The firestorm over antisemitism on college campuses may be dying down from its hottest point last week, when congressional questioning of three elite university presidents over their institutions’ responses to antisemitism went viral and resulted in one of them losing her job.
But the discord has turned into a lingering debate over free speech on campuses, one that has left experts and scholars worried about its potential chilling effect on dialogue, debate, and education at institutions of higher learning.
The debate reached a frenzy after the congressional hearing last week that saw lawmakers grilling the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania, most notably Rep. Elise Stefanik’s (R-NY) line of questioning on whether calls for the “genocide of Jews” would violate their campus codes of conduct. Though all three had repeatedly assured lawmakers that they hold students accountable for conduct that violates their policies on bullying, harassment, and intimidation during their nearly five-hour testimony, their answers to Stefanik’s question were essentially the same: It depends.
That answer was widely deemed unacceptable by many Republicans, some Democrats (including the White House), prominent alumni, and deep-pocketed university donors, one of whom pulled a $100 million donation to Penn in the intense fallout. Former University of Pennsylvania president Elizabeth Magill, after losing the support of the university board, consequently announced her resignation. Harvard president Claudine Gay faced calls for her removal, but the university board stood behind her on Tuesday and will allow her to remain in her position. Though some politicians had also called for MIT president Sally Kornbluth’s ouster, she was supported by her board from the outset.
Many of the critics wanted a simple “yes” to Stefanik’s question. But the university presidents could not have given that and still upheld their commitments to free speech.
“Without getting greater detail as to what the abstract call for genocide would be and what sort of pattern of conduct or behavior it might be a part of, the college presidents were put in a situation in which they could not answer that question with one word,” said Nico Perrino, executive vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, an organization that advocates for free speech.
But they also didn’t communicate what they needed to at a moment of heightened tensions. Their first mistake was failing to challenge the assumption inherent in Stefanik’s question: that their students have already unambiguously called for genocide. Vox spoke with multiple scholars at their schools (and others) who have studied antisemitism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; all cast doubt on the idea that students have made any genocidal statements. And though there have been a number of instances in which controversial statements have been used on campuses, accounts of explicit calls for genocide have yet to emerge. Knowing that their words would be broadcast across the world, the university presidents might have also done more to empathize with the concerns of Jewish students amid a very real global outpouring of antisemitism.
“They would have been able to get to a lot of the issues that are complex and do involve context. The problem is, you can’t start with that,” said Frederick Lawrence, the former president of Brandeis University and a lecturer at Georgetown Law. “You have to start with a statement that you will protect your students and your staff and your faculty and all the people on your campus.”
Their failure to do so ignited calls for their ousting in US media coverage for days, sometimes overshadowing even the actual ongoing war in Gaza as the death toll there climbed above 18,600 this week.
“I think Magill’s resignation and Gay’s troubles, even if partly self-inflicted, will greatly embolden donors and outside activists who seek to suppress allpro-Palestinian speech on campuses, not only that which occasionally crosses the line into antisemitism,” said Matt Berkman, an assistant professor of Jewish studies at Oberlin College.
What’s happening on college campuses and what went down at the hearing
That Stefanik may have been misleading in her characterization of students’ statements shouldn’t obscure the fact that incidents of antisemitism are on the rise on college campuses and across the country. The Anti-Defamation League, a mainstream Jewish pro-Israel group and also one of the US’s leading anti-extremism organizations, reported that there have been 400 antisemitic incidents on college campuses in the two months following October 7, compared to just 33 incidents reported over the same period a year ago. The Department of Education consequently launched an investigation into seven schools last month, including Harvard and Penn.
The ADL told Vox that the incidents it recorded included 98 incidents of harassment, nine incidents of assault, and 49 incidents of vandalism. For instance, two Ohio State students were reportedly called a derogatory term, asked if they were Jewish, and assaulted when leaving an off-campus bar in November. A Cornell University student is facing federal charges for allegedly threatening violence against Jewish students in an online forum on campus. And Penn recently reported to the FBI several “vile, disturbing antisemitic emails” threatening violence against the university’s Jewish community.
The university presidents acknowledged in their testimony last week that these kinds of incidents are on the rise, including on their own campuses, and that many of their Jewish students are feeling unsafe as a result. Kornbluth, who is herself Jewish, said that “should trouble every one of us deeply.” They outlined their plans to prevent further such incidents, including creating new task forces and student advisory groups with that mission in mind, increasing campus security, and emphasizing education and community-building around how to fight hate of any kind.
“Antisemitism, an old, viral, and pernicious evil, has been steadily rising in our society, and these world events have dramatically accelerated that surge,” Magill said. “This is unacceptable.”
Those incidents are clear-cut examples of antisemitism. But during the hearing, Stefanik focused on much more contested examples. She repeatedly pressed the university presidents to agree with her that chants commonly invoked at pro-Palestinian rallies calling for Palestinian liberation “from the river to the sea” and “intifada” are “advocating for the murder of Jews.” She eventually asked the question that would trip up the university presidents, “Calling for the genocide of Jews, does that constitute bullying or harassment?” in an apparent reference to those chants.
Many pro-Israel activists have argued that these chants are indeed direct appeals to the genocide of Jews and the destruction of Israel. But there’s lots of debate about both phrases. Many in the pro-Palestinian camp, for example, including Palestinian-American Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), say they merely express a desire for Palestinian statehood and dignity.
This all leads to bigger questions about the bounds of antisemitism. The ADL’s report cites 244 rallies on college campuses that included “antisemitic rhetoric, expressions of support for terrorism against the state of Israel and/or anti-Zionism.” But as the ADL makes clear, the organization explicitly equates antisemitism and anti-Zionism. While there can be obvious overlap between the two, critics — including leading liberal and left-leaning Jewish organizations — say it’s misleading to equate any form of opposition to Zionism, a diverse pro-Israel political movement, with hatred of Jews. Doing so, critics say, can also mean shielding Israel from justified criticism and even undermining ADL’s wider anti-extremism work. And as a group of Jewish Democrats in the House recently pointed out, it also can flatten “the complexity of Judaism itself.”
Joel Beinin, a professor of Middle East history at Stanford University who has been critical of some Israeli policies, told Vox that “intifada” is Arabic for “shaking off” and has come to mean “uprising.” Past Palestinian intifadas have indeed become violent over time, but the word “doesn’t literally or in usage have anything to do with ‘genocide for Jews’ or anything like that,” he said.
“From the river to the sea,” like many protest chants, has had many iterations and meanings over the course of the Palestinian national struggle. Some groups who have called for the violent destruction of Israel, like Hamas, have used the phrase. But experts previously told Vox’s Ellen Ioanes, in the US and other countries where there have been pro-Palestinian protests and calls for ceasefire, the phrase can mean something entirely different. There it might often be a joyous call “for the dignity and full civil rights of Palestinians in their homeland.” It “does not literally mean ‘genocide for Jews,’” Beinin said, noting that the original platform of Israel’s ruling Likud party also demands that “Between the sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty.”
“So anyone who thinks it means genocide for Jews if Palestinians say it has to acknowledge that it means genocide for the Palestinians when Likudniks (and those further right) say it,” he said.
All of this is to say that references to “intifada” and “from the river to the sea” are far from clear calls to enact genocide against Jews, as Stefanik argued in the hearing. As one Harvard professor who asked not to be identified given the current campus climate told me, “There have been no clear calls for the genocide of Jews at Harvard and I doubt there have been at MIT or the University of Pennsylvania either.” Ultimately, that meant Stefanik’s viral question was just a “red herring,” the professor said, and the university presidents should have acknowledged as much.
To the extent that pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students misunderstand each other on this issue, it is up to universities to “help bridge these gaps by creating supportive environments where students can clarify their meanings and intentions with civility, rather than assuming the absolute worst about one another,” Berkman said.
“If they did this, I think you’d find that the overwhelming majority of pro-Palestinian students are notcalling for genocide, even if they docall for political outcomes that most supporters of Israel would reject as unacceptable,” he added. “That sort of clarification would in turn help address the anxieties that some Jewish students feel when they encounter pro-Palestinian activism on campus.”
However, the university presidents were not just unwilling to challenge Stefanik’s characterization of pro-Palestinian rhetoric as genocidal, but Gay and Magill seemed to support it during the hearing. Gay said that she had heard “thoughtless, reckless, and hateful language” such as “from the river to the sea” and “intifada” on Harvard’s campus and found it “personally abhorrent.” Magill said that calls for global intifada were “very disturbing” and were “at a minimum, hateful speech.”
At the same time, all three presidents refused to say that students should be punished for invoking those phrases across the board — only when it rises to the level of harassment, discrimination, or incitement to violence.
“I have little doubt that if student activists actually were issuing unequivocal calls for the genocide of Jews on university campuses, they would be swiftly disciplined by their administrations — and rightly so,” Berkman said. “This shouldhave been an easy question for Magill, Kornbluth, and Gay to answer, but because they felt they couldn’t contest the description of pro-Palestinian rhetoric as inherently genocidal, despite knowing that description to be untrue, they ended up looking foolish.”
The political motivations at play in the controversy
Internal discord at elite institutions and bipartisan doubt about the sanctity of higher education was the outcome that Stefanik and her Republican colleagues wanted — but not because they’re any great defenders of Jews.
Stefanik has echoed the antisemitic “great replacement” theory that Jews have pushed immigration and multiculturalism as a means of amassing political power over white Americans: In a 2021 campaign ad, she railed against what she characterized as Democrats’ plan to “overthrow our current electorate” by allowing undocumented immigrants to enter the country, leading to accusations of antisemitism.
She also continues to uncritically support former President Donald Trump, who has associated with known antisemites including Nick Fuentes and Kanye West. And she and the rest of her party rely on evangelical voters, some of whom await what they believe is the prophesized day when nonbelievers in Jesus, including Jews, will be killed in a violent war to end all wars. So while some Democrats found themselves cheering her performance in the hearing despite disagreeing with her on practically every other issue, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) reminded them of the absurdity of doing so.
“The Republican Party is filled with people who are entangled with antisemitism like that and yet somehow she gets on [her] high horse and lectures a Jewish college president from MIT,” he said during a recent interview on MSNBC.
Stefanik went into the hearing looking for a “gotcha” moment. As she later boasted to the New York Times, she had designed her line of questioning in “such a way that the answer is an easy yes” and all three university presidents “blew it” in what she predicted would become the “most viewed congressional testimony in history.” While it’s not clear if that has come to pass, videos of the hearing have gotten tens to hundreds of thousands of views.
Stefanik has a complicated history with Harvard in particular. When the Harvard Institute of Politics ousted Stefanik, a Harvard alumnus herself, for supporting Trump’s claims of a stolen 2020 election, she called it a decision to “cower and cave to the woke Left.” Politically, she had every reason to make the university presidents look bad. They represent the same institutions whose perceived liberal excesses her party railed against for years. Her questions were part of Republicans’ long-running war on higher education that has included ending affirmative action in college admissions, thwarting Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan, and cracking down on the teaching of “critical race theory,” as well as proposals to dismantle the Department of Education, end the academic tenure system, and eliminate universities’ diversity, equity, and inclusion offices.
Other GOP lawmakers made the connection explicit during the hearing. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) used her question time to rail against Harvard coursework and seminars focusing on racism and social justice, which she said fosters a culture in which “you have faculty and students who hate Jews, hate Israel, and are comfortable apologizing for terror.”
Republicans see political opportunity there. As GOP pollster Robert Cahaly recently told me, the party may be able to paint the pro-Palestinian views of young people as the “price for having the next generation taught a bunch of nonsense.” Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) lamented during his question time in the hearing, “I think this [hearing] is so sadly and shamefully revealing that there’s no diversity, inclusion of intellectual thought,” meaning the teaching of conservative ideology on college campuses. “And the result of that is antisemitism.”
It’s an idea that has proved resonant with their base. Only 19 percent of Republicans said in a July Gallup Poll that they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education.
Republicans have also sought to use the issue of antisemitism — both on campus and in the country more broadly — to turn the tables on Democrats, who have sought to highlight the extremism of the MAGA movement under Trump. After right-wing white supremacists chanted “Jews will not replace us” at a rally in Charlottesville in 2017, Democrats accused Republicans of failing to reckon with extremism and antisemitism in their own ranks. Now, Republicans feel that they have the opportunity to say the same of Democrats, while simultaneously working to weaponize real Jewish fear and make themselves look like the party most willing to keep Jewish people safe, on college campuses and everywhere else. Last week’s hearing proved an opportunity to flex that strategy.
What this means for college campuses and broader discourse on the war
So, where does all of this leave universities and the acrimonious discourse over the war in Gaza playing out on their campuses?
Lawrence, the former Brandeis president, worries that the backlash to the university presidents’ testimony could further erode trust in higher education, which was already at an all-time low among all Americans. “What I fear is that this enrages more people about higher education. They feel higher education is out of touch on issues that they care about. That would be a terrible outcome,” he said.
It could also cause universities to roll back their commitments to free speech, which they see as essential to how they approach education. “I think that there is a concern at any particular moment of heightened fear that that could be an overreaction,” Lawrence said.
In dealing with the current environment, he says that universities should approach incendiary speech on their campuses as falling into three buckets, the first being a small number of “genuine, bona fide threats of violence and threatening behavior” that would warrant punishment or even referrals to the criminal system, such as the recent incident in which a Cornell student was charged.
The second is speech that is protected by the First Amendment but that is sufficiently problematic that the university should make a very clear statement about why it is contrary to the values of the university. For example, Yale president Peter Salovey recently stated that “Chants or messages that express hatred, celebrate the killing of civilians, or contain calls for genocide of any group are utterly against our ideals and certainly are not characteristic of our broader community.” Those kind of statements “do have an impact on the campus community,” Lawrence said.
The third, which Lawrence said is the “largest by far of all the forms of expression,” is the kind of speech that, whether smart or based on naivete or ignorance, should always be met with education. “So a school like the University of Pennsylvania, for example — which has outstanding faculty in international relations and social psychology and a whole set of related fields — ought to be putting on programs throughout campus, open sessions, town hall meetings, webinars, all the different ways in which we educate students.”
But even in this framework, universities may have to permit students to engage in speech that many would find abhorrent — potentially including, as the university presidents sought to acknowledge in their testimony, abstract calls for genocide, Perrino, the free speech advocate from FIRE, argued. “There may be some circumstances where an abstract call for genocide is part of a pattern of behavior that meets the legal standards for peer-on-peer discriminatory harassment,” Perrino said, noting that such speech is not protected by the First Amendment and would warrant that a university take action against it. But there are other situations, he argued, where a call for genocide might constitute protected speech.
He cited one 2018 case in which a Drexel University professor was investigated for tweeting, “All I Want for Christmas is White Genocide.” On its face, that was a call for genocide. “But context does matter. He was making a joke about white nationalists’ theory of white replacement theory. He was a white guy. The tweet wasn’t targeted at anyone. It was simply satire,” Perrino said.
That’s why free speech advocates like Perrino have advocated against universities implementing speech codes, which he says would be “wielded by those in power arbitrarily and in a political way” — including potentially against those they were originally designed to protect.
“If the allegation is that all these college administrators are enabling antisemitism, do you really want to give those same college administrators the power to wield a broad speech code?” he asked.
However, that hasn’t stopped the board of Penn’s Wharton business school from proposing changes to the university code of conduct that go beyond existing university policies and include prohibitions on “language that threatens the physical safety of community members” and “hate speech, whether veiled or explicit, that incites violence.” Supporters of the changes have argued for a fundamental recalibration of private universities’ approach to free speech: Penn law and philosophy professor Claire Finkelstein, for instance, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that universities should “rethink the role that open expression and academic freedom play in the educational mission” in order to protect their students. But critics of such speech codes — such as Jonathan Friedman, the director of free expression and education programs at the free speech advocacy organization PEN America — warn that the “vague” provisions proposed by the Wharton board threaten to “ban wide swaths of speech.”
Perrino argued that if anything will prevent genocide, it is the protection of individual rights including free speech.
“The erosion of individual rights is necessary to allow the sort of horrors that the people who are calling for more speech codes fear. So it’s very short-sighted to erode civil liberties,” he said.
That’s especially the case when the humanitarian situation in Gaza is becoming more dire every day — a subject that has been given short shrift while Americans have focused on debating how they should be allowed to talk about it.