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‘It’s a yes or no question’: GOP lawmakers berate Harvard, MIT, UPenn presidents on campus antisemitism

Lawmakers grill Harvard, MIT presidents on rise in antisemitism
WATCH: University leaders condemned the Hamas attack on Israel and defended their campus response to protests. Reporters Hilary Burns and Mike Damiano explain.

WASHINGTON — The leaders of three top universities faced fiery congressional questioning Tuesday about antisemitism and ideological diversity on their campuses, with conservative lawmakers accusing them of fostering an environment where, the Republicans claimed, intimidation of Jews is tolerated, as the Israel-Hamas war rages.

“Institutional antisemitism and hate are among the poisoned fruits of your institutions’ cultures,” Representative Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican, said to Harvard University president Claudine Gay, MIT president Sally Kornbluth, and University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill.

The university leaders acknowledged that antisemitism, as well as Islamophobia, is on the rise in society and on their campuses and said they had sometimes stumbled in recent weeks while trying to walk the line between protecting free speech and prohibiting what some view as hateful rhetoric.

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Striking that balance “is challenging and the results can be terribly uncomfortable,” said Kornbluth, whose campus has been roiled by protests including a student “blockade” last month of a prominent campus building. “But it is essential to how we operate in the United States.”

The hearing came at a time of intensifying campus protests over Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, where Israeli strikes have killed more than 15,000 Palestinians, including thousands of children, many buried under the rubble of their homes, according to Gazan authorities.

It also came nearly two months since some student groups sparked controversy when they issued statements that some saw as justifying or even celebrating the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel that killed about 1,200 people and included the murder of families, including children, in their homes.

The protests, many calling for a cease-fire and criticizing what protesters describe as Israeli oppression of Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied West Bank, have also featured controversial chants that some view as calls for violence against Jews and Israeli civilians. The chants — including “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” a slogan embraced by Hamas — have forced university leaders to perform difficult balancing acts, weighing free expression against the claims from some Jewish students that their peers’ speech crosses the line into blatant antisemitism.

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In one of the hearing’s most potent exchanges, Representative Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican, zeroed in on the term “intifada,” which students have chanted at many campus protests in recent weeks.

Intifada, in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, refers to violent resistance to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. For many Israelis and Jews, it calls to mind suicide bombings that targeted Israeli civilians in the early 2000s during the Second Intifada, a violent conflict between Palestinians and Israel that began as the peace process fell apart. Some pro-Palestinian activists say the term is a call for righteous resistance against Israeli oppression and does not endorse the targeting of civilians.

“Dr. Gay, a Harvard student calling for the mass murder of African Americans is not protected free speech at Harvard, correct?” Stefanik said to the Harvard president, the first Black person to hold the position.

When Gay began to answer — “Our commitment to free speech. . .” — Stefanik cut her off. “It’s a yes or no question,” she said.

Stefanik then described the term intifada as a call for “genocide” against Israelis and Jews. She asked Gay if she was aware of student protests at Harvard that included chants of “There is only one solution. Intifada, revolution” and “Globalize the intifada,” which some Jewish students understood as calls for violence against Jews or endorsements of Hamas’s attack.

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Gay responded: “I’ve heard that thoughtless, reckless, and hateful language on our campus, yes.”

Stefanik asked if those slogans violated Harvard’s code of conduct and Gay did not give a direct answer. That kind of speech “is at odds with the values of Harvard,” she said, trying to explain further as Stefanik shouted over her.

“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, and intimidation. . .” Gay said, unable to finish her sentence as Stefanik shouted her down.

“Does that speech not cross that barrier?” Stefanik said.

The hearing was convened on Capitol Hill by the Republican-controlled House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Foxx, who chairs the committee, and other Republican members repeatedly asked the university presidents about the ideological leanings of their faculties, and about gifts they receive from Middle East donors. Gay said Harvard has alumni all over the world who financially support the school, including in the Middle East. Foxx also accused the schools of promoting “the race-based ideology of the radical left,” which, she said, was a root cause of resurgent antisemitism.

“For years, universities have stoked the flames of an ideology which goes by many names: antiracism, anticolonialism, critical race theory, DEI, intersectionality, the list goes on,” Foxx said.

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Representative Joe Wilson, Republican of South Carolina, asked the three leaders what percentage of their professors are conservative. Each president said her institution did not track that statistic.

That is “so sadfully and shamefully revealing,” Wilson said.

At times, the lawmakers seemed to be berating, more than questioning the presidents.

“I’m ashamed to be an alumni of your university,” Representative Brandon Williams, a New York Republican, told Magill, the UPenn president. “I think you have . . . a need of federal intervention to cut off the resources that allow this [educational] mission that’s failed to continue,” he said, echoing threats from some Republican colleagues to suspend federal funding.

Each of the presidents said antisemitism is a matter of growing concern on their campuses.

“I know many in our Harvard Jewish community are hurting, and experiencing grief, fear, and trauma,” Gay said. “I have heard — from faculty, students, staff, and alumni — of incidents of intimidation and harassment. . . . I have listened to leaders in our Jewish community who are scared and disillusioned.”

Magill said, “Antisemitism is an old, viral, and pernicious evil” that “has been steadily rising in our society.”

Kornbluth, of MIT, who is Jewish, said that although she is concerned about antisemitism, she does not believe restrictions on student speech are the answer. “Those who want us to shut down protest language are, in effect, arguing for a speech code. But in practice, speech codes do not work. Problematic speech needs to be countered with other speech and with education, and we are doing that,” she said.

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Gay put it a different way: “Antisemitism is a symptom of ignorance, and the cure for ignorance is knowledge.”

Before the hearing began Tuesday, a large crowd gathered in a hallway of the Rayburn House Office Building. Several people wore shirts with the star of David or the words “Stand with Israel.” At least one person wore a keffiyeh, a traditional Palestinian scarf, and a T-shirt that said “Ceasefire now.” The hearing room was filled to capacity and some people waited for hours for seats to free up.

Amid the contentious questioning by Republicans, Representative Susan Wild, a Pennsylvania Democrat, expressed sympathy for the university leaders’ predicament.

“I think of college as the place where we learn to think critically. And to me, that’s the most important part of going to college,” she said, as she began to muse on where to draw the line between legitimate political speech and words that incite violence or promote hatred. “So here we are in this strange balancing act. And believe me, I feel for all of you, because it is a balancing act that you have to perform.”


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