Harvard’s president has apologised for controversial remarks she made at a congressional hearing about antisemitism on US college campuses.
When asked whether calls for the genocide of Jews constituted harassment under university policy, Dr Claudine Gay said it depended on the context.
Dr Gay, and two other university presidents who gave similar answers, have since faced fierce criticism.
“I am sorry,” she said in an interview with The Crimson student newspaper.
“Words matter. When words amplify distress and pain, I don’t know how you could feel anything but regret,” she added.
Addressing the criticism in her interview with The Crimson, Dr Gay said she had “got caught up in what had become at that point, an extended, combative exchange about policies and procedures”.
It is the second time Harvard’s first black president has sought to clarify comments that have drawn national condemnation, including from the White House. Some have since called for her resignation.
The Ivy League school is one of several in the US accused of failing to protect its Jewish students following the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war two months ago. Jewish groups have reported an alarming rise in antisemitic incidents in the US since the conflict began.
At Tuesday’s hearing before the Republican-led House Education and Workforce Committee, Dr Gay – along with the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – was challenged on university policies and procedures to combat antisemitism.
Near the end of the nearly six-hour hearing, New York Republican Elise Stefanik asked the three women: “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate [your university’s] code of conduct or rules regarding bullying and harassment? Yes or no?”
Each witness evaded a direct answer, saying “it depends on the context”.
Dr Gay further added that Harvard only takes action when the speech “crosses into conduct that amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation”.
Ms Stefanik had previously asked about contentious phrases commonly used by some members of the Pro-Palestinian movement, which Dr Gay said she found personally “abhorrent”.
Dr Gay and the other college presidents also stated their support for Israel and opposition to antisemitism, but Dr Gay said her comments during the now viral exchange with Ms Stefanik were a mistake.
“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,” she said in her interview with the Harvard Crimson.
Dr Gay and the other leaders’ testimony has since sparked growing backlash both on and off campus.
Harvard Hillel, a Jewish campus organisation, said in a statement on Tuesday that the testimony “calls into question [Dr Gay’s] ability to protect Jewish students on Harvard’s campus”.
And on Thursday, Rabbi David Wolpe – who had only weeks earlier joined a Harvard advisory group to combat antisemitism – resigned citing Dr Gay’s “painfully inadequate testimony”.
Rabbi Wolpe told BBC Newshour that “an ideology of wokeism and attendant antisemitism is deeply rooted” in the culture of Harvard and other elite institutions. He noted that these colleges had spoken out against racism in recent years but retreated to “transparently hypocritical” defences of free speech on more contentious issues.
Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and MIT now all face official congressional investigations on their efforts to address antisemitism.
University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill is also facing a call to resign by an advisory board to the university’s influential Wharton business school. A top donor at the school has vowed to withdraw a $100m donation because of her comments.
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