One day after the president of Harvard and other university leaders testified before Congress about expressions of antisemitism on their campuses, the White House and a number of lawmakers criticized the academics for not being stronger in their condemnation of hate speech against Jewish people.
The presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology testified before the House Education and Workforce Committee on Tuesday about the rise of anti-Jewish hate speech at their schools. The hearing cast a spotlight on the tensions that have flared at those campuses and elsewhere in the months since Hamas launched a surprise attack Oct. 7 that killed about 1,200 people in Israel.
In a particularly contentious moment, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) asked all three presidents whether calling for the genocide of Jewish people violated their schools’ code of conduct.
Liz Magill, president of the University of Pennsylvania, told Stefanik that this hate speech would violate the school’s code of conduct “if the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment. Yes.”
When pressed by Stefanik to answer more fully, Magill said: “It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman.”
Stefanik posed a similar line of questioning to Harvard President Claudine Gay. Specifically, the New York congresswoman asked Gay about a phrase she said had been chanted on Harvard’s campus: “There is only one solution, intifada revolution and quote, globalize the intifada.”
“Intifada” is an Arabic word for uprising, and a call that many interpret as a call for violence against Israel.
Gay said she had heard “thoughtless, reckless and hateful language on our campus.” Stefanik then asked if this rhetoric violated Harvard’s code of conduct.
“It is at odds with the values of Harvard,” Gay replied. Pressed again on whether it violated Harvard’s code of conduct, Gay said Harvard embraces “a commitment to free expression and [gives] a wide berth to free expression, even of views that are objectionable.” Like Magill, Gay said that, when that kind of “speech crosses into conduct, that violates our policies.”
Gay declined to specify what actions, if any, the university has taken against students who have made such remarks.
MIT President Sally Kornbluth said speech calling for the genocide of Jews would violate MIT’s policy “if targeted at individuals, not making public statements.” When pressed by Stefanik, Kornbluth added that this speech “would be investigated as harassment if pervasive and severe.”
On Wednesday, a White House spokesman issued a statement that appeared to criticize the university presidents for not denouncing antisemitic speech and incidents of antisemitism on their campuses more strongly.
“It’s unbelievable that this needs to be said: calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country,” deputy White House press secretary Andrew Bates said in the statement. “Any statements that advocate for the systematic murder of Jews are dangerous and revolting — and we should all stand firmly against them, on the side of human dignity and the most basic values that unite us as Americans.”
While visiting a Jewish-owned restaurant in Philadelphia that was the site of a pro-Palestinian protest over the weekend, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) condemned Magill’s testimony before Congress, telling reporters Wednesday that she made an “unacceptable statement” and that her actions were “failed leadership.”
“Frankly, I thought her comments were absolutely shameful,” Shapiro said. “It should not be hard to condemn genocide.”
Shapiro added that Penn’s board of directors must now make a “serious decision” on whether Magill should continue representing the institution.
“I think they need to meet, and meet soon, to make that determination,” he said.
Stefanik told Fox News on Wednesday that the presidents of all three universities “don’t deserve the dignity of resigning — they need to be fired.”
“I asked the question in such a way that it was an easy ‘Yes,’ that calling for the genocide of Jews, in fact, does violate their policies and code of conduct when it comes to bullying and harassment,” she said. “And their answers were pathetic.”
In a post shared on X, formerly known as Twitter, Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) said it was “stunning that these university presidents can’t give the right answer to a simple question.”
“Can you imagine being a Jewish student on these campuses?” Gottheimer asked in the social media post.
Many college and university leaders have searched for the right words and actions to comfort their communities since the war in Gaza began. On campus, antisemitism is not the only concern for these leaders. They also are seeking to prevent Islamophobia and other forms of bias and hatred while safeguarding freedom of expression for faculty members and students in a time of vigils, demonstrations and confrontations.
The rebuke from the White House spokesman comes as Democrats have faced increasing tension within the party over support for a cease-fire in the war, and calls to curb or add conditions to additional U.S. aid to Israel. In a Tuesday letter to his colleagues, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — who has been calling for conditions on the billions of dollars the Biden administration requested for Israel in its war against Hamas — signaled that he will oppose any aid for Israel if such guardrails are not put in place.
President Biden now routinely faces protesters who want him to support a cease-fire, and not just a temporary pause in fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) warned that antisemites are “taking advantage of the pro-Palestinian movement to espouse hatred and bigotry toward Jewish people.”