Yad Vashem: Holocaust began with antisemitic rhetoric, actions

Heads of Harvard, Penn condemn Jewish genocide calls after appearing to condone speech

University presidents had refused to say calling for genocide of Jews is harassment on their campuses at House hearing, drawing anger; White House and Holocaust museums join outcry

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

After refusing to explicitly say that calls for genocide of Jewish people violate campus rules on harassment, the presidents of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania on Wednesday appeared to walk back some of their comments in an apparent attempt at damage control.

During a US House hearing on Tuesday, New York Republican Representative Elise Stefanik asked University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill, Harvard president Claudine Gay, and MIT president Sally Kornbluth directly if “calling for the genocide of Jews” is against the codes of conduct at their schools, and all three presidents said the answer depended on the context.

A video of the exchange was widely circulated following the session, bolstering mounting criticism against the school heads for appearing to equivocate on the matter, with both the White House and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum joining a chorus of condemnation over the remarks Wednesday.

Following the backlash, Gay issued a statement Wednesday saying that people had misunderstood her widely panned remarks during the hearing, when she said that calls on campus for genocide against Jews are not necessarily harassment.

“There are some who have confused a right to free expression with the idea that Harvard will condone calls for violence against Jewish students,” she said in the Wednesday statement. “Let me be clear: Calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or any religious or ethnic group are vile. They have no place at Harvard, and those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account.”

During the hearing, Stefanik asked Gay directly whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” is against the code of conduct at Harvard.

She pointedly refused to answer affirmatively, saying, “When speech crosses into conduct, we take action.”

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

Penn president Magill also refused to give a straight answer when asked by Stefanik on Tuesday whether calling for the genocide of Jews constitutes bullying or harassment at the university.

“It is a context-dependent decision,” Magill responded, leading Stefanik to reply, “Calling for the genocide of Jews is dependent on the context? That is not bullying or harassment? This is the easiest question to answer ‘yes,’ Ms. Magill.”

Magill appeared to walk back some of her comments Wednesday, saying she had allowed free speech concerns to outweigh other considerations.

“In that moment, I was focused on our university’s longstanding policies aligned with the US Constitution, which say that speech alone is not punishable,” she said in a video.

University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill reads her opening statement during a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, Dec. 5, 2023 in Washington. (AP/Mark Schiefelbein)

“I was not focused on, but I should have been, the irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate,” she said Wednesday. “It’s evil — plain and simple.”

“I want to be clear, a call for genocide of Jewish people is threatening—deeply so. It is intentionally meant to terrify a people who have been subjected to pogroms and hatred for centuries and were the victims of mass genocide in the Holocaust. In my view, it would be harassment or intimidation,” she added.

Magill said the university would “initiate a serious and careful look at our policies.”

“In today’s world, where we are seeing signs of hate proliferating across our campus and our world in a way not seen in years, these policies need to be clarified and evaluated,” she said.

Kornbluth, who did not issue a clarifying statement, said Tuesday that language calling for genocide of Jews would only be “investigated as harassment if pervasive and severe.”

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) president Sally Kornbluth speaks during a hearing of the US House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, December 5, 2023 in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

The presidents’ testimony came amid increased tensions on college campuses across the US, with pro-Palestinian students or faculty — including at the three universities represented at the hearing — making headlines for speech and actions on campus that a range of critics have called antisemitic or inappropriate.

The college presidents did roundly agree that antisemitism was a serious problem on their campuses and had grown more severe since Hamas’s October 7 murderous attack on Israel, which launched Israel’s war against the terror group in the Gaza Strip.

And the university leaders all personally criticized anti-Israel activism.

Magill condemned a recent pro-Palestinian-led attack on a Jewish-owned restaurant in Philadelphia that had begun with protests bordering her campus. “These protesters directly targeted a center city business that is Jewish- and Israeli-owned, a troubling and shameful act of antisemitism,” she said in her opening remarks.

Pro-Palestinian protesters rally outside Goldie’s restaurant in Philadelphia on December 4, 2023. (Screen capture/X)

But Magill would not say whether chants the protesters repeated — including one she referenced calling for “intifada,” or Palestinian uprising — rose to the level of incitement to violence that is punishable by the university’s code of conduct. During the Second Intifada two decades ago, Palestinian terror attacks killed an estimated 1,000 Israelis over several years.

“The chanting, I think, calling for intifada, global revolution, [is] very disturbing,” Magill said during questioning. “I believe at minimum that is hateful speech that has been and should be condemned. Whether it rises to the level of incitement to violence under the policies that Penn and the city of Philadelphia follow, which are guided by the United States Constitution, I think is a much more difficult question. Incitement to violence is a very narrow category,” she said.

Gay also did not say directly whether students chanting “intifada” on Harvard’s campus violated the university’s code of conduct.

“That type of hateful, reckless, offensive speech is personally abhorrent to me,” she said. But when asked whether Harvard would discipline it, she responded more generally, “When speech crosses into conduct that violates our policies, including policies against bullying, harassment or intimidation, we take action and we have robust disciplinary processes that allow us to hold individuals accountable.”

War erupted between Israel and Hamas after the Hamas-led October 7 massacres, in which some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing some 240 hostages of all ages under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities.

The vast majority of those killed as gunmen seized border communities were civilians — including babies, children and the elderly. Entire families were executed in their homes, and over 360 were slaughtered at an outdoor festival, many amid horrific acts of brutality by the terrorists.

Israel has launched a military campaign to remove Hamas from power in Gaza, but the offensive has ignited worldwide protests, including by groups on college campuses. Demonstrations have included calls for the elimination of the Jewish state and Jewish students have reported being harassed or fearing for their safety.

In recent weeks, the US government has opened investigations into several universities, including Penn and Harvard, regarding antisemitism and Islamophobia on campus.

Schools have faced legal action and have lost out on donations from Jewish and pro-Israel advocates for their response to anti-Israel activism on campus, leading some to suspend pro-Palestinian student groups. None of the three universities represented on the panel have suspended such groups.

The White House appeared to rebuke the university heads for their comments to the House.

“It’s unbelievable that this needs to be said: calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement Wednesday.

“Any statements that advocate for the systematic murder of Jews are dangerous and revolting – and we should all stand firmly against them, on the side of human dignity and the most basic values that unite us as Americans,” Bates added, while avoiding direct mention of the university heads.

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)

The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum also said it was alarmed by the US congressional testimonies, saying the educational institutions’ response to campus antisemitism that has flared during the Israel-Hamas war had been inadequate.

In a statement, Yad Vashem accused the school presidents of “minimizing” and “contextualizing” antisemitism.

“The positions taken by the three university presidents in their testimonies highlight a basic ignorance of history, including the fact that the Holocaust did not start with ghettos or gas chambers, but with hateful antisemitic rhetoric, decrees and actions by senior academics, among other leaders of society,” the statement said.

“Any university, institution or society that can ‘contextualize’ and excuse calls for genocide is doomed,” added Yad Vashem’s chairman Dani Dayan.

The US Holocaust Museum also appeared to weigh in, posting on X: “Opposing calls for genocide against Jews shouldn’t be difficult or controversial.”

Stefanik, a Harvard alumnus, has herself faced accusations of using antisemitic canards in the past, and elevating “great replacement theory” rhetoric.

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