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US University Presidents Face Firestorm Over Evasive Answers on Antisemitism

The presidents of three of the nation’s top universities are facing intense backlash, including from the White House, after they appeared to evade questions during a congressional hearing about whether calls by students for the genocide of Jews would constitute harassment under the schools’ codes of conduct.

In a contentious, hours-long debate on Tuesday, the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) sought to address the steps they were taking to combat rising antisemitism on campus since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war. But it was their careful, indirect response to a question posed by the Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik of New York that drew scathing criticism.

In an exchange that has now gone viral, Stefanik, a graduate of Harvard, pressed Elizabeth Magill, the president of UPenn, on Tuesday to say whether students calling for the genocide of Jews would be disciplined under the university’s code of conduct. In her line of questioning, Stefanik appeared to be conflating chants calling for “intifada” – a word that in Arabic means uprising, and has been used in reference to both peaceful and violent Palestinian protest – with hypothetical calls for genocide.

“If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment,” Magill replied, in a reference to distinctions in first amendment law. “It is a context-dependent decision.” Stefanik pushed her to answer “yes” or “no”, which Magill did not.

The backlash was swift and bipartisan.

“It’s unbelievable that this needs to be said: calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country,” said Andrew Bates, a White House spokesperson. “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.”

The White House was joined by several Jewish officials and leaders in condemning the university presidents’ testimony before the US House committee on education and the workforce, at a hearing called by Republicans titled Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism.

Josh Shapiro, the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, said the simple response was “yes, that violates our policy.” Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Shapiro urged UPenn’s board to meet soon, as a petition calling for Magill’s resignation garnered thousands of signatures. According to CNN, Penn’s board of trustees held an “emergency meeting” on Thursday.

The liberal Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe noted that he rarely agreed with Stefanik, a far-right Trump ally, but wrote: “I’m with her here.”

The Harvard president Claudine Gay’s “hesitant, formulaic, and bizarrely evasive answers were deeply troubling to me and many of my colleagues, students, and friends”. Tribe added.

Republican presidential candidates also seized on the episode, folding it into their broader criticism of the US’s elite institutions as too “woke” and liberal.

In an interview with the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Thursday, Ron DeSantis, who has led the rightwing crackdown on higher education as Florida’s governor, said the college presidents’ lack of moral clarity was a reflection of the liberal orthodoxy permeating higher education.

“I think what this has revealed is the rot and the sickness that’s been festering inside higher education for a long time,” said DeSantis, a graduate of Harvard Law School who is running for president. He continued: “They should not be these hotbeds of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism. But that’s what they’ve become.”

Amid a surge in youth activism around the conflict, university leaders have struggled to balance the free speech of some pro-Palestinian activists with the fears of Jewish students who say the rhetoric crosses a line into antisemitism. In a number of cases, schools have responded by banning campus groups supportive of Palestinian rights.

During their appearances, Magill, Gay and Sally Kornbluth of MIT all expressed alarm at the rise of antisemitism and Islamophobia on college campuses, some of which have triggered federal investigations by the Department of Education. In response, the presidents said they had taken steps to increase security measures and reporting tools while expanding mental health and counseling services. They also said it was their responsibility to ensure college campuses remain a place of free expression and free thought.

In a new statement on Wednesday, Gay stated: “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 group are vile, they have no place at Harvard, and those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account.”

Magill also sought to clarify her remarks to the committee in a video statement, in which she said her response to Stefanik’s question was an attempt to parse the university policies stating that speech alone is not punishable. But in doing so she said she failed to acknowledge the “irrefutable fact” that such speech represents a “call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetuate.

“I want to be clear, a call for genocide of Jewish people is threatening – deeply so,” she said, adding: “In my view, it would be harassment or intimidation.”

In the video, posted to X, Magill said the university’s policies “need to be clarified and evaluated” and committed to immediately convening a process to do so.

Some free speech advocates expressed alarm at the possibility that universities may respond to the backlash by adopting speech-restrictive policies that depart from the protections of the first amendment, which governs government actors including public schools. But the universities at issue in Tuesday’s hearing are all private. Fire, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, called Magill’s comments on re-evaluating Penn’s policies a “deeply troubling, profoundly counterproductive response” to the anger.

“Were Penn to retreat from the robust protection of expressive rights, university administrators would make inevitably political decisions about who may speak and what may be said on campus,” it said in a statement. The result of placing new limits on speech, it said, would mean “dissenting and unpopular speech – whether pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, conservative or liberal – will be silenced”.

Source: The Guardian