Harvard President Gay traveled to Washington to quell the reaction. His testimony only made things worse. | News

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By journalsofus.com

Updated: December 6, 2023, at 8:30 p.m.

WASHINGTON – Harvard President Claudine Gay appeared before the House Education and Workforce Committee on Tuesday to quell the backlash against the University, but her testimony only fanned the flames of controversy.

The hearing ended with members of Congress demanding the resignation of Gay and the leadership of Harvard Hillel, the University’s Jewish center, calling her comments “deeply shocking” and saying they do not trust her to protect the University’s Jewish students. .

The rapid backpedaling of his testimony led Gay to issue a clarification via Harvard’s official social media channels on Wednesday afternoon.

“There are those who have confused the right to free speech with the idea that Harvard will tolerate calls for violence against Jewish students,” Gay said. “Let me be clear: calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or any religious or ethnic group, are vile, have no place at Harvard, and those who threaten our Jewish students will be held accountable.”

At the hearing, Gay was repeatedly forced to defend himself. Harvard’s response to the war between Israel and Hamas and the University’s efforts to combat antisemitism on their campus.

The hearing, at which MIT President Sally A. Kornbluth and University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill also testified, became a test of whether private universities have a responsibility to limit what lawmakers described as hate speech and calls for genocide.

Many Harvard affiliates and politicians criticized Gay’s response to a line of questioning from Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R.N.Y.).

With her allotted five minutes of questioning, Stefanik repeatedly pressed Gay about which statements rise to the level of a violation of Harvard’s policies on bullying and harassment.

Stefanik specifically referenced the phrase “from the river to the sea” and chants such as “intifada, intifada” that have been frequently heard during pro-Palestine protests on the Harvard campus.

Some Jewish groups on campus have condemned these phrases as calls for violence, describing them as “eliminationist.” Pro-Palestinian groups have maintained that the chants are intended as general calls for a free Palestine. Homosexuals explicitly condemned the previous sentence in an email to members last month.

U.S. Rep. Elise M. Stefanik '06 (R.N.Y.) reiterated Harvard President Claudine Gay's resignation following Tuesday's testimony.

U.S. Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R.N.Y.) reiterated Harvard President Claudine Gay’s resignation following Tuesday’s testimony. By Miles J. Herszenhorn

While Gay said during the hearing that those phrases are “personally abhorrent” to her, Stefanik pressed Gay on whether speech calling for genocide violates University policies.

“At Harvard, does calling for genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s bullying and harassment rules?” Stefanik asked at the beginning of a testy exchange with Gay.

“It may be, depending on the context,” Gay responded.

Stefanik repeatedly tried to get Gay to answer yes or no to the question, becoming increasingly frustrated as Gay sought to contextualize her answer.

“Anti-Semitic speech when it turns into conduct that amounts to harassment, intimidation, is actionable conduct and we take action,” Gay said.

But Stefanik was not satisfied with that answer either.

“That’s why I should resign,” Stefanik said. “These are unacceptable responses across the board.”

Stefanik’s outrage reverberated from Washington to Cambridge as the exchange went viral on social media and was widely condemned by Harvard affiliates on campus and by political figures on both sides of the aisle.

White House spokesman Andrew Bates sharply criticized university presidents for their testimony in a statement released Wednesday.

“It’s incredible that this needs to be said: Calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we stand for as a country,” Bates said.

Harvard Hillel President Jacob M. Miller ’25, editor of Crimson Editorial, and Hillel Campus Rabbi Getzel Davis wrote in a statement Tuesday afternoon that Gay’s “refusal to draw a line around the speech threatening anti-Semitic as a violation of Harvard policies is deeply shocking.”

“President Gay’s failure to adequately condemn this speech calls into question her ability to protect Jewish students on Harvard’s campus,” Hillel leadership added. “President Gay’s testimony does not assure us that the University is seriously concerned about the anti-Semitic rhetoric prevalent on campus.”

Gay also faced criticism for not defending pro-Palestinian speech in his congressional testimony.

Violet TM Barron ’26, a member of Harvard Jews for Palestine and editor of Crimson Editorial, wrote in a statement that no one involved in the hearing consulted with Jewish students critical of Israel, despite repeated communications with Gay and committee members .

“This is an unequivocal failure to protect and value the opinions of all Jewish students, but rather it erases certain perspectives and reduces the Jewish community at Harvard and across the country to a monolith,” Barron wrote.

Bill A. Ackman ’88, a billionaire hedge fund manager and one of the fiercest critics of Harvard’s response to the war between Israel and Hamas, soldiered on.

Ackman wrote in a post on X that Gay, Kornbluth and Magill should “resign in disgrace” for their testimony.

“Why has anti-Semitism exploded in universities and around the world?” Ackman wrote. “Because of leaders like Presidents Gay, Magill and Kornbluth who believe that genocide depends on context.”

Stefanik’s criticism of Gay didn’t end Tuesday.

Gay’s attempt at damage control on Wednesday received swift condemnation from the New York Republican in a post on X.

“No one is confused by this desperate attempt to clean up their pathetic anti-Semitic responses from yesterday,” Stefanik wrote. “You can’t undo moral depravity and shame.”

Rep. Kevin P. Kiley ’07 (R-Calif.), another member of the Education and Workforce Committee, also joined Stefanik’s call for Gay’s resignation.

“President Gay’s utterly inadequate response to the anti-Semitism crisis on campus has had profoundly negative consequences at Harvard and beyond,” Kiley wrote in a post on X. “His testimony before our committee confirmed, in the most shocking way, that she is not the leader that these times require.”

University spokesman Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment beyond Gay’s statement released Wednesday.

Laurence H. Tribe ’62, a prominent liberal jurist and professor emeritus at Harvard Law School, wrote in a post on X that he agreed with Stefanik’s criticism of Gay.

“Not a fan of @RepStefanik but I’m with her here,” Tribe wrote. “Claudine Gay’s hesitant, formulaic and strangely evasive responses were deeply disturbing to me and many of my colleagues, students and friends.”

Tribe wasn’t the only unlikely Stefanik ally to echo her criticism of Gay’s testimony. Rep. Jake D. Auchincloss ’10 (D-Mass.) and Rep. Seth W. Moulton ’01 (D-Mass.) issued a joint statement Wednesday condemning Gay’s response to Stefanik’s questioning.

“Harvard ranks last among 248 universities in supporting free speech,” Auchincloss and Moulton said. “But when it comes to calling out anti-Semitism, suddenly the university has First Amendment anxiety.”

“It sounds empty,” they added.

—Staff writer Claire Yuan contributed reporting from Cambridge.

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn reported from Washington. He can be reached at miles.herszenhorn@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @mherszenhorn or in Threads @mileshersz.

—Staff writer Nia L. Orakwue reported from Washington. You can contact her at nia.orakwue@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @nia_orakwue.

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