The presidents of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) are responding to a backlash against their testimonies on campus anti-Semitism at the United States Congress.
In a five-hour hearing on Monday, Harvard’s Claudine Gay and Penn’s Elizabeth Magill, joined by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) President Sally Kornbluth, testified on how their colleges are combating campus anti-Semitism – which observers say has been on the rise since Hamas’s October 7 attack.
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The testimonies have made the presidents – particularly Gay and Magill – targets of criticism from supporters of Israel and Palestine alike, with some even calling for resignations or legal action.
House members contested that under the guise of free speech protections guaranteed under the First Amendment of the US Constitution, anti-Semitic comments and behaviour have been enabled within their college communities. Meanwhile, pro-Palestinian students have pushed back, saying that calls for Palestinian liberation should not be conflated with anti-Semitism.
What did the presidents of Harvard, MIT and Penn say?
- All three presidents were repeatedly questioned in the congressional hearing about what kinds of expression and values they allow on campus. The presidents maintained that they are committed to free expression and a diversity of viewpoints, even if comments are “offensive” so long as speech does not cross into conduct or calls for violence.
- They also said that action is already under way to support students facing threats, and to hold code of conduct violators to account. The presidents noted that Muslim and Arab students on their campuses have also been experiencing high levels of threat and grief since the October 7 attack.
- Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, a Harvard alum and the college’s toughest critic on the panel, asserted that campus members call for the genocide of Jews when they chant phrases such as “from the river to the sea” and “Intifada” – a term she described as a “call for violent armed resistance” against Israel and Jews. Intifada is an Arabic word that translates to “uprising” and involves freedom from occupying powers.
- Gay said that terms such as Intifada are “personally abhorrent” to her and at odds with Harvard’s values, but do not violate the code of conduct. She also rejected characterisations that Harvard ranks low for free expression.
- When asked if calling for the genocide of Jews counts as bullying or harassment under code of conduct rules, Gay, Magill and Kornbluth, who is Jewish, said it would depend on the context and would violate rules if directed towards an individual, and if the calls were “severe and pervasive”. Stefanik grilled Magill over not answering yes to what she called “the easiest question” possible.
- Chairwoman Virginia Foxx asked each president if they recognised Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish nation, to which they agreed.
How did Harvard’s President Gay respond after the hearing?
In a statement posted to X hours Wednesday night, Gay said that commitments to free expression do not entail condoning calls for violence or genocide.
She added that “those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account”. Gay had also mentioned at the hearing that disciplinary action was under way against people who were possibly violating the university code of conduct – although the details of the cases and their political leanings were not shared.
Statement from President Gay: There are some who have confused a right to free expression with the idea that Harvard will condone calls for violence against Jewish students. Let me be clear: Calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or any religious or ethnic…
— Harvard University (@Harvard) December 6, 2023
How is Penn President Magill responding?
In a video statement posted to X on Thursday morning, Magill promised to review Penn’s code of conduct after declining to say whether advocating genocide was a violation at the hearing.
Magill said that at the time of the hearing, she was focused on longstanding values of free speech but that calls for genocide against Jewish people are “evil” and “threatening”.
Magill said that she will convene with the university’s provost to re-evaluate the code of conduct in light of how solidarity groups and campus members have been addressing the Israel-Gaza war.
A Video Message from President Liz Magill pic.twitter.com/GlPE3QZU4P
— Penn (@Penn) December 6, 2023
How are others reacting?
Gay and Magill’s statements have been labelled as too little, too late by some, who questioned why they did not clearly state these values at the Congress hearing. Students and alumni have also been calling on the two to resign, while a lawsuit has also been filed against Penn.
An online petition that was launched prior to Magill’s statement and has more than 8,000 signatures, demands that Penn’s Board of Trustees force Magill to resign due to her “inability to unequivocally condemn calls for the genocide of Jewish students and inability to identify these as harassment”.
Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, a nonvoting member of Penn’s Board of Trustees, also told reporters on Wednesday that the board would have a “serious decision” to make regarding Magill’s statements.
“They have seemingly failed every step of the way to take concrete action to make sure all students feel safe on campus,” said Shapiro. “And then the testimony yesterday took it to the next level.”
On Tuesday, two Penn students also filed a federal lawsuit against the university accusing it of violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and specific employees, including Magill, of being “responsible for the anti-Semitic abuse permeating the school”.
Late on Wednesday, Harvard University’s Palestine Solidarity Committee released a joint statement with Penn’s Students Against Occupation and several other Jewish groups. The response said that the hearing distracted from the genocide in Gaza, and “real manifestations of anti-Jewish hatred” that the groups “vehemently oppose”, while also justifying anti-Palestinian racism.
Pfizer CEO, Albert Bourla said he was “ashamed” to hear the testimonies in a post on X on Wednesday.