Published On: Wed, Dec 6th, 2023

Harvard, Penn, MIT leaders answer, skirt tough antisemitism questions


The House Education Committee called the presidents of three elite universities — Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — to a hearing Tuesday and demanded they answer tough questions about antisemitism on campus. Sometimes they answered directly. Sometimes they didn’t.

Lawmakers question Harvard, Penn and MIT presidents on antisemitism

Republicans, who lead the Education and Workforce Committee, did much of the tough questioning, but at least one Democrat did, too. The hearing was called in the wake of a sharp rise in antisemitism on college campuses and elsewhere that flared after the militant group Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200, and Israel invaded Gaza in an assault that has killed over 15,000.

As my Post colleague Nick Anderson reported, the hearing spotlighted presidents Claudine Gay of Harvard, Liz Magill of the University of Pennsylvania and Sally Kornbluth of MIT, who have come under criticism for their response to antisemitism on their campuses.

Here are some excerpts of the hours-long hearing, which include questioning over what constitutes free speech on campus. One legislator asked Gay whether she could tell a set of Jewish parents that their child was safe on her campus.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who did most of the questioning for the Republican side, questioning Harvard President Claudine Gay

STEFANIK: Dr. Gay, a Harvard student calling for the mass murder of African Americans is not protected free speech at Harvard, correct?

GAY: Our commitment to free speech …

STEFANIK interrupts: It’s a yes or no question. Is that okay for students to call for the mass murder of African Americans at Harvard? Is that protected free speech?

GAY: Our commitment to free speech extends …

STEFANIK interrupts: It’s a yes or no question. Let me ask you this. You are president of Harvard, so I assume you’re familiar the term intifada, correct?

GAY: I’ve heard that term, yes.

STEFANIK: And you understand that the use of the term intifada in the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict is indeed a call for violent armed resistance against the state of Israel, including violence against civilians and the genocide of Jews. Are you aware of that?

GAY: That type of hateful speech is personally abhorrent to me.

STEFANIK: And there have been multiple marches at Harvard with students chanting, quote, There is only one solution intifada, revolution, and, quote, globalize the intifada. Is that correct?

GAY: I’ve heard that thoughtless, reckless and hateful language on our campus. Yes.

STEFANIK: So based upon your testimony, you understand that this call for intifada is to commit genocide against the Jewish people in Israel and globally. Correct?

GAY: I will say again, that type of hateful speech is personally abhorrent to me.

STEFANIK: Do you believe that type of hateful speech is contrary to Harvard’s code of conduct, or is it allowed at Harvard?

GAY: It is at odds with the values of Harvard.

STEFANIK: Can you not say here that it is against the code of conduct at Harvard?

GAY: We embrace a commitment to free expression, even of views that are objectionable, offensive, hateful. It’s when that speech crosses into conduct that violates our policies against bullying, harassment, intimidation …

STEFANIK interrupts: Does that speech not cross that barrier? Does that speech not call for the genocide of Jews and the elimination of Israel? When you testify that you understand that is the definition of intifada, is that speech according to the code of conduct or not?

GAY: We embrace a commitment to free expression and give a wide berth to free expression, even of views that are objectionable.

Later Stefanik asked more questions:

STEFANIK: Dr. Gay, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules on bullying and harassment?”

GAY: The rules around bullying and harassment are quite specific. And if the context in which that language is used amounts to bullying and harassment, then we take we take action against it.

STEFANIK: Can you say yes to that question of does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules on bullying and harassment?

GAY: Calling for the genocide of Jews is antisemitic.

GAY: And that is antisemitic speech. And as I have said …

STEFANIK speaks over her: And it’s a yes.

GAY continues: When speech crosses into conduct …

STEFANIK interrupts: It’s a yes. I’ve asked the witness.

GAY continues: When speech crosses into conduct, we take action.

STEFANIK: Is that a yes? … You cannot answer the question.

Stefanik addresses other presidents:

STEFANIK: Dr. Kornbluth, at MIT, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate MIT’s code of conduct or rules regarding bullying and harassment? Yes or no?

KORNBLUTH: If targeted at individuals, not making public statements.

STEFANIK: Yes or no: Calling for the genocide of Jews does not constitute bullying and harassment.

KORNBLUTH: I have not heard calling for the genocide of Jews on our campus.

STEFANIK: But you’ve heard chants for intifada.

KORNBLUTH: I’ve heard chants which can be antisemitic depending on the context when calling for the elimination of the Jewish people.

STEFANIK: So those would not be, according to the MIT’s code of conduct or rules.

KORNBLUTH: That would be investigated as harassment if pervasive and severe.

STEFANIK: Ms. Magill, at Penn, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s rules or code of conduct? Yes or no?

MAGILL: If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment. Yes.

STEFANIK: I am asking, specifically calling for the genocide of Jews, does that constitute bullying or harassment?

MAGILL: If it is directed and severe, pervasive, it is harassment.

STEFANIK: So the answer is yes.

MAGILL: It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman.

STEFANIK: So calling for the genocide of Jews is, depending upon the context, that is not bullying or harassment. This is the easiest question to answer. Yes, Ms. Magill. So is your testimony that you will not answer yes? Yes or no?

MAGILL: If the speech becomes conduct. It can be harassment, yes.

STEFANIK: Conduct meaning committing the act of genocide. The speech is not harassment. This is unacceptable. Ms. Magill, I’m gonna give you one more opportunity for the world to see your answer. Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s code of conduct when it comes to bullying and harassment? Yes or no?

MAGILL: It can be harassment.

STEFANIK: … And Dr. Gay at Harvard? Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment? Yes or no?

GAY: It can be depending on the context.

STEFANIK: What’s the context?

GAY: Targeted at an individual targeted, as at an individual?

STEFANIK: It’s targeted at Jewish students, Jewish individuals. Do you understand your testimony is dehumanizing them? Do you understand that dehumanization is part of antisemitism? I will ask you one more time. Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment? Yes or no?

GAY: Antisemitic rhetoric when it crosses into conduct, that amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation, that is actionable conduct, and we do take action.

STEFANIK: So the answer is yes. That calling for the genocide of Jews violates Harvard Code of Conduct. Correct?

GAY: Again, it depends on the context.

Rep. Donald W. Norcross (D-N.J.) questioning Magill. He makes a brief statement first about antisemitism.

NORCROSS: This is an issue that has been before our country and our world for quite some time. But the one thing I do want to state before I go into my question is the idea of making this a partisan issue is disgusting. This issue has nothing to do with being on a red or a blue team. This is an American issue in terms of what we’re facing on our campuses and shouldn’t be taken under the light of a partisan issue. That being given, I do have some questions, particularly for the University of Pennsylvania and its president, who is within a couple thousand yards of my district. … Back during August, Penn announced plans to host a Palestinian rights festival that was going to be held in September and given that the ADL [Anti-Defamation League] — identified many of the speakers, I believe the number was 25, as antisemitic, this continued to happen. The idea of what happened during that event, after the event and … what is still happening in and around the campus is extremely disturbing given the atrocities that have happened in the Middle East. So, Dr. McGill, did you have the power to stop this event?

MAGILL: Under our approach to academic and free academic freedom and free expression, congressman, we have probably thousands of speakers to campus every single year. Many of them I disagree with. I don’t cancel or censor them in advance of their arrival to campus.

NORCROSS: … So any event on your campus, you would never interfere for the fear of censoring somebody. Is that what you’re suggesting?

MAGILL: Well, congressman, we are, of course, always concerned about safety and security, so that could be a constraint. … It’s a very rare occasion …

NORCROSS interrupts: So there would be times that you would stop an event under the terms of censoring if you, under your opinion or those advising you, there would be a security issue?

MAGILL: Well, our approach is not to censor based on the content, but to worry about things like the safety and security and the time, place and manner in which the event would occur.

NORCROSS: So given what happened in October, you could not see ahead that was going to happen. But the idea that groups coming on that are clearly identified as antisemitic would be of a concern.

MAGILL: I was concerned about the antisemitism of some of the speakers at that conference, and also the timing of that conference was particularly painful because it occurred during the holiest time of the Jewish year. And that’s why in advance of the conference, while saying that we are committed to academic freedom and free expression and the conference would go on, I specifically condemned the antisemitism of some of the speakers.

NORCROSS: Condemning. But you would have the power to stop it if, in your opinion, there was a security issue?

MAGILL: Well, congressman, whether there is a security issue is something that I leave to our public safety individuals, and I defer to their judgments on those matters.

NORCROSS: Did you ask them?

MAGILL: We discuss the security and safety of every large conference that happens on our campus. And yes, we did talk about this one.

NORCROSS: In hindsight, do you think that was a proper decision?

MAGILL: I think canceling that conference would have been very inconsistent with academic freedom and free expression, despite the fact that the views of some of the people who came to that conference, I find very, very objectionable because of their antisemitism.

NORCROSS: Would you permit your academic departments to sponsor a conference of 25 speakers that the NAACP would identify as racist?

MAGILL: Congressman, we follow our policies always, and our policies are guided by the United States Constitution and a commitment to academic freedom and free expression.

NORCROSS: So is that a yes or no answer?

MAGILL: The answer is that we follow our policies.

Rep. Kevin Kiley (R-Calif.) questions Gay

KILEY: Sen. [Chuck] Schumer, in a speech a few days ago, characterized Oct. 7 as a vicious, bloody, premeditated massacre of innocent men, women, children and elderly. Do you agree with that characterization?

GAY: That characterization is accurate. And I have condemned the heinous and barbaric terrorist attack.

KILEY: Sen. Schumer also said when students on college campuses across the country who are wearing a yarmulke or a display of a Jewish star are harassed, verbally vilified, pushed and even spat upon and punched, that is antisemitism. Do you agree with him that that’s antisemitism?

KILEY: Do you acknowledge that some incidents of that nature have been occurring on Harvard’s campus?

GAY: I have been talking with students over the last couple of months, and they have shared searing testimony about some of the things that they have experienced.

KILEY: And I’m glad you’ve made outreach, but if you were talking to a prospective student’s family, a Jewish student’s family right now, could you look them in the eye and tell them that their son or daughter would be safe and feel safe and welcome on your campus.?

GAY: We are absolutely committed to student safety.

KILEY: Yes, but I didn’t ask that question about your commitment. I said, could you look them in the eye right now, the family of a prospective Jewish student, and assure them that their son or daughter would feel safe and welcome on your campus?

(They start to talk over each other)

GAY: We are taking every step to ensure their physical and their psychological safety, and I stand by that.

KILEY: So yes or no to my question? Did you want to answer it? I guess not.

GAY: I answered your question.

KILEY: Would you say that an avowed neo-Nazi is someone that you would want to be part of the Harvard community?

GAY: Those are not consistent with Harvard’s values, but at the same time, we allow a wide berth for free expression.

KILEY: But the question was, would you want such a person who was an avowed neo-Nazi to be part of the Harvard community? Yes or no?

GAY: Those are not consistent with Harvard values.

KILEY: So you would not want such a person to be part of the community.

GAY: Those are not consistent with Harvard values.

KILEY: Would you want someone who has called for the eradication of the Jewish people to be part of the Harvard community?

GAY: Those are not consistent with Harvard values where we are committed to making …

KILEY speaks over Gay: Do you want someone who has called for the elimination of the state of Israel to be part of the Harvard community?

GAY: There is no place at Harvard for antisemitism.

KILEY: But the elimination of the state of Israel. Someone who advocates for that. Is that someone you’d want to be part of the Harvard community?

GAY: There is no place at Harvard for antisemitism.



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