Harvard's president answers backlash over response to calls for 'genocide of Jews'

Threats to the Jewish community "have no place at Harvard," Claudine Gay said.

December 6, 2023, 8:22 PM

In the face of bipartisan backlash, Harvard University's president on Wednesday tried to clarify answers she gave during a congressional hearing on Tuesday when asked how she would respond to calls for the "genocide of Jews."

Claudine Gay, one of three university presidents grilled before the House Education Committee over how they handled antisemitism on campus, issued a statement through the Harvard X account about an exchange that has drawn online ire: a tense back-and-fourth between Gay and New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik.

Stefanik had asked Gay the hypothetical question: "Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard's rules on bullying and harassment?"

Gay responded, "The rules around bullying and harassment are quite specific and if the context in which that language is used amounts to bullying and harassment, then we take, we take action against it."

Stefanik said that kind of answer fostered antisemitism.

"I asked a very specific question: Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate their schools' bullying and harassment policies? Not a single university president could say 'yes,'" Stefanik said afterward to ABC News Senior White House Correspondent Selina Wang.

Stefanik called for Gay and the other presidents -- of MIT and the University of Pennsylvania -- who gave similar responses -- to resign.

PHOTO: Harvard University President Claudine Gay watches a video being played during a House Education and The Workforce Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, December 5, 2023.
Harvard University President Claudine Gay watches a video being played during a House Education and The Workforce Committee hearing titled "Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism" on Capitol Hill in Washington, December 5, 2023.
Ken Cedeno/Reuters

In her statement Wednesday, Gay said, "There are some who have confused a right to free expression with the idea that Harvard will condone calls for violence against Jewish students."

"Calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or any religious or ethnic group are vile, they have no place at Harvard," she said, adding, "Those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account."

Harvard is among the schools being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for complaints of antisemitism and Islamophobic discrimination on campus.

During Tuesday's hearing, Stefanik -- a Harvard alumna -- also pressed Gay on whether admissions offers would be rescinded or any disciplinary action would be taken against students or applicants who say "from the river to the sea" or "intifada" -- both terms that have been identified as antisemitic rhetoric by Jewish advocacy groups.

Such language has been used in campus protests, which have ramped up since the Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas that killed more than 1,200 people. More than 16,000 people have been killed in Gaza since Oct. 7, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry.

Gay would not directly answer Stefanik's specific questions and said generally that "actions have been taken" against students who have used those terms, but also defended Harvard's free-speech policy.

PHOTO: Rep. Elise Stefanik speaks during a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, Dec. 5, 2023 in Washington.
Rep. Elise Stefanik speaks during a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, Dec. 5, 2023 in Washington.
Mark Schiefelbein/AP

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise joined the call for the presidents to resign, posting to X Wednesday morning that "their hypocrisy is stunning."

"Disgusting that the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and UPenn refused to say that 'calling for the genocide of Jews' is considered harassment and bullying. Let's be clear: It is," Scalise wrote. "This shouldn't be hard for college presidents to say."

Former U.N. Ambassador and Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley said in a post on X that the "equivocation from these college presidents is disgusting."

"Calling for genocide of Jews is no different than calling for genocide of any other ethnic, racial, or religious group. The equivocation from these college presidents is disgusting," she said. "As POTUS, this will end or we'll pull their tax exempt status."

PHOTO: Dr. Claudine Gay, President of Harvard University, testifies before the House Education and Workforce Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building on December 05, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Dr. Claudine Gay, President of Harvard University, testifies before the House Education and Workforce Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building on December 05, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

White House spokesman Andrew Bates blasted the university presidents for their responses as well.

"It's unbelievable that this needs to be said: calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country," Bates said in a statement.

"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."

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