Republicans condemn US university presidents on Israel protests

Leaders of three elite universities berated in appearance before lawmakers alarmed by protests 

December 6, 2023
Protest at UC Berkeley

The presidents of three top-ranked US universities were called before Congress to be berated by Republican lawmakers and threatened with financial penalties for being insufficiently supportive of Israel after the October surprise attack by Hamas.

After watching nearly two months of emotional and frightening campus protests on both sides of the Israel-Gaza divide, Republicans seized on the anxious atmosphere to insist that pro-Palestinian sympathies show academia as a dangerous cultivator of elitist and out-of-touch attitudes.

Their forum was a hearing arranged by the education committee of the House of Representatives. It ran for more than four hours, as members of the chamber’s Republican majority repeatedly lectured the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The chairwoman of the House panel, Representative Virginia Foxx, opened the Capitol Hill assembly with a moment of silence for Israelis and others killed by Hamas, and a warning that the university leaders should use the moment to “atone” for anti-Israel actions that have occurred on their campuses. She ended it hours later by saying that post-secondary education “has never been held in such low esteem” in the US and that it should no longer be considered “higher education” because “higher-order skills are not being taught and learned”.

In between, she and her party allies repeatedly highlighted one side of the ongoing campus protests: those incidents where students and faculty have criticised Israeli attacks and defended Palestinians seeking political autonomy. “It is your job to keep Jewish students safe,” Representative Foxx told the presidents.

The university presidents told the lawmakers that they had been striving to comply with federal rules, which allowed free speech – even if widely viewed as distasteful – and required campuses to prevent and punish only those actions that were violent or threatening.

Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, had only been in office for three months at the time of the Hamas attack, and she was widely criticised for not immediately condemning a statement from student groups that expressed support for the Palestinians. She conceded to the lawmakers that she made some mistakes, including not realising that the student statement would be interpreted as somehow reflecting the university’s position.

“We don’t always get it right,” Professor Gay said. Lessons from the experience, she said, included the need to get the Harvard community better prepared for moments of crisis, through such steps as offering students more instruction in the history of the Middle East and its conflicts. “We have work to do on that, for sure,” she said.

Meanwhile, Representative Rick Allen asked the university leaders if they would suspend foreign students who violated their rules. Representative James Comer insisted that “many of our country’s top universities and colleges are for sale”, with funding from Muslim-majority nations apparently raising support for terrorism.

Representatives Glenn Grothman, Bob Good and Aaron Bean said that elite US universities clearly avoided conservative faculty and students, and suggested that omission helped to explain a lack of support for Israel. Very few US faculty supported Donald Trump as president, Mr Grothman complained. “America sees what’s happening,” Mr Bean said.

Representatives Tim Walberg and Jim Banks both listed instructors at Harvard and Penn who had faced sanction for making comments about gender and race, and demanded to know why similar penalties were not always meted out to those speaking out on behalf of Palestinians.

Mr Walberg said he favoured promoting truth over knowledge. “Knowledge isn’t true,” he said. Mr Allen said that wisdom was more important than knowledge. “Biblical illiteracy is the number one problem in America,” he said.

Representatives Lisa McClain, John James and Elise Stefanik were especially aggressive, repeatedly subjecting the presidents to rapid-fire demands for yes or no answers – usually about their commitment to punishing anti-Jewish and anti-Israel statements – and then condemning the presidents for not quickly providing the responses they sought.

With their turns, Democrats acknowledged that many US campuses were struggling with a variety of intolerant attitudes, including antisemitism. But they traced much of the recent renewal in antisemitism across the US to Mr Trump, notably his assertion that there were "very fine people on both sides" of the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Antisemitism in the US had “been rising and rising since 2016”, said Pamela Nadell, a professor of Jewish history and director of the Jewish Studies Programme at American University, the lone expert Democrats were allowed to invite to the hearing.

Several Democrats said that the problem of antisemitism on college campuses would be better addressed if the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights was given a sufficient budget to investigate such matters. Instead, they noted, House Republicans had put forth a new annual budget that would cut that office by 25 per cent. “The cut would be devastating,” Professor Nadell said.

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Reader's comments (1)

The same stale conflation of legitimate criticism of the State of Israel with antisemitism. Nobody seems able to tell the difference between the two quite different actions. Hating people merely because they happen to be Jews is wrong under all circumstances. Speaking out against the behaviour of the State of Israel is not, it is a matter of opinion. Some see the carpet bombing and siege of Gaza as an appropriate response to the Hamas attack in October, others do not. Neither are making any kind of statement about the Jewish people.