Updated Dec 9, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Rare bipartisan unity forms in Congress over antisemitism testimony

Harvard President Claudine Gay, Penn President Liz Magill and MIT President Sally Kornbluth testify to the House Education and Workforce Committee. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images.

Members of Congress across the political spectrum are shocked and outraged about congressional testimony this week from the presidents of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania – and what it might mean for academia writ large.

Why it matters: Some lawmakers are already calling for or taking action – urging the three presidents to resign, launching investigations and even floating restrictions on federal funding for certain colleges.

The backdrop: Harvard President Claudine Gay, MIT President Sally Kornbluth and Penn President Elizabeth Magill, in response to a question from Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) about whether calls for the genocide of Jews would violate their schools' codes of conduct, each said it depends on context.

  • In response to a later question about chants calling for "intifada" and "global revolution," Magill said "whether it rises to the level of incitement to violence under [Penn's policies] I think is a ... difficult question."
  • Harvard and Penn have walked back their respective presidents' comments, though MIT has stood by Kornbluth.

What they're saying: Rep. Becca Balint (D-Vt.), a progressive who is one of a handful of Jewish lawmakers who has endorsed a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war, told Axios she found the testimony "shocking."

  • "These presidents, I think, came prepared to talk about these issues in a legal sense," Balint said. "They weren't speaking as people who were thinking about ... the students who would be on the receiving end of atrocious harassment."
  • "They showed no emotion, they showed no angst, and they just gave their answers like it was a math test," said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), another Jewish progressive, told Axios.
  • Cohen said the testimony made him want to look into "other Ivy [League] colleges as well," because "those were the three the committee chose to bring ... but no [college] that I know has done a great job of responding."

Zoom in: A group of 71 Republicans and three Democrats — Reps. Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.), Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Joe Courtney (D-Conn.)— sent a letter to the three colleges' governing boards calling for the presidents to be removed.

  • Some Republicans want to go further. "The federal government has to be very careful not to support, financially, action against any group of persons," Rep. John Duarte (R-Calif.) told Axios.
  • "I think there ought to be further investigations," said Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.). "I think there ought to be considerations about ... the level of federal support for institutions that can't muster a decent reaction to antisemitism."

More than a dozen Democrats signed a letter to the colleges demanding they "review and update your school policies" to ensure they protect Jewish students.

  • Rep. Kathy Manning (D-N.C.), a staunchly pro-Israel moderate who led the letter, told Axios her goal is to "figure out whether colleges are doing what is necessary to keep Jewish students safe" following the testimony.

What we're hearing: Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who was visiting Harvard on Friday to speak about China, scheduled a last-minute meeting on antisemitism with Jewish students and Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi following the testimony.

  • "They don't feel comfortable being able to speak up for their perspectives on Israel's right to exist," he told Axios after the meeting, adding that the students feel "they don't have allies or even people willing to listen."

The bottom line: Even some lawmakers inclined to take a charitable interpretation of the presidents' comments feel they fell short in framing their duty of care.

  • Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a Jewish progressive who works as a constitutional law professor, said that he believes the presidents were trying to say that the chants don't represent "incitement to imminent lawless action" under the legal standard.
  • "I think that's what the college presidents were struggling to say when they were fumbling around …. but that's not what a campus community is," he said, arguing that the colleges should "proactively determine" whether the demonstrators represent a violent threats to students.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with the correct tally of Republicans and Democrats who sent a letter to the three colleges' governing boards.

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