Following the significant rise of antisemitism on American campuses and after Tuesday’s hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives with university presidents on their response to the rise in hate crimes and antisemitism on campuses since the beginning of the war in Gaza, which stirred additional controversy, a pair of students is suing the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), claiming the campus has become a dangerous place for Jewish and Israeli students due to the war between Israel and Hamas.
Meanwhile, the presidents of UPenn and Harvard appeared to walk back their controversial statements at the hearing, during which they had a hard time deciding whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” is bullying and harassment according to their school's codes of conduct.
With the lawsuit announced on Wednesday, UPenn becomes the third in the United States to face legal steps taken by students alleging apathy in the face of antisemitic incidents, joining New York University and the University of California, Berkeley.
In the lawsuit against UPenn, students claim the institute “enforces its own rules of conduct selectively to avoid protecting Jewish students from hatred and harassment, hires rabidly antisemitic professors who call for anti-Jewish violence and spread terrorist propaganda, and ignores Jewish students’ pleas for protection."
In the hearing held Wednesday, Liz Magill, president of the University of Pennsylvania, also said that categorizing public calls as harassment or violence depends on their context. New York Rep. Elise Stefanik was astonished by the response and interjected: “Calling for the genocide of Jews is dependent on the context? That is not bullying or harassment? This is the easiest question to answer ‘yes,’ Ms. Magill.”
Still, Magill didn’t give a definite answer, saying: “If the speech becomes conduct it can be harassment.”
After being asked once again, Magill admitted that a call for murder could be considered harassment.
Following backlash against her words in the hearing, Magill issued a statement on Penn’s official website, in which she appeared to walk back her testimony in the hearing. “There was a moment during yesterday’s congressional hearing on antisemitism when I was asked if a call for the genocide of Jewish people on our campus would violate our policies. In that moment, I was focused on our university’s longstanding policies aligned with the U.S. Constitution, which say that speech alone is not punishable,” she said.
“I want to be clear, a call for genocide of Jewish people is threatening – deeply so. It is intentionally meant to terrify a people who have been subjected to pogroms and hatred for centuries and were the victims of mass genocide in the Holocaust. In my view, it would be harassment or intimidation,” the statement added, with Magill emphasizing that, as the university’s president, she is in charge of ensuring a safe environment for all students.
Harvard president Claudine Gay said during the hearing that antisemitic chanting on campus “is thoughtless, reckless and hateful," but stipulated that “it is at odds with the values of Harvard, but we embrace a commitment to free expression even of views that are objectionable, offensive and hateful.”
Gay later clarified her words in a post on the X platform. "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. Those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account."
White House spokesperson Andrew Bates also condemned the universities following the hearing. “It’s unbelievable that this needs to be said: Calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country. 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,” he said.
Dr. Albert Bourla, the Jewish chairman and CEO of pharma giant Pfizer, also slammed the universities on the X platform.
“I was ashamed to hear the recent testimony of 3 top university presidents. In my personal opinion, it was one of the most despicable moments in the history of U.S. academia. The 3 presidents were offered numerous opportunities to condemn racist, antisemitic, hate rhetoric and refused doing so hiding behind calls for ‘context,’” he wrote.
Bourla added the controversy made him recall his family members who were killed in the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust.
Meanwhile, a study conducted by a political science professor from the University of California has exposed some of the ignorance among pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli demonstrators on U.S. campuses.
Only 47% of students supporting the saying "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free" could correctly identify the names of the river (Jordan) and the sea (Mediterranean) in the slogan. Other responses included the Nile and Euphrates rivers, the Caribbean Sea, the Dead Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean.
Over 10% of respondents believed that Yasser Arafat was the first prime minister of Israel. When asked in which decade Israelis and Palestinians signed the Oslo Accords, over a quarter of pro-Palestinian students claimed that such peace agreements were never signed.
Some 60% of those students reduced their support for the slogan when informed of its association with the submission, expulsion or elimination of seven million Jewish Israelis and two million Arab Israelis living in the country.
Another 14% reconsidered their stance upon learning that many American Jews consider the chant threatening or even racist. Overall, after learning basic facts about the Middle East, 67.8% of students shifted from supporting the chant.