Presidents of universities grilled on efforts to counter antisemitism on campus: 'Difficult work'

Each university president has denounced antisemitism.

ByCheyenne Haslett and Sarah Beth Hensley ABCNews logo
Tuesday, December 5, 2023
University presidents grilled on efforts to counter antisemitism
Harvard and University of Pennsylvania are among the schools being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for complaints of antisemitism and Islamophobic discrimination on campus.

The presidents of several prominent universities testified Tuesday before the Republican-led House Education Committee to answer criticism that they're not doing enough to counter antisemitism on campus -- instances of which have increased as the Israel-Hamas war rages on.

Harvard University's Claudine Gay, the University of Pennsylvania's Liz Magill and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sally Kornbluth testified before the committee, led by Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C. Also testifying was Dr. Pamela Nadell, a professor of History and Jewish Studies at American University.

The members of Congress who called the hearing cited pro-Palestinian protests where students used rhetoric that has been tied to antisemitism, as well as incidents such as vandalism on Hillel buildings and threatening emails to Jewish faculty. Harvard and University of Pennsylvania are among the schools being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for complaints of antisemitism and Islamophobic discrimination on campus.

MORE | Colleges being investigated for antisemitism, Islamophobia reports

Foxx has called the demonstrations on some of the universities' campuses "morally reprehensible" and said she will "demand accountability for this kind of hateful and violent rhetoric."

Foxx opened the hearing saying these universities have a big role to play in the shaping of the future of education and free speech on campus. She called Harvard "ground-zero for antisemitism" after the Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas that killed more than 1,200 people. The United States has designated Hamas as a terrorist organization. Nearly 16,000 people have been killed in Gaza since Oct. 7, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry.

Gay, during her opening statement, acknowledged that Harvard is working to fight antisemitism, while allowing for free speech.

"During these difficult days, I have felt the bonds of our community strain. In response, I've sought to confront hate while preserving free expression. This is difficult work. And I know that I have not always gotten it right," Gay said.

Harvard University has been under scrutiny since several student groups issued a statement on the conflict in Israel. It stated that Israeli policies, referencing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, are "entirely responsible for all unfolding violence" following Hamas' Oct. 7 attacks.

The letter prompted fierce backlash. Some Jewish students at the university said they felt isolated and scared following the letter's publication, claiming it supported the Hamas attack.

Recent polling indicates that younger Americans are more likely to support Palestinians. According to a Quinnipiac University national poll released in mid-November, 54% of registered voters said their sympathies lie more with the Israelis, while 24% say their sympathies lie more with the Palestinians. But among younger voters, ages 18-34, 52% said their sympathies lie more with the Palestinians while 29% said the Israelis.

Several Republicans directed questions at Gay over Harvard's handling of what she called an "alarming" rise in antisemitism. Harvard alumni, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., pressed Gay on phrases that students have used in protests on Harvard's campuses, pushing Gay to take more action to punish students.

Gay would not directly answer Stefanik's specific questions on whether admissions offers would be rescinded or any disciplinary action would be taken against students or applicants who say "from the river to the sea" or "intifada" -- both terms that have been identified as antisemitic rhetoric by Jewish advocacy groups.

Harvard President Claudine Gay speaks during a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023 in Washington.
Harvard President Claudine Gay speaks during a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023 in Washington.
(AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

Gay said generally that "actions have been taken" against students who have used those terms, citing privacy concerns, but also defended Harvard's policy to allow all speech, whether she agrees with it or not, until it crosses a line into bullying, harassment or intimidation.

Stefanik called for Gay's resignation during their exchange.

Foxx called on the presidents to make changes to confront "institutional antisemitism and hate" that are "among the poison fruits of your institutions' cultures."

"Do you have the courage to truly confront and condemn the ideology driving antisemitism, or will you offer weak blame-shifting excuses, and yet another responsibility dodging task force? That's ultimately the most important question for you to confront in this hearing," Foxx said.

In their opening statements, each of the three university presidents denounced antisemitism on their campuses and offered sympathy for the pain their Jewish students and community members have endured since Oct. 7 -- as well as long before, citing the history of antisemitism.

"Antisemitism, an old, viral and pernicious evil, has been steadily rising in our society and these world events have dramatically accelerated that surge," Magill, president of the University of Pennsylvania, said.

"Few places have proven immune, including Philadelphia and campuses like ours. This is unacceptable. We are combating this hate on our campus with both immediate and comprehensive action," she added.

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Antisemitism is the world's oldest hatred, dating back thousands of years, yet many don't know how it functions or what it means.

Harvard President Gay said she'd heard from faculty, students, staff and alumni about incidents of "intimidation and harassment," had herself seen "reckless and thoughtless rhetoric" in person and online, and has listened to leaders of Harvard's Jewish community "who are scared and disillusioned."

"I know many in our Harvard Jewish community are hurting and experiencing grief, fear and trauma," Gay told the committee.

She noted that there has also been a rise of Islamophobia toward Muslim and Arab-American students -- something Magill and Kornbluth also said they've seen on their campuses.

Magill, Kornbluth and Gay all listed efforts they've made on their campuses, including increased security at religious centers, more counseling services for students and task forces to examine the best ways to address antisemitism on their campuses.

Each also noted the need to allow for free expression on campus and open debate with people who disagree with one another -- which they said was the primary challenge in fostering an environment where all students feel safe.

"These competing principles can be difficult to balance, but I am determined to get it right, and we must get this right. The stakes are too high," Magill said.

"We will never, ever shrink from moral responsibility to combat antisemitism and educate to recognize and reject hate. We will remain vigilant," Magill added.