University leaders condemn Jewish genocide rhetoric as backlash grows

Two elite university leaders have said they strongly oppose any rhetoric calling for genocide against Jews, after they drew criticism from the White House for appearing to sidestep the issue in a congressional hearing this week.

Claudine Gay, president of Harvard University, and M. Elizabeth Magill, president of the University of Pennsylvania, both issued statements Wednesday amid growing pressure from politicians, students, academics and donors to take a stronger line and call out anti-Jewish hatred as the war between Israel and Hamas raises tensions at U.S. colleges.

At Tuesday’s four-hour hearing on antisemitism on college campuses, before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Gay, Magill and Sally Kornbluth, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, all condemned antisemitism and Islamophobia in broad terms and said they were working to combat them.

But when Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., asked the three leaders if a student calling for the genocide of Jews would break college codes of conduct, they repeatedly deflected the question.

Gay said “it depends on the context” and added that antisemitic rhetoric would be classed as “bullying, harassment, intimidation.”

Asked the same question, Magill said: “If the speech becomes conduct, it can be harassment.” When pressed, Magill added: “It is a context-dependent decision.” 

Kornbluth said she had not heard of students at MIT calling for the genocide of Jews and said if reported it would be “investigated as harassment if pervasive and severe.”

Referring to the hearing, White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement that it was “unbelievable that this needs to be said: calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country.”

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, who holds a nonvoting spot on Penn’s board of trustees, told reporters Wednesday that the university had some “serious decisions” to make.

“They have seemingly failed every step of the way to take concrete action to make sure all students feel safe on campus,” Shapiro said. “And then the testimony yesterday took it to the next level.”

In a video posted to Facebook on Wednesday night, Magill said she should have been focused on “the irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate.”

“It’s evil, plain and simple,” she added.

In a separate statement posted to X, Gay said: “Let me be clear: Calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or any religious or ethnic group are vile, they have no place at Harvard, and those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account.”

Harvard law professor emeritus Laurence Tribe was among the academics who criticized the presidents’ responses. “Claudine Gay’s hesitant, formulaic, and bizarrely evasive answers were deeply troubling to me and many of my colleagues, students, and friends,” he wrote on X.

Tribe added in a subsequent post Thursday morning: “Even the attempted ‘clarifications’ by these university presidents, opting for what they mistook for legal nuance over what should’ve been simple moral clarity, showed how easily a search for political correctness can triumph over wisdom and courage alike.”

University leaders testify before the House Education and Workforce Committee.
University leaders testify before the House Education and the Workforce Committee in Washington on Tuesday.Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images

Two Penn students filed a lawsuit Thursday, seen by NBC News, that says the university is “an incubation lab for virulent anti-Jewish hatred, harassment, and discrimination.”

Eyal Yakoby and Jordan Davis, who are both Jewish, said in the suit that the school had failed to protect Jewish students and had hired antisemitic professors.

The two are demanding unspecified damages and that their tuition fees be returned “to compensate them for the hostility they have been forced to endure because of Penn’s unlawful conduct.”

On Thursday, Stefanik announced the House would be launching an official investigation into the controversy.

“After this week’s pathetic and morally bankrupt testimony by university presidents when answering my questions, the Education and Workforce Committee is launching an official Congressional investigation with the full force of subpoena power into Penn, MIT, & Harvard and others,” Stefanik said. “We will use our full Congressional authority to hold these schools accountable for their failure on the global stage.”

Unrest has spread to the school’s major donors. Marc Rowan, co-founder and CEO of Apollo Global Management, wrote a letter to Penn’s board of trustees this week calling on them to end their support for Magill, according to reports from The New York Times and CNN.