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Dropping Harvard ‘assault’ case would be justice

In a season of protests, this one didn’t stand out as especially dramatic.

Last Oct. 18, approximately 100 students and activists held a “die-in” on the grounds of Harvard Business School in Brighton to protest attacks on civilians in Gaza, in the wake of the Oct.7 attack on Israel by Hamas.

As protesters lay on the ground, others noticed that they were being filmed. A chant rose up for the photographer to exit the protest, and two students attempted to block the filming, with at least one of them using his kaffiyeh, a traditional Muslim scarf, in an effort to block the camera lens.


The alleged victim was a Harvard graduate student named Yoav Segev. Two alleged assailants, both fellow Harvard graduate students, have since been criminally charged with one charge of assault and one civil rights violation in Brighton District Court.

Though the incident attracted little local notice at the time, it immediately became a cause celebre in right-wing circles, which are suddenly aghast at the supposed failure of colleges to address antisemitism on campus. Congresswoman Elise Stefanik — Harvard’s designated tormentor — even wrote a letter to the school’s leadership accusing the school of dragging its feet on imposing punishment.

The students who have been charged are Elom Tettey-Tamaklo, a second-year student at Harvard Divinity School, and Ibrahim Bharmal, a dual-degree student at Harvard Law School and the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

When I spoke with them this week, they stressed that they had not assaulted Segev but have nonetheless been subject to death threats and online abuse for months.

“It’s been very intense — one of the hardest periods of my life, honestly,” Tettey-Tamaklo told me. “I had homophobic threats, racial slurs, multiple times the n-word was used against me, because of how the story had been presented.”


It hasn’t been any better for Bharmal, the second-year law student. He used the word “scary” multiple times to describe being targeted in response to this incident. The threats he’s received often make reference to his Muslim background.

“I still have a lot of anxiety when I get a call without a caller ID or identification, just holding my breath that it’s not another death threat.”

There is readily available video of the incident online — thanks in no small part to the Washington Free Beacon, a right-leaning news outlet that has regularly assailed Harvard, using what may as well be Stefanik’s talking points.

But the video is not nearly as dramatic as the talking points around it. It basically shows a group of people telling someone shooting video for unknown — possibly nefarious — purposes to get lost. As a journalist, I’ve dealt with plenty of crowds more hostile than that one.

They were charged by Harvard University Police in Brighton District Court. But the real question is what happens next. And the decision about whether to pursue this case or drop it rests now with Suffolk DA Kevin Hayden.

As someone who has covered crime in Suffolk County for decades, I’ll just say this: I can’t remember a weaker assault case. Not only does this case not clear the bar for prosecution, it doesn’t even approach it.

Assault by scarf? Please stop it.

I am not trivializing the issues of violent crime or antisemitism. Rather, I believe both causes are trivialized by latching onto something as minor as this in hope of making some larger point.


Both students told me they were protesting as a matter of conscience, struck by suffering they believe anyone should oppose.

“The reason I speak up, the reason I lift my voice, is because I think all people need to be safe, need to be protected, need to be cared for,” Tettey-Tamaklo said. “Folks in Gaza, folks in Palestine, folks in Israel. This case is not representative of who I am, or what my beliefs are, or how I try to approach the world.”

Bharmal said he worries that a criminal conviction could potentially derail a law career. He noted wryly that not many lawyers or potential lawyers have stood in the shoes of a defendant.

“I’m trying my best to see the lessons for this in future advocacy,” he said.

Of course, both Bharmal and Tettey-Tamaklo support a cease-fire in Gaza. That goal seems elusive. But an end to the battle they find themselves in shouldn’t be.

In a moment of agonizing moral dilemmas, ending this case doesn’t feel like one of them.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him @Adrian_Walker.