Harvard President Claudine Gay condemned campus antisemitism on Tuesday, saying vigorous debate between opposing viewpoints is an important part of a university education but that threats, violence, and bigotry will not be tolerated.
In written and oral testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Gay detailed steps Harvard has taken to confront antisemitism in the weeks since Oct. 7, when Hamas killed some 1,200 Israelis in a surprise attack. The ensuing war has sparked protests and counterprotests around the world and across the nation, particularly on college campuses.
“We encourage the vigorous exchange of ideas but we will not, under any circumstances, permit speech that incites violence, threatens safety, or violates Harvard’s policies against bullying and harassment,” Gay, who has forcefully denounced antisemitic rhetoric in recent weeks, wrote in her prepared testimony. “My administration has repeatedly made crystal clear that antisemitism and other forms of hate have no place at Harvard. Threats and intimidation have no place at Harvard.”
Gay was joined at the hearing by antisemitism expert Pamela Nadell, a professor of history and Jewish studies at American University, and two other university presidents — M. Elizabeth Magill of the University of Pennsylvania and Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The hearing also addressed efforts by the nation’s colleges and universities to protect students threatened by Islamophobia.
Gay said she has met with Jewish leaders, students, and groups in recent weeks on campus, mourning with them and offering her administration’s full support.
“I know many in our Harvard Jewish community are hurting and experiencing grief, fear and trauma,” Gay said in her opening remarks. “I have heard — from faculty, students, staff, and alumni — of incidents of intimidation and harassment. I have seen reckless and thoughtless rhetoric shared, in person and online, on campus and off. I have listened to leaders in our Jewish community who are scared and disillusioned.”
The hearing, which ran nearly six hours, was at times contentious, as some lawmakers expressed dissatisfaction with the actions that Harvard and other institutions have taken to fight antisemitism.
The session also offered representatives a chance to air partisan grievances. Democrats, the minority on the House panel, criticized Republicans for supporting significant budget cuts to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, which investigates incidents of campus harassment and discrimination, while Republicans targeted the political makeup of university faculties, saying conservative viewpoints are underrepresented. Majority members also questioned whether diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts have done enough to support Jewish students.
Gay outlined steps Harvard has taken against antisemitism, saying that the University has increased security in vulnerable places such as student residences. In addition, University police have been in communication with local, state, and federal law enforcement about threats to the community. Administrators have also provided organizers of events, including protests, with clear policies and requirements — and potential penalties for violating guidelines.
Other actions include increased reporting mechanisms to make it easier for students and other members of the community to report discrimination, harassment, and abusive behavior. Counseling resources have been enhanced, with additional trauma-informed resources available. Support from Harvard’s religious community, which includes more than 30 campus faith leaders, has also been enhanced.
The University also plans to institute a robust education program on antisemitism and Islamophobia, reflecting Gay’s assertion that the roots of bigotry lie in ignorance.
Responding to questions about antisemitism and hatred on social media, Nadell called the platforms “the most destructive force spreading antisemitism ever imaginable.” The style of communication that emerges from the sites is another problem, Gay said.
“One of the things that’s been laid bare over the last couple of months is how ill-equipped the community is and has been to deal with dialogue in moments of crisis,” Gay said. “Instead, what’s substituted for that is the ‘social mediafication’ of dialogue. It’s intemperate, it’s ahistorical, it’s just mean, and it’s a way of engaging that has been deeply socialized through social media and is reflexive for a lot of the students on our campus.”
The University is working to overcome this challenge in part by continuing to maintain and support a campus environment that condemns hate without sacrificing bedrock principles of free speech, she said.
“Antisemitism is a symptom of ignorance, and the cure for ignorance is knowledge,” Gay said. “Harvard must model what it means to preserve free expression while combating prejudice and preserving the security of our community. We are undertaking that hard, long-term work with the attention and intensity it requires.”