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US universities under fire due to antisemitism allegations

The Department of Education has opened an investigation into a dozen colleges for alleged violations of the civil rights law, which prohibits discrimination

ISRAEL-HAMAS WAR
Harvard president Claudine Gay last Tuesday during her appearance before the Education Committee in Congress.KEN CEDENO (REUTERS)
María Antonia Sánchez-Vallejo

University campuses in the United States have become the rearguard of the Gaza war. The numerous pro-Palestinian demonstrations and the atmosphere of hostility and insecurity that many Jewish students say they feel have put the university presidents in a tough spot. They are torn between protecting the constitutional right to freedom of expression and bowing to pressure from employers and donors to stop — and even punish — any protest considered antisemitic. The increasingly bitter row has already claimed its first victim, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, Liz Magill, who presented her resignation on Saturday, along with the president of the board of trustees.

For the Republicans, the allegations of antisemitism have been a golden opportunity to attack universities, which they consider bastions of the radical left and so-called woke theories. But this time, they have found themselves standing with unexpected allies: the Democrats. On the question of antisemitism and aid to Israel, there are no half measures and the two parties — with the exception of a few progressive Democrats — have closed ranks on the issue. The heated debate over antisemitism on university campuses is not just another manifestation of the cultural wars waged by Republicans; it is a visceral issue, which the Gaza war has exacerbated.

An online petition demanding the resignation of Magill — which garnered 24,000 signatures in just a few hours — was the final straw that led to her stepping down. A day earlier, Magill had appeared before the House Education Committee, along with Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard, and Sally Kornbluth, the president of MIT. Far from calming tensions, the three women’s evasive responses to the Republican-controlled committee fueled further criticism.

Republican Elise Stefanik, a self-confessed Trumpist and supporter of conspiracy theories, asked each of the university presidents if protests calling for the genocide of Jews violated the university rules. “It is a context-dependent decision,” replied Magill, who underscored the constitutional obligation to preserve the debate of ideas and free expression. Gay gave a similar response. The hearing lasted five hours, but it was a video of this short exchange that went viral. The blowback was immediate.

Faced with a donor’s threat to withdraw a $100 million contribution to the University of Pennsylvania, an online petition calling for her resignation and harsh criticism from the governor of Pennsylvania and even the White House, Magill decided to step down. She was also criticized for allowing a festival of Palestinian literature in September — days before the deadly Hamas attack that sparked the war — which featured Pink Floyd musician Roger Waters, a staunch critic of Israel.

Stefanik said that Magill’s resignation was “just the beginning,” and that Gay would be the next to fall, despite the fact that nearly 700 Harvard faculty members signed a letter supporting the university president. “This forced resignation of the President of Penn is the bare minimum of what is required,” said Stefanik in a statement. Democrats on Friday termed Gay’s responses “unacceptable.”

At stake — in addition to irreconcilable ideas — is the millionaire endowment of elite universities. Pennsylvania has an endowment of $21 billion, while Harvard’s is $50 billion. But this funding is in jeopardy as donors, unhappy with the university’s response to pro-Palestinian protests, threaten to take back their donations. The rise in reports of antisemitic incidents — sometimes just a call for a ceasefire, which some students consider threatening — has also prompted a Department of Education investigation into a dozen universities, including Harvard, Pennsylvania and Columbia. All of them must respond to allegations that they have violated Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color or origin. Programs accused of violating Title VI could lose federal funding. One of the lawsuits, filed on behalf of two Jewish students at the University of Pennsylvania, claims that the center has become “an incubation lab for virulent anti-Jewish hatred.”

For Peter Beinart, a professor at New York University and the editor of the blog Jewish Currents, equating pro-Palestinian protests with antisemitism is “nonsense and part of an effort to control speech about Israel and Palestine.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), which staunchly defends freedom of expression on campuses, has also defended the university presidents, arguing that context does matter and that censorship would ultimately be more harmful than free speech.

As the AP reported on Sunday, protesters are calling for an end to the genocide of Palestinians, not for the genocide of Jews. As the death toll in Gaza rises, there have been a growing number of protests in the U.S. in support of Palestinians, according to a tracker from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. At the same time, almost half of the pro-Israel protests recorded worldwide have taken place in the United States, according to the same tool. Opinion polls show that younger Americans are more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

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