Torres wants Harvard to be accountable for antisemitism


U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres has written a letter to Harvard University interim president Alan Garber asking the school to address campus antisemitism and do something about a Jewish student from Riverdale who Torres said faced “antisemitic harassment and intimidation” from an employee.

Shabbos “Alexander” Kestenbaum, one of six Jewish students who filed a lawsuit against Harvard earlier this year, received an email, acquired by The Press, from a financial and systems coordinator at the school, Gustavo Espada, who asked him to debate the “Israeli role in 9/11.” Espada later posted a video, posted on TikTok, in which he held up a plastic machete and said in Spanish, “we’re ready to fight,” followed by images of members of the Jewish community, as well as a screenshot of a post from Kestenbaum’s social media.

Torres wrote the incident was far from isolated; pointing out the Anti-Defamation League’s inaugural Campus antisemitism Report Card recently gave Harvard an F.

Espada is “not a psychiatric patient, he’s an employee of Harvard University, which is supposed to be the flagship of higher education in the United States,” Torres told The Press. “Harvard University has a culture of impunity that enables antisemitism, antisemtic harassment and intimidation against Jewish students like Mr. Kestenbaum. My message is ‘enough is enough.’”

Torres said Harvard is normalizing a “hostile environment” for Jewish students and has violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal assistance.

This act is at the center of Harvard students’ lawsuit, which argued the university has become a “bastion of rampant anti-Jewish hatred and harassment.”

“I fully support the lawsuit,” Torres said. “I think there’s clear evidence that there is a pattern and practice of antisemitism at Harvard University that’s too glaring to ignore. The fact that Shabbos Kestenbaum is the only orthodox Jew at the Harvard divinity school is itself evidence of a discriminatory problem.”

Kestenbaum, who is studying religion and public policy, filed the lawsuit with fellow students and law firms Donnelly, Conroy & Gelhaar and Kasowitz Benson Torres — unrelated to the congressman — in January. Kestenbaum described the suit as seeking to hold Harvard accountable for its “systemic and pervasive antsemitism” on campus. The lawsuit was not something that gave him comfort or joy to do, he said, but rather something he felt a responsibility to both himself and other Jewish students.

“We tried working with the administration to no avail, and we view this lawsuit as our last resort,” Kestenbaum, 25, told The Press. “Jews do not want to be treated with special treatment at Harvard. We simply want to be treated with equal treatment and it is abundantly clear that Harvard has not taken our concerns seriously.”

Those acts of antisemitism, according to Kestenbaum, were students bullying and harassing Jewish students, disrupting classrooms to yell “globalize the Intifada,” and physically accosting a Jewish classmate, which he said was caught on video.

Those acts, Kestenbaum said, have not received an appropriate disciplinary response, which, he said, Harvard has previously given to students engaged in other forms of violations.

The night before the spring semester started, Kestenbaum said he was walking through Harvard Yard and found several Israeli hostage posters covered with antisemitic vandalism, including on Kfir Bibas, who was only 10 months old when he was abducted. Kestenbaum shared what he saw both on social media and national media.

The next morning, he received an email from Espada, someone he said he had never heard of, asking to debate the “Israeli role in 9/11.” Espada, a Harvard graduate from 1996, asked Kestenbaum to issue a public correction of the “false claims” he made about the posters on social media and apologize. He also rejected claims he was antisemitic, adding he only hated Israel and Zionism.

“I was so disturbed and caught off guard that I, of course, did not respond,” Kestenbaum said.

Later that day, Espada posted the video with the machete, which included Kestenbaum’s tweet. Kestenbaum reported the incident to both campus and city police, who he said recommended he file a restraining order against Espada.

Harvard never had an open dialogue in any capacity with Kestenbaum to take action, he said.

“In consultation with my legal team, I had to have private armed security outside my house for a number of days because Harvard refused to condemn this,” he said. “To this day, they have not told me (Espada’s) whereabouts or whether he’s employed, so it’s a little frightening.”

Harvard did not respond to a request for comment.

Espada was still listed as an employee on the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations staff page at press time.

The Espada incident and lack of accountability prove the point of the lawsuit, Kestenbaum said, adding the plaintiffs been trying for months to show Harvard campus antisemitism is real.

Those allegations led the House Committee on Education and the Workforce to launch a congressional investigation into the institution.

However, the Harvard Crismon, a student-run daily newspaper at the school, reported Harvard filed a motion in federal court to dismiss the lawsuit on April 12. A 38-page memorandum outlined “tangible steps” the administration has taken to look into and address campus antisemitism, the Crimson reported.

In addition to Kestenbaum’s lawsuit, a complaint filed in February by several students alleged Harvard failed to protect students from anti-Palestinian, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab harassment and intimidation. The Muslim Legal Fund of America filed the complaint and argued Harvard failed to uphold Title VI.

The February complaint said some students faced verbal abuse or had things thrown at them for wearing a keffiyeh, experienced racial profiling from professors and students, as well as a doxxing truck that went around campus with the names of students who allegedly signed an anti-Israel letter following Oct. 7.

Torres told The Press he was not aware of the February complaint but said all students should be protected from intimidation and harassment.

Harvard antisemitism Campus discrimination Ritchie Torres letter Jewish student harassment Harvard lawsuit Antisemitic incidents Title VI violation