Not condemning genocide calls

Harvard president sorry for remarks

"I am sorry," Gay said in an interview published by her university's student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson.

Harvard president Claudine Gay at the hearing of the US House Committee on Education on December 5. Photo: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein
Harvard president Claudine Gay at the hearing of the US House Committee on Education on December 5. Photo: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

(THE TIMES OF ISRAEL) The president of Harvard University publicly apologised in an interview last Friday for remarks during a congressional hearing about antisemitism on US campuses amid the Israel–Hamas conflict.

Claudine Gay, a professor who has led the prestigious US university since July 2023, was asked whether calls for “genocide” against Jews would violate Harvard’s code of conduct, to which she did not respond with a direct affirmative, instead, staying that it depended on the “context”.

“I am sorry,” Gay said in an interview published by her university’s student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson.

“What I should have had the presence of mind to do in that moment was return to my guiding truth, which is that calls for violence against our Jewish community – threats to our Jewish students – have no place at Harvard, and will never go unchallenged.”

Gay and the two other participants at the five-hour-long hearing – her counterparts Liz Magill at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sally Kornbluth – have faced a backlash for their responses to Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik’s questioning.

Magill walked back some of her comments last Wednesday, saying a call for the genocide of Jewish people would be considered harassment or intimidation.

Stefanik, who studied at Harvard, has called for the presidents to resign and on Wednesday announced that the House Education and Workforce Committee would be “launching an official congressional investigation with the full force of subpoena power” into the three universities, and others.

Representative Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican who chairs the committee, said in a statement, “Other universities should expect investigations as well, as their litany of similar failures has not gone unnoticed.”

The rebukes have been bipartisan, with Democrat Joe Biden’s White House issuing a statement saying, “Calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country.”

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, called on the university presidents to quit, during an interview on Fox News.

“You cannot call for the genocide of Jews, the genocide of any group of people, and not say that that’s harassment,” she said.

Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, also called Magill’s testimony “unacceptable” and urged trustees there to consider Magill’s job. On Thursday night, he joined Jewish students at Penn to mark the start of Chanukah with a menorah-lighting on campus.

Pressure for change has also come from inside the tertiary system. The advisory board at the University of Pennsylvania’s business school, Wharton, told Magill: “The university requires new leadership with immediate effect.”

Meanwhile, lawyers for a major donor to Penn, Ross Stevens, wrote to Penn’s general counsel on Thursday to threaten to withdraw a gift valued at $100 million because of the university’s “stance on ­antisemitism on campus” unless Magill is replaced.

At Harvard, prominent Los Angeles Rabbi David Wolpe resigned from his role at the university’s antisemitism advisory committee, which was established after October 7.

Stefanik, during her line of questioning, likened calls by some student protesters for a new intifada to inciting “genocide against the Jewish people in Israel and globally”.

When asked if “calling for the genocide of Jews” violates their universities’ codes of conduct, the three presidents said it would depend on the context.

Gay said, “When speech crosses into conduct that violates our policies, including policies against bullying, harassment or intimidation, we take action.”

In her comments published Friday by the Crimson, Gay said she had gotten “caught up in what had become at that point, an extended, combative exchange about policies and procedures”.

“When words amplify distress and pain, I don’t know how you could feel anything but regret,” she added.

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