Harvard, Penn presidents’ response to campus anti-Semitism row amid Israel-Palestine conflict

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News Team

Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) have responded to criticism following their testimonies on campus anti-Semitism at the United States Congress. The presidents of both universities, Claudine Gay and Elizabeth Magill, along with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) President Sally Kornbluth, testified on how their colleges are combating campus anti-Semitism in a five-hour hearing on Monday. The testimonies have drawn criticism from supporters of Israel and Palestine, with some calling for resignations or legal action.

During the congressional hearing, the presidents were questioned about the kinds of expression and values they allow on campus. They maintained that they are committed to free expression and a diversity of viewpoints, even if comments are “offensive” as long as speech does not cross into conduct or calls for violence. They also said that action is already under way to support students facing threats and to hold code of conduct violators to account.

Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, a Harvard alum and the college’s toughest critic on the panel, asserted that campus members call for the genocide of Jews when they chant phrases such as “from the river to the sea” and “Intifada”. Gay said that terms such as Intifada are “personally abhorrent” to her and at odds with Harvard’s values, but do not violate the code of conduct. When asked if calling for the genocide of Jews counts as bullying or harassment under code of conduct rules, Gay, Magill and Kornbluth said it would depend on the context and would violate rules if directed towards an individual, and if the calls were “severe and pervasive”.

Gay and Magill have released statements following the hearing. Gay said that commitments to free expression do not entail condoning calls for violence or genocide. Magill promised to review Penn’s code of conduct after declining to say whether advocating genocide was a violation at the hearing.

Gay and Magill’s statements have been labeled as too little, too late by some, who questioned why they did not clearly state these values at the Congress hearing. Students and alumni have also been calling on the two to resign, while a lawsuit has also been filed against Penn. Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, a nonvoting member of Penn’s Board of Trustees, also told reporters on Wednesday that the board would have a “serious decision” to make regarding Magill’s statements.

Late on Wednesday, Harvard University’s Palestine Solidarity Committee released a joint statement with Penn’s Students Against Occupation and several other Jewish groups. The response said that the hearing distracted from the genocide in Gaza, and “real manifestations of anti-Jewish hatred” that the groups “vehemently oppose”, while also justifying anti-Palestinian racism. Pfizer CEO, Albert Bourla said he was “ashamed” to hear the testimonies in a post on X on Wednesday.

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