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Keller @ Large: Harvard president questioned about "institutional antisemitism" on campus

Keller @ Large: Harvard president questioned about "institutional antisemitism" on campus
Keller @ Large: Harvard president questioned about "institutional antisemitism" on campus 02:30

BOSTON - The head of Harvard University faced tough questions on Capitol Hill Tuesday from lawmakers who say the school hasn't done enough to curb antisemitic behavior. 

"Institutional antisemitism and hate are among the poisoned fruits of your institutions' cultures," Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina) chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, told the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and Penn Tuesday at a hearing into their handling of antisemitism on campus since the outbreak of war in the Middle East. 

And while Harvard President Claudine Gay told the committee she was doing her best to balance free speech with the protection of Jewish students and faculty, she wound up taking the most heat over her school's reputation as the least tolerant campus in the nation. 

Her most aggressive protagonist was Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-New York) who asked Gay about video showing anti-Israel Harvard protestors chanting "intifada, intifada, long live the intifada" and "globalize the intifada."

University Presidents Testify In House Hearing On Campus Antisemitism
(L-R) Dr. Claudine Gay, President of Harvard University, Liz Magill, President of University of Pennsylvania, and Dr. Sally Kornbluth, President of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, testify before the House Education and Workforce Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building on December 05, 2023 in Washington, DC. Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images

"You understand that this call for intifada is a call to commit genocide against the Jewish people in Israel and globally, correct?" said Stefanik. 

As she did many times during her often-robotic testimony, Gay replied: "We embrace a commitment to free expression, even of views that are objectionable, offensive, hateful." 

When another questioner asked Gay if she knew that "70% of Harvard students say that shouting down a speaker is acceptable," the president allowed that was "not OK." But Gay wouldn't answer a crucial question - do contributors to Harvard's antisemitic climate face any consequences from her administration? 

"What action has been taken against students who are harassing and calling for the genocide of Jews on the Harvard campus?" asked Stefanik. 

"I can assure you we have robust..." Gay began before Stefanik cut her off. "I'm asking what actions have been taken against students?" 

"Given students right to privacy and our obligations under FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), I will not say more about any specific cases," said Gay. 

That wasn't satisfactory for several of the members, including Rep. Julia Letlow (R-Louisiana): "While I am grateful for your condemning of antisemitism in statements to your students and this committee, it's not enough. There has been no real action to hold antisemitic students accountable for their behavior. They should be expelled." 

Gay clung to her talking points throughout the day-long hearing, most notably the claim that free expression is a sacred cow on campus. But at Harvard as at other big-time, big-budget universities, freedom and truth compete with other priorities, like fear of litigation and the impulse to mollify rather than confront extremist students and faculty. 

Tuesday's hearing was little more than a venting session, but it served a purpose for Gay and her counterparts - substituting talk for action until this whole ugly episode can, they hope, blow over. 

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