White House condemns university presidents after contentious congressional hearing on antisemitism

The White House condemned the presidents of three top universities Wednesday after they appeared to sidestep questions at a congressional hearing about whether students’ calling for the genocide of Jews violates their schools’ codes of conduct. 

“It’s unbelievable that this needs to be said: calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country. Any statements that advocate for the systematic murder of Jews are dangerous and revolting — and we should all stand firmly against them, on the side of human dignity and the most basic values that unite us as Americans,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement Wednesday. 

His statement came in response to congressional testimony Tuesday from Claudine Gay of Harvard University, Elizabeth Magill of the University of Pennsylvania and Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing about antisemitism on college campuses, they said there has been a sharp rise in anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim incidents at their campuses since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7. They condemned antisemitism and Islamophobia broadly and said they were taking steps to address the issue.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., the chairwoman of the House GOP Conference, asked Gay, Magill and Kornbluth whether a student’s calling for the genocide of Jews would violate student codes of conduct at their schools, but they repeatedly deflected the question.

Gay said in her testimony that “it depends on the context” in determining whether calling for the genocide of the Jewish people violates Harvard’s code of conduct. 

“Antisemitic rhetoric, when it crosses into conduct, it amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation. That is actionable conduct, and we do take action,” Gay said. 

Stefanik asked Magill whether a student’s calling for the genocide of Jews violates Penn’s rules when it comes to bullying and harassment. Magill said, “If the speech becomes conduct, it can be harassment.”

“It is a context-dependent decision,” Magill said when she was repeatedly pressed to clarify her testimony. 

Stefanik asked Kornbluth whether calling for the genocide of Jews constitutes bullying or harassment. “I have not heard calling for the genocide for Jews on our campus,” Kornbluth said. 

Asked whether it would violate MIT’s code of conduct or rules, she said, “That would be investigated as harassment if pervasive and severe.

Bates said in his statement that the world “just witnessed the worst massacre suffered by the Jewish people since the Holocaust, the latest atrocities in a heartbreaking, genocidal pattern that goes back thousands of years. President Biden has demonstrated moral clarity during this appalling rise in Antisemitism, when it’s more critical than ever to lead by example.”

Gay said in a new statement Wednesday on Harvard University’s X account that some “have confused a right to free expression with the idea that Harvard will condone calls for violence against Jewish students.”

“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. The university leaders made their testimony amid rising national levels of antisemitism at American colleges and universities,” Gay added.

Magill also said Wednesday in a statement on the University of Pennsylvania’s X account that “a call for genocide against the Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate. It’s evil, plain and simple.

“I want to be clear, a call for genocide of Jewish people is threatening, deeply so,” she continued. “It is intentionally meant to terrify a people who have been subjected to pogroms and hatred for centuries and were the victims of mass genocide in the Holocaust. In my view, it would be harassment or intimidation.”

She said the university’s policies need to be clarified and evaluated, and she would being a process to do so.

Representatives for MIT, Harvard and Penn did not respond to NBC News’ requests for comment.

A recent poll released by the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish outreach organization Hillel International found that 73% of Jewish college students and 44% of non-Jewish students experienced or saw antisemitic incidents since the beginning of the 2023-24 school year, from antisemitic vandalism to threats of physical violence.