College presidents on antisemitism, by Annie Ma

12/21/2023, 6 p.m.
Over five hours at a con- gressional hearing, lawmakers pressed the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and MIT …

Over five hours at a congressional hearing, lawmakers pressed the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and MIT on the topic of anti-semitism. In some instances, they were unable to say whether calls for the genocide of Jews would violate their schools’ conduct policies.

The backlash started almost immediately. Penn’s leader stepped down within days. Harvard’s president was onthe hot seat for nearly a week before a university governing board announced she would stay on the job.

Republicans and Democrats alike criticized responses the presidents gave at the Dec. 5 hearing of a U.S. House committee on antisemitism on college campuses. In particular, the uproar centered on a line of questioning from Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., who repeatedly asked how each university’s code of conduct would handle calls for the genocide of Jews.

Early in the questioning, Rep. Stefanik asked the presidents about chants for “intifada,” an Arabic word for “uprising” or “resistance.” Rep. Stefanik equated calls for an intifada as a call for a global Jewish genocide.

Here is a look at the testimony given by Claudine Gay, of Harvard, Liz Magill of Penn, and Sally Kornbluth of MIT.

Liz Magill of PENN

During the hearing, Rep. Stefanik asked Ms. Magill, “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s rules or code of conduct? Yes or no?”

Ms. Magill repeatedly declined to give a yes or no answer.

She emphasized the university’s policies considered whether “speech turns into conduct,” in which case it would be considered harassment. Rep. Stefanik continued to demand a definitive answer.

Ms. Magill responded that if speech were “directed and severe, pervasive, it is harassment,” and that whether a student would be punished is “a context-dependent decision.”

That answer became a flashpoint of the criticism of Ms. Magill.

The day after the hearing, Ms. Magill said in a video statement released by the university that a call for the genocide of Jewish people would be considered harassment or intimidation.

Still, Penn alumni and donors increased pressure on the board for Ms. Magill to resign, a campaign that dated to earlier in the fall, when the university allowed a Palestinian literary festival to take place on campus despite allegations that some speakers had shown antisemitism in other comments.

Amid growing pressure from donors who said they would pull money from the university, Ms.

Magill and board chairman Scott Bok resigned.

Claudine Gay of Harvard

Dr. Gay, the first Black woman president of the 400-year-old university, also was asked by Rep. Stefanik whether similar speech would violate Harvard’s policies.

She gave a similar response to Ms. Magill, emphasizing that context and whether the speech turned into conduct would factor into any disciplinary decisions.

“Antisemitic rhetoric, when it crosses into conduct, that amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation. That is actionable conduct, and we do take action,” Dr. Gay said.

“So the answer is yes. That calling for the genocide of Jews violates Harvard’s Code of Conduct. Correct?” Rep. Stefanik asked.

Dr. Gay reiterated that it depended on the context.

“It does not does not depend on the context,” Rep. Stefanik responded. “The answer is yes, and this is why you should resign.”

A day after the hearing, Dr. Gay condemned calls for violence against Jewish students in a statement posted by the university to X, formerly Twitter.

Sally Kornbluth of MIT

Dr. Kornbluth also was questioned by Rep. Stefanik about policies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She responded by saying speech targeted at individuals, not public statements, would be considered a violation of bullying and harassment policies.

Rep. Stefanik then asked, “Yes or no: Calling for the genocide of Jews does not constitute bullying and harassment?”

Dr. Kornbluth responded that she had not “heard calling for the genocide of Jews on our campus.”

Rep. Stefanik then asked Dr. Kornbluth whether she had heard demonstrators calling for an intifada.

Palestinians have launched two intifadas against Israel — one in the late 1980s and one in the early 2000s. Both were to protest Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and both involved violence. But since Hamas’ massacre in Israel in October, some Jews have interpreted calls for globalizing the intifada as a call for broader attacks against Jews.

“I’ve heard chants which can be antisemitic, depending on the context when calling for the elimination of the Jewish people,” Rep. Kornbluth said.

Speech would be investigated as harassment if it were “pervasive and severe,” she said.

In a written note to the MIT community two days after the hearing, the chair of the MIT Corporation signaled the executive committee’s support for Rep. Kornbluth, who is Jewish. “She has done excellent work in leading our community, including in addressing antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hate, all of which we reject utterly at MIT,” the statement said.

The writer covers education, race and ethnicity for the Associated Press.