Dec 6, 2023 - News

Harvard, MIT presidents grilled on responses to antisemitism, Israel-Hamas war

Harvard University President Claudine Gay, left, testifies at a congressional panel about antisemitism on college campuses in Washington, D.C., Dec. 5, 2023.

Harvard University President Claudine Gay was one of four witnesses called to testify. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Harvard University President Claudine Gay, facing scrutiny from a congressional panel yesterday, defended the administration's response to the Oct. 7 attack in Israel and antisemitism on campus.

Why it matters: University leaders have come under fire for their statements following Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel and responses to protests on campus.

Catch up fast: Lawmakers asked Gay, MIT President Sally Kornbluth and University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill to appear before the education and workforce committee to discuss antisemitism on campus.

  • Many of the questions focused on Harvard.

Driving the news: Gay said the administration has responded to incidents of antisemitism, but she declined to say what repercussions students, faculty or staff faced, if any, citing privacy concerns for individual students and personnel.

  • She said she has condemned chants like "intifada," an Arabic word referencing Palestinian uprisings in the West Bank and Gaza against Israel, but that the university protects free speech until it escalates into bullying, harassment or intimidation, prompting rebukes from GOP lawmakers.
  • Gay also pushed back against suggestions that Harvard didn't respond fast enough to the Oct. 7 attack.

Flashback: Harvard's initial statement, issued days after the attack, garnered criticism nationwide for failing to explicitly condemn Hamas and antisemitism.

  • Gay released another statement less than a day later condemning Hamas and distancing the university from a statement by 30 student groups blaming Israel for the attack, the Harvard Crimson reported. Students allegedly tied to the letter were doxxed later that week.

The university has remained in the spotlight over student protests against the Israeli government, including one physical confrontation involving a Jewish student who walked through a pro-Palestinian "die-in" and filmed the protesters, per the Crimson.

  • The federal Office of Civil Rights' investigation into Harvard is focusing on five allegations of antisemitic harassment and two allegations of anti-Muslim harassment.

What they're saying: "Had I known that the statement issued by the students would have been wrongly attributed to the university, I would have spoken sooner about it," Gay said.

  • "But I was focused on action that weekend, not statements."

Zoom in: Gay said her administration spent that day identifying whether any students or faculty were in Israel and needed help getting out.

  • The next day, she said, she joined Jewish students and others at Harvard Hillel for a solidarity dinner and on Monday issued the widely criticized statement.

Between the lines: Republican lawmakers at times during questioning blamed diversity and inclusion policies for the rise of antisemitism.

  • Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) asked university presidents to share what percentage of faculty members are conservative and blasted the presidents when they said they don't track that information.
  • Pamela Nadell, a professor of history and Jewish studies at American University and a witness, later said antisemitism exists on the left and the right, and ranges from Kanye West's comments online to the Tree of Life shooting in 2018.

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