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As fallout from explosive antisemitism hearing continues, Harvard president apologizes for her remarks

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)

The fallout from Tuesday’s explosive congressional hearing on campus antisemitism continued to intensify Friday, after Harvard University’s president apologized for part of her testimony and the president of the University of Pennsylvania faced mounting pressure to step down.

The presidents of those two universities, as well as the leader of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have faced denunciations and calls for their resignations since they offered equivocal answers to a question about whether calls for genocide against Jews would violate their schools’ policies.

Pressure mounted on UPenn president Liz Magill as a donor threatened to withdraw an approximately $100 million gift and an advisory board of alumni and donors called for her resignation. And top Pennsylvania Democratic elected officials, including the governor, indicated her days as president might be numbered.

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Late Thursday, the executive committee of the MIT Corporation, the university’s governing board, issued a vote of confidence in MIT president Sally Kornbluth, saying she had the committee’s “full and unreserved support.”

As of Friday evening, the Harvard Corporation had not issued a statement about Harvard president Claudine Gay.

The controversy over the hearing focused on a contentious three-minute exchange between Representative Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican, and the three presidents.

“Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate MIT’s code of conduct or rule regarding bullying or harassment, yes or no?” Stefanik asked Kornbluth. Stefanik then posed almost identical questions to Gay and Magill.

The presidents offered strikingly similar responses. Calls for the genocide of Jews would violate the rules if they were “targeted at individuals,” Kornbluth said, but not if they were mere “public statements.”

The backlash was immediate and intense. Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, called the presidents’ responses “shameful.” A White House spokesperson said, in response to questions about the testimony, “It’s unbelievable that this needs to be said: calls for genocide are monstrous.”

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On Thursday, a prominent rabbi said he had resigned from an antisemitism advisory board recently convened at Harvard by Gay. “[T]he painfully inadequate testimony reinforced the idea that I cannot make the sort of difference I had hoped,” Rabbi David Wolpe wrote on social media.

On Friday, more than 70 members of Congress, mostly Republicans, wrote to the governing boards of the three universities demanding that they remove their presidents.

In an interview with the Harvard Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper, published Friday, Gay apologized for her testimony.

“I am sorry,” Gay told the Crimson on Thursday. “Words matter.”

“I got caught up in what had become at that point, an extended, combative exchange about policies and procedures,” she said. “What I should have had the presence of mind to do in that moment was return to my guiding truth, which is that calls for violence against our Jewish community — threats to our Jewish students — have no place at Harvard, and will never go unchallenged.”

The furor over the testimony comes at a time of rising concerns over campus antisemitism and heated debate over free expression on campus.

The Israel-Hamas war, in which Israeli strikes have killed more than 16,000 Palestinians since Oct. 7, has sparked intense campus protests, many of them calling for a cease-fire. Some Jewish students have said the activist fervor has spilled over into generalized animus against Jews. Many protests have featured controversial slogans that some view as calls for righteous resistance to Israeli oppression of Palestinians and that others understand as calls for violence against Jews and Israeli civilians.

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The campuses of Harvard, MIT, and UPenn have been roiled by disruptive student demonstrations and debates about whether the schools should enforce limits on controversial speech. At Harvard and UPenn, the controversies began after Gay and Magill faced intense criticism from prominent alumni and politicians for their initial statements about the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel, which killed 1,200 people and led to Israel’s retaliatory war.

In the days since Tuesday’s congressional hearing, pressure has mounted on Magill.

The advisory board of the Wharton School, UPenn’s business school, called on Magill to resign. After a Hanukkah celebration on the university’s campus Thursday night, Governor Shapiro, who is Jewish, told reporters he had “made clear” that the university’s board should discuss whether Magill’s testimony reflected UPenn’s values. A UPenn spokesperson declined to comment Friday.

At Harvard, several alumni, including Bill Ackman, a hedge fund billionaire who has been sharply critical of Gay since Oct. 7, have called on Gay to resign.

The Harvard Jewish Alumni Association, which formed in October in response to concerns about campus antisemitism, sent a letter to the Harvard Corporation and top administrators condemning Gay’s Tuesday testimony but stopping short of calling for her resignation.

The student president and leading rabbi of Harvard Hillel, a Jewish campus group, said in a letter to the Hillel community on Tuesday night that Gay’s “refusal to draw a line around threatening antisemitic speech as a violation of Harvard’s policies is profoundly shocking.”

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On Thursday, the student president, Jacob Miller, said that his group remained “ready to work with” Gay “to make sure antisemitism has no place at Harvard.”

The congressional hearing came at a time of intensifying campus unrest and protests. A Harvard spokesperson said 23 students are facing disciplinary action for incidents related to tensions over the Israel-Hamas war.

On Nov. 29, Harvard student activists organized a demonstration to oppose Israel’s war in Gaza and to show solidarity with three Palestinian college students who were shot in Burlington, Vt., last month while wearing keffiyehs, a traditional Palestinian scarf.

Protesters entered at least three classrooms with megaphones and urged students to walk out. “Don’t sit there and be complicit,” one student said through a megaphone inside a lecture hall, according to video seen by the Globe. In a common area of Harvard’s Science Center, protesters chanted, “Free, free Palestine” and “Long live the intifada,” according to videos seen by the Globe.

The word “intifada,” often included in protest chants at Harvard and other campuses since Oct. 7, has been the subject of intense controversy and debate, and was discussed at length during Tuesday’s congressional hearing.

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 resistance against oppression.

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During the hearing, Stefanik, the New York Republican, equated calls for intifada with calls for genocide of Jews, a contested interpretation.

When Stefanik asked Kornbluth if “calling for the genocide of Jews violate[d] MIT’s code of conduct,” the MIT president challenged 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.”

G Laster, a Harvard graduate student who is Jewish, organized a viewing of Tuesday’s hearing, which was attended by around two dozen Jewish and pro-Palestinian students. Laster found parts of the hearing frustrating because, they said, some members of the congressional committee mischaracterized “pro-Palestinian speech as antisemitic.”

During the hearing, Gay said she found certain chants including “intifada” to be “thoughtless, reckless, and hateful.” She also said: “We embrace a commitment to free expression, even of views that are objectionable, offensive, hateful.”


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