Ivy League presidents scramble to fix congressional antisemitism flap

After hedging when asked whether 'calling for the genocide of Jews' constitutes bullying, three university leaders shift into damage control

Harvard President Claudine Gay and Penn president Liz Magill
Tuesday's contentious hearings came as the Education Department launched a suite of investigations into alleged instances of campus antisemitism and Islamophobia
(Image credit: Haiyun Jiang / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Three of the nation's most prominent university presidents are scrambling to address the growing furor over their appearance at a House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing over instances of antisemitism on college campuses. While Harvard University president Claudine Gay, University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill and Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Sally Kornbluth spent hours on Tuesday testifying about their schools' respective policies around discrimination, antisemitism, and Islamophobia within the context of the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, several exchanges in particular have become a flash point for — and a Rorschach test of — allegations that some of the highest regarded educational institutions tolerate violent rhetoric toward Jewish students. 

Asked whether "calling for the genocide of Jews violate[s] Penn's rules or code of conduct, yes or no?" by Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), Magill initially equivocated, parsing the differences between speech and action, ultimately telling Stefanik that it's a "context-dependent decision."

At another point in the hearing, Harvard's Gay expressed personal abhorrence to certain terms associated with pro-Palestinian movements which have been interpreted by some as advocating antisemitism and violence against Jewish people. Like Magill, however, Gay hedged on whether such instances expressly warranted action on the part of the university.  

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Tuesday's contentious hearings came as the Education Department launched a suite of investigations into alleged instances of campus antisemitism and Islamophobia, the "first investigations of this kind by the Department of Education since the October 7 Hamas terror attack on Israel," according to CNN

'Lawyerly responses to a tricky question'

In a short video posted after Tuesday's appearance, Magill offered a direct mea culpa for focusing on Penn's "longstanding policies aligned with the U.S. Constitution" instead of "the irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate." In order to "get it right," Magill promised to "convene a process" for examining her school's existing policies. 

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While First Amendment advocates hailed the university presidents' statements as "legally correct," their "lawyerly responses to a tricky question involving free speech" ultimately "failed to meet the political moment" for many observers, according to The New York Times.

While House Republicans' intent "from the outset was to publicly ridicule the presidents," the trio of witnesses "managed to underwhelm, alienate and incense much of the U.S. Jewish community" Haaretz reporter Ben Samuels wrote, describing the presidents' effort to "answer the often hostile grilling with nuanced answers."

Whether undone by a lawyerly commitment to nuance or not, the presidents' House testimony earned rebukes from across the political spectrum, including from the White House, which stressed that calls for genocide of any kind are "monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country." Billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, a Harvard graduate whose thesis focused on the Jewish and Asian American experience at the prestigious school, called on all three presidents to "resign in disgrace," while Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, called Magill's responses "unacceptable." 

'Think critically about who they want [...] as their advocates'

Allowing that he was "no fan" of Rep. Stefanik, liberal legal scholar Laurence Tribe, a professor emeritus at Harvard Law, nevertheless lauded the congresswoman for her performance on Tuesday, writing that Gay's "hesitant, formulaic, and bizarrely evasive answers were deeply troubling."

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Tribe's tempered endorsement notwithstanding, those hailing Stefanik would be well served to "remember their new leading advocate has platformed some of the most vile antisemitic conspiracy theories of recent memory," Haaretz's Samuels wrote in a separate essay highlighting the congresswoman's endorsement of the "great replacement" theory that inspired the 2018 mass murder at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue. As chair of the House Republican Conference, Stefanik has "encouraged the false conflation and generalization of any and all criticism of Israel with antisemitism, all while failing to address antisemitism within her own party."

Journalist Emily Tamkin agreed, writing on X, formerly Twitter, that "university presidents [should] be able to condemn antisemitism." But Tamkin, author of Bad Jews: A HIstory of American Jewish Politics and Identities, added that they should be able to do so "while calling out bad faith conflations, gotchas, etc from bad faith actors."

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