Lawmakers grill 3 elite university presidents for handling of antisemitism on campus

"The antisemitism igniting on campuses today is not new," said Pamela Nadell, director of American Unversity's Jewish Studies Program. "It's part of a long history of American antisemitism."

Political tension surrounding the Israel-Hamas war has plunged some of the nation’s most well-known college campuses into disarray. At a Congress hearing on Tuesday, U.S. representatives had the chance to probe three prominent presidents on how they’ve handled the rise in antisemitic incidents.

Claudine Gay of Harvard University, Lauren Magill of University of Pennsylvania and Sally Kornbluth of Massachusetts Institute of Technology testified on Capitol Hill before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Each president serves a university embroiled in controversy for not taking stronger action against antisemitism and terrorism. This past Sunday, protestors at the University of Pennsylvania vandalized property with antisemitic graffiti and chanted “Intifada,” implying a violent uprising against Israel.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) delivered one of the most heated hearings, pushing Gay under fire for not conceding that “calling for the genocide of Jews” constitutes bullying and harassment, which would effectively become a student code of conduct issue.

While lawmakers lambasted the presidents for not taking more stringent disciplinary actions against what Gay describes as “reckless” actions by protestors, Kornbluth, who is Jewish, defended the fine line that protects the tenants of free speech, viewpoint diversity and free expression.

“Meeting those three goals is challenging, and the results can be terribly uncomfortable, but it is essential for how we operate in the United States,” she said.

But in Rep. Jim Banks’ (R-N.Y.) turn with President Magill, he criticized UPenn for its irregularities in upholding these tenants.

“The fact is,” he said, “UPenn regulates speech that it doesn’t like.”

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The three presidents reiterated their condemnation of antisemitism and all forms of prejudice throughout the hearing and reaffirmed the actions they’ve taken to combat it, such as upgrading police presence and student mental health services. Magill conceded she was “troubled” by committee chair Virginia Foxx’s description of the “moral rot” occurring in higher education, believing antisemitism in higher education is a symptom of a broader worldwide trend.

However, critics described several ways universities have historically allowed the issue to fester. Pamela Nadell, director of American University’s Jewish Studies Program and fourth witness before Congress, referenced elite private school quotas of the early twentieth century that limited Jewish student enrollment.

“The antisemitism igniting on campuses today is not new,” she said. “It’s part of a long history of American antisemitism.”

Republican lawmakers also grilled the presidents on their use of diversity statements and an oppressive, left-leaning campus culture that restricts viewpoint diversity.

“There is no diversity and inclusion of intellectual thought, and the result of that is antisemitism,” said Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.). “College campuses have descended from coveted centers of intellectual freedom to illiberal sewers of tolerance and bigotry.”

In order to take concrete steps to combat antisemitism, Rep. Joe Courtney (D-N.Y.) referred to the potency of the first-ever national strategy to combat antisemitism laid out by the Biden administration in May. The strategy involves a robust range of federal resources, including the FBI, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), the Department of Defense and the General Service Administration.

While intended to be a partisan debate, some Democrats took shots at the GOP-majority House for helping defund the OCR, a move Nadell finds “devastating” to the nation’s mission to uproot antisemitism.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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