University Presidents Give Congressional Testimony About Anti-Semitism on Campus (Plus Jewish Students' Perspectives)

AP Photo/Michael Casey, File

College presidents from Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania were called to testify before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce today about their efforts to deal with anti-Semitism on campus. The committee chairwoman gave an interview prior to the hearing to describe what she wanted to hear from the school presidents.


In an interview before the hearing, the committee chairwoman, Rep. Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina, said the three presidents had been called to testify because “we heard in particular that the most egregious situations have occurred on these campuses.” Another president, Minouche Shafik, of Columbia University, had been invited to testify but declined because of a scheduling conflict, an aide to Representative Foxx said.

“What I would like to get from them is a clear statement that they’re going to grow some spine and speak out on behalf of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association, and against antisemitism and threats being made to these students,” Representative Foxx said in the interview. “That’s what I want to hear. I think that’s what America wants to hear.”

At the hearing itself it sounds as if Rep. Foxx was pretty aggressive.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the committee’s chairwoman, said administrators “have largely stood by, allowing horrific rhetoric to fester and grow” amid “countless examples of antisemitic demonstrations on college campuses.” Foxx began the hearing with a moment of silence for Israelis and others held hostage or killed by Hamas.

“After the events of the past two months, it’s clear that rabid antisemitism and the university are two ideas that cannot be cleaved from one another,” Foxx said, insisting that “institutional antisemitism and hate are among the poison fruits of your institutions’ cultures.”


Rep. Bobby Scott, the ranking Democrat on the committee also suggested there was a problem.

“Historically, college campuses have been hubs for students and faculty to foster intellectual thought and expression,” Scott said in his opening remarks. “Regrettably, following Hamas’ October 7 attack on innocent civilians in Israel, the ongoing conflict in Gaza, college campuses have become polarized, and we’ve been witnessing a disturbing rise in incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia.”

Harvard’s president admitted she hadn’t always gotten it right.

“During these difficult days, I have felt the bonds of our community strained,” Gay said. “In response, I have sought to confront hate, while preserving free expression. This is difficult work. And I know that I have not always gotten it right. The free exchange of ideas is the foundation upon which Harvard is built, and safety and well being are the prerequisites for engagement in our community.”

There was a contentious exchange between Rep. Elise Stefanik who tried to pin president Gay down on whether students had the right to call for violence against Israelis using the term “intifada,” i.e. “globalize the intifada.” As you’ll see, president Gay said she found this personally abhorrent but that it was protected free speech.


Rep. Stefanik definitely has a point here. In September of this year, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) reported that Harvard had received its lowest ever score in the group’s ranking of colleges protection of free speech.

In 2020, Harvard ranked 46 out of 55 schools. In 2021, it ranked 130 out of 154 schools. Last year, it ranked 170 out of 203 schools. And this year, Harvard completed its downward spiral in dramatic fashion, coming in dead last with the worst score ever: 0.00 out of a possible 100.00. This earns it the notorious distinction of being the only school ranked this year with an “Abysmal” speech climate.

What’s more, granting Harvard a score of 0.00 is generous. Its actual score is -10.69, more than six standard deviations below the average and more than two standard deviations below the second-to-last school in the rankings, its Ivy League counterpart, the University of Pennsylvania.

FIRE went on to point out that Harvard had a “dismal” record of responding to efforts to sanction people for protected speech.

  • From 2019 to this year, Harvard sanctioned four scholars, three of whom it terminated.
  • In 2020, Harvard revoked conservative student activist Kyle Kashuv’s acceptance over comments he made on social media as a 16-year-old, for which he had since apologized.
  • In 2022, Harvard disinvited feminist philosopher Devin Buckley from an English department colloquium on campus over her views on gender and trans issues.
  • In 2019, Harvard was the site of a substantial event disruption when protesters interrupted a joint talk featuring former Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow and Graduate School of Education Dean Bridget Terry Long by occupying the stage and refusing to leave.

So it’s pretty amazing that Harvard is suddenly clinging to free speech as its explanation for why students are allowed to call for violence against Israelis (and Jews more broadly) up until the point it crosses into “conduct.” In the recent past they have been much less willing to, for instance, overlook offensive online comments by a 16-year-old applicant which never crossed into conduct. Gay shrugged this off saying it was a decision made before she became president of Harvard. That’s true but also a dodge. If the previous decision was wrong, she could say that. If it wasn’t she could attempt to square the circle with the adults calling for violence on her campus. The fact that she can’t bring herself to do either is very revealing.

University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill was equally robotic when trying to explain why noted anti-Semitie Roger Waters was invited to her campus.

As mentioned above, there was a press conference held prior to the hearing at which the House GOP featured four Jewish students who spoke about their experiences on campus. Here’s Jonathan Frieden from Harvard Law.


Here’s Eyal Yakoby from Penn:

This is Bella Ingber from NYU:

And lastly Talia Khan from MIT:


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