The elusive responses of the presidents of Harvard and Pennsylvania universities and MIT, who appeared before the Congressional Education Committee on Tuesday to answer accusations of allowing anti-Semitism on their campuses, have led to a cascade of virulent reactions that have forced the academics to rectify or at least qualify their comments. The war in Gaza has raised tensions on campuses, polarized to irreconcilable extremes, and pushed major Jewish donors to the universities to withdraw their funding, for what they see as the lukewarmness of the faculty when it comes to denouncing anti-Semitic attitudes (for many, a simple slogan in favor of the intifada, or even the call for a ceasefire). The congressional hearing was supposed to clear up the controversy, but the perceived lukewarmness of women, when asked about the adoption of disciplinary measures against students who have chanted allegedly anti-Semitic chants, did not satisfy Republican representatives, and some Democrats, and even less the university community.
Liz Magill, president of the University of Pennsylvania, which like Harvard belongs to the exclusive Ivy Leagye, vowed late Wednesday to review the institution's code of conduct after calls for her resignation mounted for refusing to tell the committee whether advocating genocide was a violation of it. Students and alumni redoubled their criticism after the rector refused to explicitly and categorically affirm, in response to questions from Republican Elise Stefanik — a representative of the party's most radical faction — that advocating the genocide of Jews would flagrantly violate the university's policy.
Stefanik's intervention raised the temperature of a debate that from the first minute had become a lock-in. The representative from New York, an ally of Donald Trump, also reproached Claudine Gay, president of Harvard, for not having taken disciplinary measures against students who have chanted in favor of the intifada, because, in her opinion, they represent a call "to commit genocide against the Jewish people." An equation as categorical as it is exaggerated: the two intifadas in the Palestinian territories, the first of them in the 1980s, did not lead to the collective extermination of the Jewish population.
Magill and Gay, along with MIT chief Sally Kornbluth, reiterated to the committee on Tuesday the importance of guaranteeing freedom of expression, but each of their calls for dialogue seemed to further inflame their interlocutors, who were turned antagonists from the outset. Of the three, and after even the governor of Pennsylvania, Josh Shapiro, also Jewish, joined the chorus of criticism with threats — he said Penn's board would have to make "serious decisions" about Magill — it was she who stepped forward by stating in a video posted Wednesday night on the Internet that she should have focused more on the "evil" of the apology for genocide rather than on the "evil" of the genocide apology. contextualize the issue as a free speech issue in line with the U.S. Constitution and the traditions of debate on campus.
"I want to be clear. A call for the genocide of the Jewish people is threatening, profoundly threatening," Magill says in the video. "It is intended to intentionally terrorize a people who have been subjected to pogroms and hatred for centuries, and who were victims of genocide in the Holocaust. In my opinion, it would be harassment or intimidation," he added. Magill announced that she and John Jackson, Pennsylvania's provost and excellence, would begin a process to evaluate and clarify campus policy, saying, "We can and will get it right."
Shortly before Magill posted his apology on video, an online petition demanding that the university's Board of Trustees accept Magill's resignation due to his "failure to unequivocally condemn calls for genocide by Jewish students and his inability to identify them as harassment," racked up 2,500 signatures. "[Magill's] misleading message sends a chilling message to Jewish students," the letter said.
Democratic representatives on the Education Committee agreed with the principals at Tuesday's hearing on the difficulty of distinguishing between speech that incites violence and speech that is abhorrent or uncomfortable, but legal, a swampy shadow subject to the vagaries of misinformation or propaganda, if not both. However, the Democrats did not break a clear spear for the three rectors, in the wake of the leader of the majority in the Senate, the Democratic senator, and Jew, Chuck Schumer, who at the end of November warned of the serious consequences that anti-Semitism has for the country. Schumer accused the "radical left," which has some representatives in the most left-wing of his party, of having taken over the campuses, and that is the discourse that is followed to the millimeter in the controversy. Above any academic criteria.
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