On the Fruits of Certain Devious Schemes to Police Campus Politics and the Quiet Second Revolution in American Academia
Is "calling for the genocide of Jews" protected speech at elite American universities?
At a 5 December 2023 hearing on antisemitism held by the Education and Workforce Committee of the United States Congress, representative Elise Stefanik grilled the presidents of MIT, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania on whether their codes of student conduct prohibited “calling for the genocide of Jews.”
Most of America and no few people in the rest of the world have now seen the remarkable three-and-a-half minute exchange that ensued:
For those who don’t want to watch the video, here is the interaction with Penn President Elizabeth Magill:
Ms. Magill, at Penn, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s rules or code of conduct? Yes or no?
If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment, yes.
I am asking specifically calling for the genocide of Jews, does that constitute bullying or harassment?
If it is directed and severe or pervasive it is harassment.
So the answer is yes?
It is a context dependent decision, congresswoman.
It’s a context-dependent decision? That’s your testimony today? Calling for the genocide of Jews is depending upon the contest? That is not bullying or harassment? This is the easiest question to answer yes Ms. Magill. So is your testimony that you will not answer yes?
If it is, if the speech is, if the speech becomes conduct, it can be harassment, yes.
Conduct, meaning committing the act of genocide? The speech is not harassment? This is unacceptable Ms. Magill. I’m going to give you one more opportunity for the world to see your answer. Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s code of conduct when it comes to bullying and harassment? Yes or no?
It can be harassment.
Stefanik’s interrogation of President Claudine Gay of Harvard went much the same way:
And Dr. Gay. At Harvard, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment? Yes or no?
It can be, depending on the context.
What’s the context?
Targeted at an individual.
It’s targeted at Jewish students, Jewish individuals. Do you understand your testimony is dehumanising them? Do you understand that dehumanisation is part of antisemitism? I will ask you one more time. Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment? Yes or no?
Antisemitic rhetoric when it crosses into conduct that amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation, that is actionable conduct and we do take action.
So the answer is yes, that calling for the genocide of Jews violates Harvard code of conduct, correct?
Again, it depends on the context.
It does not depend on the context, the answer is yes. And this is why you should resign. These are unacceptable answers across the board.
In the ensuing firestorm, which included pledges by major donors to withdraw donations from Penn, Magill has resigned her presidency. Scott L. Bok, chairman of the Penn Board of Trustees, has also stepped down.
Gay is likewise facing widespread calls for her resignation, and members of the Harvard Corporation will meet today to decide her fate. In an effort to save her position, Gay has apologised to students in an interview with the Harvard Crimson:
“I am sorry,” Gay said in an interview with The Crimson on Thursday. “Words matter.”
“When words amplify distress and pain, I don’t know how you could feel anything but regret,” Gay added. …
“There are some who have confused a right to free expression with the idea that Harvard will condone calls for violence against Jewish students,” Gay said. “Let me be clear: Calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or any religious or ethnic group are vile, they have no place at Harvard, and those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account.” …
“I got caught up in what had become at that point, an extended, combative exchange about policies and procedures,” Gay said in the interview. “What I should have had the presence of mind to do in that moment was return to my guiding truth, which is that calls for violence against our Jewish community — threats to our Jewish students — have no place at Harvard, and will never go unchallenged.”
American universities are presently in the middle of a quiet revolution – the second they have seen since the early twentieth century. This revolution is well advanced but as yet incomplete, and it is the reason Magill and Gay had such a hard time answering Stefanik’s questions, the reason Magill was forced to resign, and the reason that Gay will be lucky if she can keep her job.