Former university presidents Elizabeth Magill and Claudine Gay were no friends of Palestine. In fact, they suppressed free speech and equated solidarity efforts with antisemitism.

Claudine Gay (L) alongside Elizabeth Magill as they testify before the House Education and Workforce Committee on December 5, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images)

As inflated allegations of antisemitism rock American colleges and universities, the media and establishment politicians continue to shift focus from the Palestinian struggle for survival and liberation.

On December 5, Elizabeth Magill, Claudine Gay, and Sally Kornbluth, the respective presidents of the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, testified for over five hours in a congressional hearing about antisemitism on US college campuses. Just four days later, amid a backlash to their testimony, Magill resigned from the UPenn presidency, and on January 2, Gay, the former Harvard president, did the same.

During the December hearing, Magill, Gay, and Kornbluth fielded a variety of questions about campus antisemitism and the presidents’ efforts and willingness to combat it: “What is Harvard doing to educate members about . . . false accusations that Israel is a racist, settler-colonial, apartheid state?” or “Will you commit to doing everything necessary to keep Jewish students and faculty safe?” In particular, Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik repeatedly asked the presidents to condemn protest slogans, citing a video taken on UPenn’s campus. In the video, attendees of a recent march in support of Palestine chanted, “Intifada, revolution,” which Stefanik identified as a call for Jewish genocide.

Gay and Magill faced widespread criticism for their ambiguous, legalistic responses to a series of antagonistic questions, which presupposed the conflation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism. In a widely seized-upon moment, Stefanik repeatedly asked, “Calling for the genocide of Jews, does that constitute bullying or harassment?” When both Gay and Magill described the university response as “context-dependent,” Stefanik pounced, asking, “Calling for the genocide of Jews is depending upon the context?” Their responses obscure the reality: that advocacy for Palestinian freedom is not and has never been synonymous with Jewish genocide — at Penn, Harvard, or anywhere else.

Stefanik’s questions, among others, are based on fundamentally false premises that deny this reality. By tacitly accepting the terms of these questions, Gay and Magill were made unable to formulate compelling responses. The refusal to vocally separate the concepts antisemitism and anti-Zionism made it impossible for them to offer any robust condemnation of antisemitism.

If you only followed the backlash to Gay and Magill’s congressional testimony, you might be forgiven for thinking that the presidents were critics of the war on Gaza. In fact, prior to the hearing, Magill released six statements on the conflict, all of which overwhelmingly condemned antisemitism and contained little or no mention of Palestinian students. In a video posted on Twitter after the hearing, she stated that “a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate,” while again failing to note the actual, ongoing genocide of the Palestinian people.

Gay’s hostility toward Palestine persisted before and after the hearing even more nakedly. In a November 9 email to the Harvard community, Gay wrote that the common chant “from the river to the sea” implies “the eradication of Jews from Israel and engender[s] both pain and existential fears within our Jewish community.”

“Intifada” and “from the river to the sea” are phrases with deep roots in Palestinian history; it is not the place of university presidents to decide the meaning of these words. Yet, Magill, Gay, and the elite institutions they serve continue to intentionally misinterpret these cries of resistance. “Intifada,” for instance, simply means “uprising” or “shaking off,” and “from the river to the sea” is often a call for what the historian Maha Nassar describes as “a secular democratic state established in all of historic Palestine.”

In her recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Gay doubled down, writing, “In my initial response to the atrocities of Oct. 7, I should have stated more forcefully what all people of good conscience know: Hamas is a terrorist organization that seeks to eradicate the Jewish state. . . . I neglected to clearly articulate that calls for the genocide of Jewish people are abhorrent and unacceptable and that I would use every tool at my disposal to protect students from that kind of hate.”

What is most alarming about Magill and Gay’s words is their ignorance about Palestine, not their supposed insensitivity to antisemitism. We are in a time of heightened repression toward Palestinians. Magill and Gay show no interest in the slaughters of 1948, the dispossession of Palestinians in the West Bank, or even the bombardment of Gaza. Magill and Gay’s words seal off the past, as if Hamas’s attacks were the only act of violence to ever take place in the region.

It’s no surprise that this ignorance is reflected on their campuses. As the Penn Freedom School for Palestine, we have three key demands: call for a cease-fire now, protect freedom of speech for pro-Palestine voices, and support critical thought on Palestine at the university. Our attempts to educate the university community about the art, culture, and resistance of the Palestinian people have been met with disciplinary action, doxxing, and national uproar.

Since December 5, major media outlets have been primarily concerned with antisemitism, allegations of plagiarism in Gay’s academic work, and the implications of the presidents’ resignations for pro-Palestine speech on campus, which are admittedly troubling. Both Magill’s and Gay’s resignations triggered “breaking news” updates from the New York Times. Over five thousand Palestinians have been killed since December 5 alone. Every article on the Ivy League, many have noted, is an article that’s not about the far more urgent violence in Gaza.

Despite her refusal to understand the plight of Palestinians, Gay correctly writes that universities are often the first target of right-wing attacks, “because these are the tools that best equip communities to see through propaganda.” There is indeed power in education, and we are at a critical historical juncture that requires historicization. It is our responsibility to learn and speak out about Israel’s assault on Gaza and the many brutalities that came before it, as both the university presidents and their critics so clearly failed to do.

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