Sunday, June 23

Harvard, M.I.T. and Penn Say They Are Acting Against Antisemitism, in Congressional Testimony

The presidents of three of the country’s top universities — Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and M.I.T. — defended themselves against accusations that they had allowed their campuses to be swept by a tide of antisemitism, in opening testimony before a congressional committee on Tuesday.

Claudine Gay of Harvard, Elizabeth Magill of Penn and Sally Kornbluth of M.I.T. testified before the Republican-led House Committee on Education and the Workforce about what they acknowledged was antisemitic, and also Islamophobic, behavior on their campuses since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

Dr. Gay said that the balance between allowing protests and protecting against antisemitism has been tricky.

“I have sought to confront hate while preserving free expression,” Dr. Gay said. “This is difficult work, and I know that I have not always gotten it right.”

But the presidents, who are all fairly new to their jobs, said they also had made many efforts to aid Jewish students, including denunciations of the attack, beefed-up security and the formation of task forces to fight antisemitism on campus.

“We have reiterated that speech that incites violence, threatens safety, or violates Harvard’s policies against bullying and harassment is unacceptable,” Dr. Gay said in her opening statement. “We have made it clear that any behaviors that disrupt our teaching and research efforts will not be tolerated; and where these lines have been crossed, we have taken action.”

The committee signaled from the outset that the hearing would be combative, sending out a news release under the headline, “College Presidents to Answer for Mishandling of Antisemitic, Violent Protests.”

In an interview before the hearing, the committee chairwoman, Rep. Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina, said the three presidents had been called to testify because “we heard in particular that the most egregious situations have occurred on these campuses.” Another president, Minouche Shafik, of Columbia University, had been invited to testify but declined because of a scheduling conflict, an aide to Dr. Foxx said.

“What I would like to get from them is a clear statement that they’re going to grow some spine and speak out on behalf of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association, and against antisemitism and threats being made to these students,” Dr. Foxx said in the interview. “That’s what I want to hear. I think that’s what America wants to hear.”

A November survey by Hillel and the Anti-Defamation League found that after the Hamas attack on Israel, 46 percent of Jewish students felt safe after the attack, compared with 67 percent before the attack.

And after the attack, 44 percent of Jewish students viewed their university as welcoming and supportive, as opposed to before the attack, when 64 percent of Jewish students felt so.

Anecdotally, Jewish students have said they have agonized over whether to hide symbols of their Jewish identity, like a star of David necklace or a kipa on their heads. Some students said they had been afraid to leave their dorm rooms.

At the same time, the Council on American-Islamic Relations is reporting a sharp increase in bias attacks against Muslims. Last month, three college students of Palestinian descent were shot in Burlington, Vt., which police are investigating as a possible hate crime. And Muslim students and pro-Palestinian students have been doxxed, having their names and photographs disseminated on mobile billboards attached to trucks under the legend, for instance, “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites.”

The federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has launched investigations into complaints of discrimination against Harvard and Penn. Title VI of the civil rights act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race or national origin. Since 2004, the Office for Civil Rights has interpreted that to include shared ethnic or ancestral background, regardless of whether a group also has shared religious beliefs or practices.