Embattled University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill is under fire yet again for her problematic response to antisemitic speech on campus, telling a congressional hearing that calling for Jewish genocide is allowed depending on its “context.”
Then, after 24 hours of backlash, Magill released a video refuting her previous statement.
Magill made her controversial statement before the U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee Tuesday when she was questioned about the surge in antisemitic speech and actions on the UPenn campus. Committee members from both parties grilled Magill and her fellow academic leaders, Harvard President Claudine Gay, and MIT President Sally Kornbluth.
“Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s rules or code of conduct? Yes or no?” asked Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.)
Rather than give a yes-or-no answer, Magill said that “if the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment,” later adding that if the calls for genocide were “directed and severe or pervasive,” they could violate Penn’s rules against harassment.
“So, the answer is yes?” Stefanik asked.
“It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman,” Magill replied.
Stefanik wasn’t satisfied with that.
“Calling for the genocide of Jews — depending upon the context — is not bullying or harassment? This is the easiest question to answer: ‘yes,’ Ms. Magill.”
Magill declined to give that answer, and the other two university presidents echoed Magill’s views.
The answer sparked outrage from both sides of the political aisle.
“It should not be hard to condemn genocide, genocide against Jews, genocide against anyone else,” Gov. Josh Shapiro said Wednesday, calling Magill’s answer “unacceptable.”
“Leaders have a responsibility to speak and act with moral clarity, and Liz Magill failed to meet that simple test,” Shapiro added. He called on the university’s board to meet soon to decide if her values were their values.
GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley said Wednesday that Magill’s answer was “disgusting” and that the views of the university leaders are putting their institutions’ tax-exempt status at risk.
“Calling for the genocide of Jews is no different than calling for genocide of any other ethnic, racial, or religious group,” the former U.N. ambassador said. “As POTUS, this will end, or we’ll pull their tax-exempt status.”
On Wednesday, Magill caved.
“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,” Magill said in a video statement.
“In that moment, I was focused on our university’s long-standing policies – aligned with the U.S. Constitution – which say that speech alone is not punishable.
“I was not focused on, but I should have been, the irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate. It’s evil, plain and simple. I want to be clear: a call for genocide of Jewish people is threatening, deeply so,” she said.
During her testimony before Congress, Magill said UPenn has formed a task force to deal with antisemitism and a plan centering on “safety and security, engagement, and education.”
However, the track record on campus tells a different story, members of the committee said. Several asked Magill about the Palestine Writes Festival, an event that featured several prominent antisemites (including Roger Waters of Pink Floyd) and was held on the eve of Yom Kippur — with the permission of Magill’s administration.
“As president, I am committed to a safe, secure, and supportive educational environment so that our academic mission can thrive,” said Magill. “It is crucial that ideas are exchanged, and diverse viewpoints are debated. As a student of constitutional democracy, I know we need both safety and free expression for universities and, ultimately, democracies to thrive. In these times, it can be difficult for these competing principles to balance.”
Magill has been under pressure from donors and alumni who have criticized her handling of antisemitic incidents on campus, which have included vandalism of the Hillel building and antisemitic slogans projected onto campus buildings. Several major donors announced they will no longer write checks to Penn. Penn is also under investigation by the federal government for antisemitic incidents.
Eyal Yakoby, a Jewish student at Penn, spoke at a press conference Tuesday about Magill’s silence in the face of antisemitic demonstrations calling for the destruction of Israel. His classmates and professors have told him that as a Jew, he deserved to die, he said.
“As a student, despite what my university says, I do not feel safe,” Yakoby said. “Let me be clear: I do not feel safe.”
Pennsylvania Rep. Susan Wild (D-Lehigh), who sits on the committee, said, “I so wish that this hearing was one where we were having a robust intellectual discussion” about the limits of free speech, and she praised “the brilliant minds we have in front of us.”
“As a Jewish mother of two students who are now fully launched and I had to send off to college not so many years ago, I am very, very sympathetic to the concerns of the students and the parents,” said Wild. “About their safety, emotionally, physically, and otherwise.”
In remarks that echoed several other Democratic representatives, Wild brought different kinds of prejudice into the discussion of antisemitism.
“But it’s not just about antisemitism. It’s about all forms of hate speech, whether it’s anti-LGBT, Islamophobia, whatever it is racist language. Students deserve a place of safety, emotionally and physically. But at the same time, I think of college as the place where we learn to think critically.”
Later on Tuesday, Wild refused to support a House resolution condemning antisemitism, voting “present” instead.
Rep. Glenn “G.T.” Thompson (R-Armstrong) noted, “Nowhere have these hateful ideas found a safer home than on college campuses,” and many university leaders have “not met this moment.”
Thompson also pointed out that many members of the Penn faculty publicly support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, boycotting Israeli universities, people, and companies. “It is impossible for a faculty member to support BDS and treat Israeli academics fairly,” he said.
Magill said they “strongly oppose BDS” and have many ties to Israel and Israel universities.
Asked to comment after the hearing, Yakoby said, “I wish Magill had addressed the concerns brought by the committee members of Congress. There are violations of school policy that have gone unaddressed. I wish she had owned up to the mishandling of the school and then provided the ways she is planning to right her wrongs.”