Leaders of three elite American universities have told a House committee that antisemitism had surged on their campuses since Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel but attempted to rebut Republican claims that leftwing ideology at their institutions was to blame.
Instead, they cast the rise in hostility towards Jews as part of a broader increase in antisemitism across the US, citing an accompanying rise in Islamophobia. They also touted vigorous efforts to counter hatred and protect their students.
“We have seen a dramatic and deeply concerning rise in antisemitism around the world, in the United States and on our campuses — including my own,” Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard, told the House committee on education and the workforce on Tuesday. “I know many in our Harvard Jewish community are hurting.”
Gay appeared before the committee alongside Liz Magill, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, and Sally Kornbluth, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The hearing comes as America’s elite universities have been roiled by the events in the Middle East. Jewish students have complained of feeling harassed and intimidated on campuses ringing with eliminationist slogans about Israel. Donors — many Jewish, but not all — are withholding financial contributions and publicly campaigning for the removal of some of the leaders.
University professors, meanwhile, have been torn between containing hateful — potentially dangerous — rhetoric while preserving free speech.
Gay, who took office in October and is Harvard’s first black president, has come in for particular criticism. She acknowledged her shortcomings, saying: “This is difficult work and I know I have not always got it right.”
She added: “Antisemitism is a symptom of ignorance. And the cure for ignorance is knowledge. Harvard must model what it means to preserve free expression while combating prejudice and preserving the security of our community.”
All three presidents began their remarks by condemning Hamas explicitly — something they were faulted for not doing in the immediate aftermath of October 7 — and what Magill described as “its abhorrent terrorist attack on Israel”.
Antisemitism had been rising in US society prior to October 7, she said, and “no place” was immune. She defended her decision to allow a Palestinian literature conference to go forward in September — on the high Jewish holidays — even though it featured some speakers with a history of antisemitic remarks. To cancel it, Magill argued, would have been inconsistent with Penn’s commitment to academic freedom.
In one stark moment, all three presidents were asked if they believed that Israel had a right to exist as a Jewish state. They affirmed that it did.
Throughout the hearing, the three women, who preside over some of the world’s most revered educational institutions, were repeatedly badgered by Republicans over such matters as their Middle Eastern funding, the political slant of their faculty and a litany of antisemitic incidents on their campuses.
Virginia Foxx, the Republican chair of the committee, held the universities uniquely responsible, saying the current brand of antisemitism “did not come out of nowhere. There are cultures at your universities that foster it.”
In particular, Foxx blamed a catch-all of leftwing philosophies that have become flashpoints in the culture war, including anti-racism, anti-colonialism, critical race theory and diversity equity and inclusion initiatives.
Bobby Scott, the committee’s ranking Democrat, accused Republicans of attempting to stoke division, and noted that the party had refused to call a hearing three years earlier when white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanted antisemitic slogans.
The controversy on campuses has also spilled into the courts, as Jewish students at the University of California, Berkeley, and its law school as well as New York University have sued their schools alleging they failed to do enough to stop antisemitism. On Tuesday, two students at Penn filed a similar case in federal court in Philadelphia, alleging that Jewish people are subject to a “pervasively hostile educational environment” at the university.
On the eve of the hearing, Israel’s UN ambassador, Gilad Erdan, said Harvard had become “dangerous for Jews” and “an incubator for terror supporters” while visiting the university for a private screening of footage of Hamas atrocities. “Following October seventh, it has become clear that . . . Harvard’s moral bar is non-existent.”