Navigating Controversy: College Presidents Face Backlash for Sidestepping Antisemitic Inquiries

Navigating Controversy: College Presidents Face Backlash for Sidestepping Antisemitic Inquiries

In a tense congressional hearing this Wednesday, the leaders of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology faced a direct question: would they take action against students advocating for the extermination of Jews? Surprisingly, their responses seemed evasive and legalistic, prompting skepticism from the audience. As the four-hour hearing unfolded, their reluctance to provide clear answers caused a swift decline in public support.

Expressing a sentiment of disbelief, White House spokesman Andrew Bates remarked, “It’s unbelievable that this needs to be said: Calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country.”

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Josh Shapiro, criticized the responses of Elizabeth Magill, the president of Penn, deeming them “unacceptable.” The statements reflect a broader concern and condemnation of the apparent reluctance to address a matter of grave importance.

Surprising alliances emerged during a recent exchange at a congressional hearing, as liberal academic Laurence Tribe found common ground with Representative Elise Stefanik, a Republican from New York. Tribe, a Harvard law professor, took to the social media site X to express his agreement with Stefanik’s pointed questioning of Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay.

Tribe criticized Gay’s responses as “hesitant, formulaic, and bizarrely evasive,” expressing deep concern. The unusual alignment highlights the widespread dissatisfaction with Gay’s handling of the questions, resonating not only with political adversaries but also within academic circles.

During the congressional hearing, Dr. Gay, Ms. Magill, and Sally Kornbluth from M.I.T. expressed their condemnation of antisemitism and pledged to combat it on campus. When queried about supporting Israel’s right to exist, they unequivocally affirmed their agreement. However, when confronted with the delicate issue of disciplining students for advocating genocide, they provided nuanced, lawyerly responses, navigating the complexity of free speech concerns.

While supporters of academic freedom considered these responses legally sound, many Jewish students, alumni, and donors, who had observed pro-Palestinian protests on campus with apprehension, criticized the university presidents for not speaking out more forcefully against antisemitism during a crucial political moment.

 Navigating Controversy: College Presidents Face Backlash for Sidestepping Antisemitic Inquiries

Governor Shapiro expressed frustration on Wednesday, stating that condemning genocide, including that against Jews, should be straightforward.

He emphasized the importance of leaders demonstrating moral clarity, asserting that Penn’s President, Liz Magill, failed to meet this basic test. Calling for a clear one-word answer, Shapiro’s criticism escalated, leading to a petition for Magill’s resignation amassing over 3,000 signatures.

Marc Rowan, board chair at the Wharton School of Business and chief of Apollo Global Management, urged the board of trustees to withdraw their support for Magill, questioning the potential damage to the university’s reputation. Governor Shapiro, a non-voting member of Penn’s board, called for an urgent board meeting, reportedly to be held by phone this week.

The university has yet to comment on these developments. Magill faced particular scrutiny due to her extended exchange with Representative Stefanik, who highlighted campus protests where students chanted support for “intifada,” a term many Jews perceive as a call to violence against them.

Representative Stefanik asked Ms. Magill a straightforward question: “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s rules or code of conduct, yes or no?”

Ms. Magill, a lawyer who joined Penn last year to support free speech, responded, “If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment.”

Pressed further, Stefanik asked if calling for the genocide of Jews constitutes bullying or harassment, to which Magill replied, “If it is directed, severe, and pervasive, it is harassment.”

Stefanik insisted, “So the answer is yes.” However, Magill stated, “It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman.”

Stefanik expressed disbelief, stating, “That’s your testimony today? Calling for the genocide of Jews depends upon the context.”

Senator Bob Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, strongly criticized President Magill’s comments on Wednesday, stating that her remarks were offensive and that her failure to outright condemn the call for the genocide of Jews was equally offensive. He emphasized that while free speech is a fundamental right, calling for genocide is unequivocally antisemitic and harassment.

Senator John Fetterman, another Pennsylvania Democrat, characterized the testimony as a significant failure, rejecting the notion of ‘both sides-ism’ and emphasizing that it’s not free speech but hate speech. He called for leaders to reflexively condemn antisemitism and stand up for communities facing such invective.

Magill issued an apology on Wednesday evening, acknowledging that she had focused on university policies aligned with the U.S. Constitution during her testimony, which emphasizes that speech alone is not punishable. However, she admitted her oversight in not emphasizing the undeniable fact that calling for the genocide of Jewish people is a call for horrendous violence. Magill termed it as “evil” and stated that, in her view, it would be considered harassment or intimidation. She announced that Penn would conduct a thorough examination of its policies.

Both Dr. Gay and Dr. Kornbluth faced similar questions about genocide. Dr. Gay echoed the idea that whether calling for the genocide of Jews violated Harvard’s conduct rules depends on the context.

During the congressional hearing, Dr. Kornbluth initially responded, “I have not heard calling for the genocide of Jews on our campus.” However, Representative Stefanik pointed out chants for intifada, to which Dr. Kornbluth acknowledged hearing chants that could be antisemitic depending on the context, particularly when calling for the elimination of the Jewish people.

Legal director Will Creeley from FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, noted that the three presidents were “legally correct” in stating that it depends on the context. However, he expressed frustration, stating it was disappointing to see them emphasize free speech under congressional scrutiny rather than in a more principled manner.

The mention of context sparked anger among many Jewish groups, with Penn Hillel issuing a statement, expressing their appall at the need to state the obvious: calls for genocide against Jews should not depend on the context.

Jacob Miller, the student president of Harvard Hillel, expressed disappointment, calling the testimony a slap in the face due to the missed opportunity for a clear and easy answer.

Meanwhile, billionaire hedge fund manager and Harvard alumnus Bill Ackman strongly criticized the presidents’ responses, particularly their reliance on context regarding genocide discussions. He called for the resignation of all three presidents, citing these exchanges as extraordinary and emphasizing that such answers would lead to immediate dismissal in the corporate world.

M.I.T. did not respond to requests for comment. However, Dr. Gay from M.I.T. attempted to address the situation with a new statement on Wednesday.

Dr. Gay addressed the confusion between the right to free expression and Harvard’s stance on condoning violence against Jewish students. She emphasized that calls for violence or genocide against any religious or ethnic group, including the Jewish community, are vile and have no place at Harvard. Dr. Gay asserted that those who threaten Jewish students will be held accountable.

However, her statement did not specify what actions would be considered a threat, leaving ambiguity about whether chants like “There is only one solution: intifada, revolution” would meet the defined criteria, a point Representative Stefanik argued during the congressional hearing.

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