Amid rising backlash, Harvard president sorry for not condemning Jewish genocide calls

Claudine Gay says she should have made it clear antisemitism should not go unchallenged; pressure rises on UPenn president to quit; prominent rabbi quits Harvard antisemitism board

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

The president of Harvard publicly apologized in an interview published Friday for remarks she made during a congressional hearing about antisemitism on US campuses amid the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Claudine Gay, a professor who has led the prestigious US university since July 2023, was asked Tuesday whether calls for “genocide” against Jews would violate Harvard’s code of conduct, to which she did not respond with a direct affirmative, instead, staying that it depended on the “context.”

“I am sorry,” Gay said in an interview published by her university’s student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson.

“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.”

Gay and the two other participants at the five-hour-long hearing — her counterparts Liz Magill at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sally Kornbluth — have faced a backlash for their responses to Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik’s questioning.

Magill walked back some of her comments Wednesday, saying a call for the genocide of Jewish people would be considered harassment or intimidation. She also called for a review of Penn’s policies, saying they have long been guided by the US Constitution but need to be “clarified and evaluated.”

Rep. Elise Stefanik speaks during a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, Dec. 5, 2023 in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

Stefanik, who studied at Harvard, has called for the presidents to resign and on Wednesday announced that the House Education and Workforce Committee would be “launching an official congressional investigation with the full force of subpoena power” into the three universities, and others.

Representative Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican who chairs the committee, said in a statement that “other universities should expect investigations as well, as their litany of similar failures has not gone unnoticed.”

The rebukes have been bipartisan, with Democrat Joe Biden’s White House issuing a statement saying “calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country.”

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, called on the university presidents to quit, during an interview on Fox News.

“You cannot call for the genocide of Jews, the genocide of any group of people, and not say that that’s harassment,” she said.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, also called Magill’s testimony “unacceptable” and urged trustees there to consider Magill’s job. On Thursday night, he joined Jewish students at Penn to mark the start of Hanukkah with a menorah lighting on campus.

Pressure for change has also come from inside the tertiary system.

The advisory board at the University of Pennsylvania’s business school, Wharton, told Magill that “the university requires new leadership with immediate effect.” At an emergency telephone meeting Thursday, they did not take a vote on whether to boot her from the role but urged her and others in senior positions to voice the institution’s values more clearly.

Harvard President Claudine Gay, left, speaks as University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill listens during a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, Dec. 5, 2023, in Washington. (AP/Mark Schiefelbein)

Meanwhile, lawyers for a major donor to Penn, Ross Stevens, wrote to Penn’s general counsel on Thursday to threaten to withdraw a gift valued at $100 million because of the university’s “stance on antisemitism on campus” unless Magill is replaced.

The gift from Stevens — a share of his Stone Ridge Holdings Group — was given in 2017 to underwrite the Stevens Center for Innovation in Finance. However, in the letter, his lawyers said Penn’s “permissive approach to hate speech calling for violence against Jews and laissez-faire attitude toward harassment and discrimination” likely violated the donor agreement.

The letter said Stevens and Stone Ridge are open to giving Penn a chance to fix the violations “if, and when, there is a new university president in place.”

At Harvard, prominent Los Angeles rabbi David Wolpe resigned from his role at the university’s antisemitism advisory committee, which was established after October 7.

Wolpe hailed Gay as a “kind and thoughtful person” but stressed that issues of antisemitism at Harvard were extensive.

“Part of the problem is a simple herd mentality — people screaming slogans whose meaning and implication they know nothing of, or not wishing to be disliked by taking an unpopular position,” he wrote in an online post.

Israel launched an offensive aimed at destroying the Hamas terror group after the devastating October 7 onslaught on Israel by Hamas-led terrorists who killed 1,200 people, most of them civilians slaughtered in their homes and at a music festival, and seized over 240 hostages.

File: Pro-Palestinian protesters gather at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 14, 2023. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP)

The conflict has ignited tensions on many American college campuses, with protests flaring.

Stefanik, during her line of questioning, likened calls by some student protesters for a new intifada — an Arabic word for uprising that harks back to the first Palestinian revolt against Israel in 1987, and a second, even more violent one from 2000 to 2005 — to inciting “genocide against the Jewish people in Israel and globally.”

When asked if “calling for the genocide of Jews” violates their universities’ codes of conduct, the three presidents said it would depend on the context.

Gay said that “when speech crosses into conduct that violates our policies, including policies against bullying, harassment or intimidation, we take action.”

In her comments published Friday by the Crimson, Gay said she had gotten “caught up in what had become at that point, an extended, combative exchange about policies and procedures.”

“When words amplify distress and pain, I don’t know how you could feel anything but regret,” she added.

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