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Harvard, MIT, UPenn have ‘basically been the center’ of campus antisemitism, key GOP congresswoman claims ahead of hearing

Harvard University.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

It won’t be a warm welcome.

After nearly two months navigating campus controversies over the Israel-Hamas war, the leaders of three top universities will head to Capitol Hill Tuesday to face their next crucible — a public hearing before a congressional committee led by Republicans, many of whom are livid over what they describe as rising antisemitism at elite schools.

Congresswoman Virginia Foxx, a conservative Republican from North Carolina who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, claimed in an interview that Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Pennsylvania have “basically been the center of the antisemitic violence and protests,” since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, which killed 1,200 people.

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“We want the college presidents to come to Capitol Hill and answer for how they have handled these horrific and unacceptable protests, and we’d like to hear what they have to say for the responsibility they have to uphold a safe environment for students and staff,” Foxx said.

The hearing comes after rhetoric at campus protests has grown more intense in recent weeks, as Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza has dragged on for nearly two months, killing more than 15,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry.

Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi of Harvard Chabad, a Jewish student organization, said that slogans including “Globalize the intifada” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which have been mainstays of campus protests at Harvard and elsewhere, amount to calls for violence against Jews.

“From the river to sea,” a phrase embraced by Hamas, can be understood as a call for the violent elimination of the state of Israel. The term intifada, for many Israelis and Jews, calls to mind the suicide bombings against Israeli civilians during the Second Intifada, a violent conflict between Israel and Palestinians in the early 2000s.

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But pro-Palestinian activists have argued that these and other chants are calls for liberation and for a return to lands from which Palestinians were expelled. Harvard president Claudine Gay condemned the “river to the sea” phrase.

On a handful of campuses, including at Cornell University and UMass Amherst, Jewish students have allegedly been threatened and physically attacked.

Foxx said she has become increasingly concerned about Jewish students on campuses who say they feel unsafe amid frequent pro-Palestinian protests and rallies.

Foxx said the anti-Israel sentiment sweeping campuses feels like “we are going backwards,” toward a time when Harvard and other campuses implemented admissions quotas for Jewish students.

“One-hundred years ago or more, Jewish students were held to [an admissions] quota for campuses like Harvard, Yale, and others, and they were being discriminated against,” she said. “My guess is there has been a lot of subtle discrimination since then that hasn’t surfaced, but now it has surfaced.”

She said the leaders of the three institutions “should talk about the fact these protests against Jewish students and against Israel are unacceptable,” Foxx said. “They need to set the tone for the universities that this won’t be accepted in the future and we need to make sure that any kinds of speech that might lead to the targeting of students is unacceptable.”

“Every time there has been a pro-Palestinian protest, my understanding is it has within it negative attitudes and sayings, and maybe even actions, against Israelis and Jewish people, so I’m not sure how they would,” allow such protests to continue, Foxx said.

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But free speech advocates were aghast at the idea that constitutionally protected advocacy should be throttled.

Zach Greenberg, an attorney with the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a free speech advocacy group, said in an interview that protests on college campuses since Oct. 7 have “largely been peaceful.”

“When we hear calls to censor pro-Palestinian protests, that is antithetical to free speech,” Greenberg said.

Nadine Bahour, a spokesperson for the Palestine Solidarity Committee, a Harvard student group, said in a statement to The Boston Globe Monday that “it is Harvard’s and every institution’s responsibility to protect and allow organizing, dissent and protest.”

A Harvard spokesperson said in a statement Monday that Gay has accepted the invitation to testify and “looks forward to sharing updates and information on the university’s work to support the Harvard community and combat antisemitism.”

A spokesperson for MIT said president Sally Kornbluth “welcomes the opportunity to engage with Dr. Foxx and her fellow committee members.”

A spokesperson for UPenn said president Liz Magill “understands the critical importance of fighting antisemitism and other forms of hate on Penn’s campus and looks forward to sharing the actions Penn is taking at tomorrow’s hearing.”

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights also recently opened investigations into allegations of antisemitism at Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and several other campuses. The office said on Nov. 16 that it was taking “aggressive action to address the alarming nationwide rise in reports of antisemitism, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, and other forms of discrimination,” at schools.

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At a separate hearing last month about antisemitism on college campuses, some House Republicans said diversity, equity, and inclusion programs are behind the rising antisemitism.

In October, Gay convened a group of advisers, including faculty, staff, alumni, and Jewish religious leaders, to combat antisemitism at Harvard. Gay became Harvard’s first Black president this summer.

“As we grapple with this resurgence of bigotry, I want to make one thing absolutely clear: Antisemitism has no place at Harvard,” Gay said in a recent speech at Harvard Hillel, a Jewish campus group, following blowback to how she initially responded to the Hamas attack. “For years, this university has done too little to confront its continuing presence. No longer.”

Congresswoman Kathy Manning, a Democrat from North Carolina who is a member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said in an interview that such taskforce initiatives are a good step but she wants to see universities provide a “timeline and accountability, and an emphasis on action steps.”

“What I want to hear from college presidents is what action steps are they taking to address the problem of antisemitism,” said Manning, a Harvard graduate who said she has been in touch with current students and alumni. “I want to understand what they are doing immediately in the near-term and long-term.”

A group of pro-Israel Harvard alumni has sent two letters to Gay outlining concerns related to antisemitism on campus. They request that the university adopt a specific definition of antisemitism, and investigate funding sources for pro-Palestinian student groups on campus.

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Foxx, the congressional committee’s chairwoman, said members might also ask the college leaders about Islamophobia on campuses in recent weeks. But she added they aren’t seeing as much evidence for anti-Muslim discrimination on campuses.

Pro-Palestinians student activists have faced backlash over their advocacy since Oct. 7. Some high-profile business leaders have called for some student activists to be blacklisted by employers.

After publishing a controversial statement on Oct. 7 that blamed Israel for “all unfolding violence,” which was broadly seen as justifying the Hamas attack, members of the Palestine Solidarity Committee student group at Harvard received vile, racist emails, according to messages reviewed by the Globe.

On Nov. 26, three Palestinian college students visiting Vermont were shot while wearing keffiyehs and speaking Arabic, an attack that shook many pro-Palestinian student activists. Authorities are investigating to determine whether it was a hate crime.

At MIT, Kornbluth recently launched a commission called “Standing Together Against Hate,” to address antisemitism and other forms of hate.

UPenn has also faced controversies related to the Israel-Hamas war. There, Magill issued a first statement, on Oct. 10, calling the Hamas attack “horrific” and “abhorrent.” Some alumni sharply criticized the statement for not condemning Hamas forcefully enough. Five days later, she issued a second statement that explicitly condemned the attack and labeled it terrorism, and also denounced what she described as rising antisemitism on campus.

But a donor revolt was already building. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr., whose father’s name adorns a prominent campus building, said his family would halt donations to the school. Cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder, whose family helped fund the school’s Lauder Institute, said he would “reexamine” his financial support. Marc Rowan, a private equity titan who has donated more than $50 million to Penn, said he would not give more until Magill stepped down.

Magill has launched an initiative to combat campus antisemitism.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations says that hate incidents against Muslims in the United States have been on the rise in recent weeks. The Anti-Defamation League has recorded dramatic increases in antisemitic incidents across the United States since Oct. 7.

Tensions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been simmering at elite schools for years, with Jewish students saying that pro-Palestinian advocacy often crosses a line and contributes to a hostile environment, while pro-Palestinian students have long alleged an institutional, and donor, bias against their activism.

On Tuesday, college leaders will likely field sharp questions about why so many college students have strong anti-Israel views.

“The amount of antisemitism taking place on college campuses is much worse and more pervasive than I think most people understand,” Manning said. “The fear of Jewish students on campuses is both real and justified.”


Hilary Burns can be reached at hilary.burns@globe.com. Follow her @Hilarysburns. Mike Damiano can be reached at mike.damiano@globe.com.