The controversy sparked by comments by three presidents of elite US universities during a congressional hearing on anti-Semitism could have repercussions far beyond the campuses.
The Harvard Corporation, the highest governing body of that prestigious university, has announced that President Claudine Gay will remain in her position, despite calls for her dismissal arising from her statements before Congress. However, another rector, Elizabeth Magill, of the University of Pennsylvania, has had to resign after the repudiation aroused by her responses to the combative interrogation of the Republican congresswoman for New York, Elise Stefanik.
The controversy has only grown since the hearing in early December, with implications for free speech on US campuses. Supporters of Palestinian rights consider this an attempt to silence criticism of Israel over the high death toll in its military offensive against Gaza.
At issue is how the country’s universities are dealing with accusations of anti-Semitism following the October 7 attack by the Palestinian group Hamas against Israel and the subsequent Israeli air and ground operation in the Strip, which has sparked a wave of pro-government protests. -Palestine on campuses.
Why did the principals end up in the spotlight?
For giving what were generally considered weak and legalistic responses to Stefanik’s pointed questions at a Congressional hearing on Capitol Hill on December 5 about whether their universities’ codes of conduct allowed students to request the murder or genocide of Jews.
Magill was especially criticized for responding that it was a “context-dependent decision” when asked if “calling for the genocide of the Jews” violated her university’s rules.
Gay, Harvard’s first African-American president, and Kornbluth, who is Jewish, offered similar legalistic responses citing context, which free speech advocates called technically correct, despite stirring a political firestorm.
Both Magill, before resigning, and Gay later apologized for their responses. For her part, Sally Kornbluth, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has received the support of this educational institution and Gay of the Harvard Corporation.
What role does the Trumpist right play?
Stefanik—a Harvard graduate and former mainstream Republican conservative who has rebranded herself as a pro-Trump MAGA Republican—ambushed the university presidents toward the end of the five hours of testimony.
By demanding a “yes or no” response and asking general, broad-brush questions whose terms were open to competing definitions, Stefanik made the principals’ answers appear ambivalent or equivocal on the issue of genocide. In one of the questions, which some considered biased, she related the Arabic word ‘intifada’ – generally translated as uprising – with the word ‘genocide,’ which refers to the systematic extermination or elimination of a human group.”
“Do you understand that the use of the term ‘intifada’ in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict is in fact a call for violent armed resistance against the State of Israel, including violence against civilians and the genocide of Jews?” he asked. Stefanik to Gay. The question was asked in the wake of chants – even chanted at student demonstrations – in favor of “globalizing the intifada” in response to the Israeli attack on Gaza.
However, using ‘intifada’ as a synonym for ‘genocide’ is very dubious. The First Palestinian Intifada, in the late 1980s, consisted largely of nonviolent forms of civil disobedience. While, during the Second Intifada, between the 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century, there was a wave of suicide attacks that killed more than a thousand Israelis and maimed many others. While some segments of Israeli society were traumatized, it fell short of what is legally defined as genocide.
Gay did not refute or confront Stefanik’s definitions, but said that “that type of hateful, reckless and offensive speech is, in my opinion, abhorrent.” Even more damaging was Stefanik’s exchange with Magill, which avoided direct answers and became entangled in legalisms.
When the congresswoman specifically asked if “the call for genocide of the Jews constitutes intimidation or harassment”Magill – who had already been criticized by university donors for sanctioning a Palestinian literature festival on the Pennsylvania campus last September – responded: “If it is direct and serious, or widespread, it is harassment.”
How have politicians and university donors reacted?
The controversy is driven by politics. Stefanik’s critics maintain that her crusade against anti-Semitism reeked of hypocrisy. Maryland Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin asked on MSNBC: “How can Elise Stefanik lecture someone about anti-Semitism when she is the biggest supporter of Donald Trump, who traffics in anti-Semitism all the time? She didn’t say a word when Trump invited Kanye West and Nick Fuentes to dinner,” alluding to an event with the two declared anti-Semites at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago property, which occurred in November of last year.
Previously, Stefanik herself had been accused of reproducing the anti-Semitic “great replacement” theory. White nationalists who support the theory claim that the white population of the United States is being usurped by people of color in a process designed, at least in part, by Jews.
Stefanik’s attack on university presidents has already earned praise from Donald Trump himself. In addition, the support of some Democrats gives him more credibility. A White House spokesman condemned the three rectors, while the governor of Pennsylvania, Democrat Josh Shapiro, joined the clamor demanding Magill’s resignation.
Magill’s dismissal followed a letter written by Stefanik and Democratic Representative Jared Moskowitz – signed by a total of 71 Republicans and three Democrats – demanding that the three university presidents be removed.
There are many millions of dollars at stake. Donors to the University of Pennsylvania have played a major role in Magill’s withdrawal, and many others have called for Gay and Kornbluth to resign. Ross Stevens, owner and founder of New York-based Stone Ridge Asset Management, announced the withdrawal of a $100 million donation to the University of Pennsylvania, citing the institution’s “permissive approach to hate speech.” .
Why are free speech advocates worried?
Both FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights and Freedom of Expression) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have argued that slogans like those cited by Stefanik are protected, in accordance with the provisions of the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
“Phrases like ‘From the river to the sea,’ ‘No ceasefire,’ ‘Make America great again,’ and ‘No justice, no peace,’ are protected,” Jenna Leventoff, chief political advisor for the ACLU.
Regarding the hesitant responses of university officials in Congress, and warning against efforts by his colleagues to adopt a more restrictive approach, Leventoff added: “Speeches containing a serious and imminent threat of violence or incitement to violence, or that persistently harass someone because of their race, sex, ethnicity, religion, national origin, or other protected characteristics are not protected by the First Amendment or the principles of academic freedom (…) but Congress cannot expect that “University administrators spend their time deciding what deeply held beliefs can be censored and what opinions can be expressed,” he wrote.
Stefanik’s reference to the “intifada” may be a pertinent example: a word that defenders of Israel consider synonymous with violence against Israelis is claimed by defenders of the Palestinian cause as a legitimate expression of national conviction. Now university officials are asked to arbitrate this difference in perception.
What do students and teachers say?
At Harvard, Gay gained considerable support from her colleagues: before the Harvard Corporation endorsed her, hundreds of professors had signed a petition against calls for her resignation. MIT has endorsed Kornbluth, praising her “excellent work leading our community, including fighting anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hate.”
The response from students has been varied. The UPenn student newspaper, Daily Pennsylvanian, cited some students who fear the impact Magill’s forced resignation could have on freedom of expression. One student said he was “alarmed by the implications for free speech and academic freedom if the far right uses this resignation as license to start policing calls for peace, ceasefires and Palestinian rights.” .
But the newspaper also quoted a senior, Albena Ruseva, who called the rector’s resignation “a small victory for those who value freedom of expression and oppose hate speech.”
Translation by Julián Cnochaert