to leave Germany. 65 members of the Loeb family stayed there, arguing that they could always take the last train. And, so they did. But this last train led to the concentration camps where they joined the six million Jews who were killed systematically in a mass genocide. Today, there is a street in Waldeck-Netze named in honor of my grandfather, “The Albert Loeb Weg.”

You see, this is why we Jews are very sensitive to the word genocide. We vowed: never again.

My grandfather settled in a farm within a village called Beit Hannan, about a dozen miles away from Tel Aviv, which became part of Israel when it was recognized as the Jewish state in 1948. Israel was meant to serve as a safe haven for the Jewish people in a land that was inhabited by Jews thousands of years earlier, during biblical times. The Israeli Defense Force was established to protect Jews from another holocaust.

My father was a farmer and I always regarded the farm as my “Plan B” in case I would not get tenured at Harvard. But what happened after October 7 at Harvard made me wonder whether I made a mistake since academia is not guided by the principles I had hoped for. Currently, we are all embedded in an Orwellian reality shaped by social media, where the party slogan contradicts the principles it wishes to promote, akin to “War is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.”

At the same time, there is also the actual reality that my family and friends experienced in Israel. On October 7, 2023, an estimated 2,200 rockets were fired towards Israel from Gaza, and some fell on my birth village of Beit Hannan. At the same time, thousands of young people were partying until dawn in the so-called “Supernova music festival”, advertised as “a journey of unity and love” with “mind blowing and breathtaking content”, just hours after the end of Israel’s Sukkot Jewish festival. The festival’s location “stunning for its beauty” was only announced a few hours before: Kibbutz Re’im, 3 miles from the Gaza border. The Hebrew word “Re’im” means friends. In astronomy, a supernova is an exploding star, enriching its environment at the end of its life with the elements it fused at its core throughout its evolution. This defines how I wish to spend the remainder of my scientific life, enriching the world with the wisdom I have gained. As the Sun rose, the party was still in full swing when several small black dots appeared on the horizon of the music festival. As the dots came closer, it became clear they were motorized paragliders approaching from the direction of Gaza. The beat of the music became confused with gunfire as Hamas militants stormed the festival. In panic, people tried to flee, but there were vehicles full of gunmen shooting everywhere and raping women. A young festival attendee, Gili Yoskovich, said she hid under a fruit tree, playing dead for three hours to dodge the gunfire and killings. “I saw people were dying all around. I was very quiet. I didn’t cry, I didn’t do anything”. “I was … breathing, saying: ‘OK, I’m going to die. It’s OK, just breathe, just close your eyes.’” Her name, Gil, means joy in Hebrew, expressing the hope of her parents when she was born that she will have a joyful life. A day later, the Israeli rescue service Zaka said it had retrieved hundreds of bodies from the music festival site.

Just hours later, a coalition of 34 Harvard students organizations said they “hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” For many Israelis, the vicious murder of civilian Jews based on their identity rekindled memories of the dehumanization of Jews in concentration camps during the holocaust. The subsequent rise in antisemitism globally and on Harvard’s campus added a question mark to the rationale underlying Israel’s existence: never again?

So, this is where I come from. The response to existential threats was not context dependent for my grandfather, nor is it for me.

Harvard is my home. I am proud of spending thirty years of my life as an educator and a researcher at Harvard. So why am I emotional about your testimony at the US Congress? Because it feels too close to home on all three levels of my identity: as a Jew, an Israeli-born American and a Harvard professor.

By coincidence, I was visiting Capitol Hill on December 5, 2023, when you were there. My visit was focused on an exciting physics project that I discussed with lawmakers. As I jogged at sunrise on the Arlington Memorial bridge towards the Lincoln Memorial, I was wishing you success in my mind.

Let me offer some hope in the spirit of Judaism. The Messianic Age is characterized by the inspiring prophecy in the Book of Isaiah (2:4): “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” In his Mishneh Torah, the influential Jewish philosopher Maimonides describes the Messianic Era: “And at that time there will be no hunger or war, no jealousy or rivalry. For the good will be plentiful, and all delicacies available as dust…”

My personal belief is that the Messiah will arrive, not necessarily from Brooklyn as some Orthodox Jews believe, but rather from outer space. The extraterrestrial message would likely be that we should stop fighting over territory on the surface of this tiny terrestrial rock because there is much more real estate available to us in space. As noted in my new book “Interstellar”: I am seeking to learn from a higher intelligence in outer space what we could all aspire to be.

Sincerely yours,

Avi Loeb,

A curious farm boy, but also…

Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science

Director, Institute for Theory & Computation
Harvard University

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Image credit: Chris Michel (October 2023)

Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, was published in August 2023.

--

--

Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb is the Baird Professor of Science and Institute director at Harvard University and the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial” and "Interstellar".