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University presidents’ responses to genocide question at congressional hearing draw furor

Harvard, MIT, UPenn presidents grilled at congressional hearing over campus antisemitism
Representative Elise Stefanik questioned the university presidents at a fiery congressional hearing Tuesday. (House Committee on Education & the Workforce)

More than five hours into Tuesday’s fiery congressional hearing over campus antisemitism, Representative Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican, asked Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, a direct question.

“Dr. Gay, at Harvard, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment, yes or no?”

Gay answered: “It can be, depending on the context.”

That response — and similar ones from the presidents of MIT and the University of Pennsylvania — provoked a furor, with prominent alumni calling for Gay and UPenn president Liz Magill to resign, and the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania calling Magill’s remarks “shameful.”

“The simple answer is, ‘Yes, that violates our policy,’ ” Governor Josh Shapiro said in Philadelphia on Wednesday. “I think right now the board at Penn has a serious decision they need to make.”

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Gay, who faced sharp criticism from a Jewish campus group, among others, issued a statement Wednesday expanding on her testimony.

“There are some who have confused a right to free expression with the idea that Harvard will condone calls for violence against Jewish students,” she said. “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 issued a Wednesday evening video statement that seemed to backtrack, saying in her view, a call for genocide of Jewish people “would be harassment or intimidation.”

In response to a question about the hearing, Andrew Bates, White House deputy press secretary, said on Wednesday: “President Biden has demonstrated moral clarity during this appalling rise in antisemitism, when it’s more critical than ever to lead by example. It’s unbelievable that this needs to be said: calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country.”

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The exchange between Stefanik and the three university presidents came near the end of a contentious hearing over a purported rise in campus antisemitism since the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel, which killed 1,200 people. Israel’s retaliatory war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip has killed more than 15,000 people, and prompted large student protests calling for a cease-fire and criticizing what protesters describe as Israeli oppression of Palestinians.

Members of the Republican-controlled House Committee on Education and the Workforce grilled Gay, Magill, and MIT president Sally Kornbluth about controversial slogans used by student protesters on their campuses and asked them what they were doing to respond to reports by some Jewish and Israeli students that they have faced discrimination and harassment.

Each of the presidents acknowledged that antisemitism, as well as Islamophobia, is on the rise in society and on their campuses and vowed that they are taking actions to root out bigotry and discrimination. Parts of the hearing centered on how the presidents are balancing free speech values against claims that some slogans used by pro-Palestinian student activists are antisemitic.

During one contentious exchange, Stefanik asked Gay if she was aware that Harvard student protesters had chanted, “There is only one solution. Intifada, revolution” and “Globalize the intifada,” using a term for uprising that some Jews and Israelis understand as a call for violence.

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

She added: “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 . . .” Stefanik shouted her down before she was able to finish the sentence.

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During that exchange, Stefanik equated chants of “intifada” with calls for genocide of Jews.

Intifada, in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, refers to 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.

Late in the hearing, Stefanik began her line of questioning about calls for genocide against Jews.

“At MIT, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate MIT’s code of conduct or rule regarding bullying or harassment, yes or no?” she asked Kornbluth.

Kornbluth responded: “If targeted at individuals, not making public statements.”

“Yes or no? Calling for the genocide of Jews does not constitute bullying or harassment?” Stefanik said.

Kornbluth seemed to challenge the question’s premise, saying she had “not heard calling for the genocide for Jews on our campus.” She added that she was aware of chants at MIT that “can be antisemitic depending on the context when calling for the elimination of the Jewish people.”

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Stefanik then posed the question about calls for genocide against Jews to Magill and then Gay.

Magill answered: “If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment, yes.”

Gay said that such speech would violate Harvard’s policies if it was “targeted at an individual.” She added that “antisemitic rhetoric, when it crosses into conduct that amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation — that is actionable conduct. We do take action.”

“You should resign,” Stefanik said at the conclusion of the exchange, appearing to address all three presidents. “These are unacceptable answers across the board.”

MIT didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Bill Ackman, a hedge fund billionaire and Harvard graduate who has sharply criticized Gay in recent months, posted on social media a three-minute video clip of the exchange, which has circulated widely.

“They must all resign in disgrace,” Ackman wrote in the post.

Harvard Hillel, a campus Jewish group, called some parts of Gay’s testimony “shocking.”

“We are appalled by the need to state the obvious: A call for genocide against Jews is always a hateful incitement of violence. President Gay’s failure to properly condemn this speech calls into question her ability to protect Jewish students on Harvard’s campus,” the group’s student president, Jacob Miller, and Hillel Rabbi Getzel Davis wrote in a letter to the Hillel community Tuesday night.

Rabbi Jonah Steinberg, the head of the New England office of the Anti-Defamation League and a former director of Harvard Hillel, said he was “baffled” by some of Gay’s testimony.

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“The line of questioning was hard and designed to box Claudine Gay and the others in, but what Gay didn’t say and could have said was that political chants are one thing and calls for ‘intifada’ may arguably also be protected as free speech, [but] they come awfully close to incitement to violence,” Steinberg said.

Regarding Gay’s response that an assessment of a call for genocide would be context-dependent, Steinberg said: “I understood her to be reverting to talking points in a way that did not directly answer the question. And I personally do not understand how calls for genocide can be tolerated.”

Gay said in her opening remarks at the hearing that she had listened to many leaders in the Jewish community, “who are scared and disillusioned.”

“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.”

Magill, in her opening remarks, called antisemitism “an old, viral, and pernicious evil” that “has been steadily rising in our society.”


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