Congressional hearing on antisemitism on college campuses grows contentious and has severe consequences

First posted January 10, 2024 4:54pm EST
Last updated January 10, 2024 6:01pm EST

All Associated Themes:

  • Foreign Policy
  • Hate Speech
  • Identity
  • Professional Consequences
  • Social Media

External References

74 Members of Congress Demand Harvard President Gay Resign in Letter to Governing Board Members, The Harvard Crimson

At Harvard, a Battle Over What Should Be Said About the Hamas Attacks, The New York Times

‘Bud Light moment’: Stefanik forces a reckoning on the left, Politico

College Presidents Under Fire After Dodging Questions About Antisemitism, The New York Times

Harvard’s Board Unites Behind Its President, but Its Campus Remains Splintered, The New York Times

‘I Am Sorry’: Harvard President Gay Addresses Backlash Over Congressional Testimony on Antisemitism, The Harvard Crimson

Penn’s Leadership Resigns Amid Controversies Over Antisemitism, The New York Times

Republicans Try to Put Harvard, M.I.T. and Penn on the Defensive About Antisemitism, The New York Times

So Far, No Major Fallout for M.I.T. President After Contentious Testimony, The New York Times

The 4 key events that led to UPenn President Liz Magill’s resignation, CNN

Universities Face Congressional Inquiry and Angry Donors Over Handling, The New York Times 

What a congressional hearing got wrong: Calls for intifada are not calls for genocide, The Hill

What to Know About Elizabeth Magill, the Penn President Who Resigned, The New York Times

Plagiarism charges downed Harvard’s president. A conservative attack helped to fan the outrage, The Associated Press

21,978 Palestinians killed in Israeli strikes on Gaza since Oct. 7 – Gaza health ministry, Reuters

 UPenn staff receive threatening antisemitic emails, FBI joins investigation, CBS

Former Harvard president Claudine Gay | source: Maura Healey

Tensions flared during a congressional hearing in December 2023, when the presidents of three prestigious higher education institutions appeared to dodge questions about rising antisemitism across college campuses. The intense backlash that followed led to the resignation of one president, and in part to that of another. 

Key Players

Elizabeth Magill, the former president of the University of Pennsylvania, resigned from her position shortly after the hearing.

Sally Kornbluth, the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was encouraged to resign after the hearing, but the university board backed her position.

Claudine Gay, the former president of Harvard University, was under fire for almost a week after the hearing, but the Harvard Corporation at first announced that she would remain in her position. Soon thereafter, however, Gay resigned, primarily over accusations of plagiarism in her academic publications. 

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who chaired the hearing, questioned the presidents about whether they would discipline students calling for the genocide of Jewish people and became visibly cross with their replies that it would depend on “the context.” Notably, she graduated from Harvard in 2006. 

Further Details

On Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas, a militant Palestinian liberation organization, designated by the United States as a terrorist group, engaged in an armed assault throughout southern Israel, killing approximately 1,200 Israelis and kidnapping about 240. Israel immediately countered the attack, and the country has been at war with Hamas since. According to Hamas, at least 21,000 Palestinians have died as a result of the conflict, leading to several protests throughout the world, with many calling for a permanent ceasefire.  

In the lead-up to the hearing, controversy surrounding the conflict struck higher education institutions. At Harvard, influential graduates exerted pressure on university leadership to address antisemitism after a Palestinian solidarity group publicly stated that it held Israel responsible for the initial attack. At Penn, staff received a string of threatening antisemitic emails, as well as protests from donors. At MIT, students were suspended for disrupting and taking over a prominent building in protest of Israel, lasting for many hours and attracting counter-protesters. 

As college students continue to protest across the nation, questions have been raised over what constitutes permissible discourse between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli protesters. Concerns raised by Jewish students about the rise of rhetoric crossing into antisemitism has become increasingly prevalent. There have been instances of pro-Palestinian students vocalizing support for intifada, which means “uprising” or “shaking off” in Arabic. The word itself has been used to describe Palestinian uprisings against Israeli rule in occupied territories, but many maintain that the word is equal with calling for the genocide of Jewish people. In an opinion piece for The Hill, Seth Cantey, a professor of Middle East politics at Washington and Lee University, wrote that while the word can have a violent connotation, “genocide” was not an accurate translation. 

A contentious hearing

But at the congressional hearing, which took place on Dec. 6, 2023, Stefanik asserted that the “call for intifada is to commit genocide against the Jewish people in Israel and globally.” 

Stefanik pressed Gay on this issue, specifically whether Gay understood that “this call for intifada” was to committ genocide against Jewish people in Israel, and if “that type of hateful speech” contradicted Harvard’s code of conduct. Gay said that such speech was “at odds” with Harvard. “When speech crosses into conduct that violates our policies, including policies against bullying, harassment, and intimidation, we take action,” Gay said. 

However, when questioned, Gay refrained from explicitly stating whether calls for the genocide of Jewish people amounted to bullying and harassment, and failed to describe the appropriate disciplinary action that would be taken in such an instance. 

Stefanik asked Magill the same question. “If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment,” Magill stated, emphasizing that it must be “directed, severe, and pervasive,” and that the determination was “context-dependent.” The answer made Stefanik incredulous. “This is the easiest question to answer, ‘yes,’ Ms. Magill,” Stefanik replied. 

In questioning Kornbulth, the MIT president explained that she had not heard calls for the genocide of Jewish people on MIT’s campus. 

“But you’ve heard chants for intifada,” Stefanik said, to which Kornbulth said she had “heard chants which can be antisemitic depending on the context when calling for the elimination of the Jewish people,” adding that such speech “would be investigated as harassment if pervasive and severe.” 


More than 70 members of Congress call for Gay, Magill, Kornbluth resignations

Following their testimony, 74 members of Congress demanded that the presidents resign

“Their failure to unequivocally condemn calls for the systematic murder of Jews is deeply alarming,” the statement read. “It stands in stark contrast to the principles we expect leaders of top academic institutions to uphold.”

Officials who signed the statement included Stefanik, Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.), who is Jewish, and Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Magill issues apology, later resigns 

Magill’s testimony resulted in criticism from public officials, Penn faculty and students, and board members.

“It should not be hard to condemn genocide, genocide against Jews, genocide against anyone else,” Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) told reporters after the hearing. “I’ve said many times, leaders have a responsibility to speak and act with moral clarity, and Liz Magill failed to meet that simple test.”

Shortly afterward, Magill apologized. In a video posted to the school’s X account, she stated that “a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate. It’s evil — plain and simple,” and affirmed that Penn administration would take a “serious and careful look” to stop antisemitism and protect Free Speech. 

But many were not satisfied. Ross L. Stevens, a Penn graduate and the CEO of Stone Ridge Assessment Management, threatened to withdraw nearly $100 million in funding from the school, ultimately leading Magill to resign on Dec. 9.

Gay and Kornbluth resist calls for resignation

Kornbluth faced far less criticism than Gay and Magill. 

On Dec. 7, Mark Gorenberg, who chairs the MIT Corporation, wrote that she “has done excellent work in leading our community, including in addressing antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hate, all of which we reject utterly at MIT. She has our full and unreserved support.”

Gay’s vague answers, on the other hand, prompted calls for her resignation from donors, faculty, and students at Harvard. 

On Dec. 8, Gay issued an apology in an interview with The Harvard Crimson, stating that “calls for violence against our Jewish community — threats to our Jewish students — have no place at Harvard, and will never go unchallenged,” asserting the university was committed to “combating antisemitism.” 

But many members of the Harvard community disagreed. In a statement from Harvard Hillel, the university’s Jewish student organization, Jacob M. Miller, a student, explained that “President Gay’s failure to properly condemn this speech calls into question her ability to protect Jewish students on Harvard’s campus.” 

At first, the Harvard Corporation, the university’s chief governing body, reaffirmed Gay’s position as president. 

Gay resigns over accusations of plagiarism

But on Jan. 2, 2024, Gay resigned from her position over accusations of plagiarism in her scholarly work. Harvard found several shortcomings in her academic citations, including instances of duplicative language. 

The effort to scrutinize Gay’s past work was largely mobilized by Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who, on Dec. 10, 2023, published a piece titled “Is Claudine Gay a Plagiarist?” to his Substack. The article focused on issues with Gay’s doctoral dissertation at Harvard, and was published the night before the board met to decide if she would stay on as president.