Harvard, Columbia and Penn pledge to fight anti-Semitism on campus

In the past month, university presidents have been hammered by a vocal group of alumni and faculty members who have accused them of not being strong enough in their condemnations of anti-Semitism following Hamas attacks on Israel.

Now at some high-profile universities that have faced heavy criticism — including Harvard, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania — presidents are trying to take more direct action to address concerns about anti-Semitism.

Columbia suspended two pro-Palestinian student groups on Friday.

At Harvard on Thursday, the university’s president, Claudine Gay, condemned the phrase “from the river to the sea,” which she called divisive and anti-Semitic.

At the University of Pennsylvania, President Elizabeth Magill spoke out strongly against anti-Semitic rhetoric.

All three universities have formed task forces to address anti-Semitism on campus.

“Let me repeat what I and other Harvard leaders have said before: Anti-Semitism has no place at Harvard,” Dr. Gay wrote in a statement Thursday. “While confronting any form of hatred is terrifying, the challenges we face in combating anti-Semitism are heightened by its pernicious nature and deep historical roots. But we are committed to working hard to tackle this scourge.”

Their moves, however, may not quell anger among donors.

And the actions could only fuel resolve among pro-Palestinian student activists, who say they stand up only for the marginalized, oppressed people living in Gaza. The criticism, they say, is nothing more than an attempt to stifle speech and divert attention from Israel’s 16-year, Egyptian-backed blockade of Gaza, which has destroyed Palestinian lives. In addition, many pro-Palestinian students point out that they have faced doxxing and harassment — and are calling for similar efforts against Islamophobia on social media.

Columbia announced Friday that it would ban Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace until the end of the fall semester, saying they violated university policy. The groups have been at the center of weeks of intense demonstrations that have sharply divided students and rocked Columbia’s Manhattan campus. The latest action, including a walkout, drew about 300 students on Thursday.

Gerald Rosberg, the university’s executive vice president, said statement that Thursday’s event “contained threatening rhetoric and intimidation” and that the groups took their actions “despite warnings” not to do so.

The university’s decision will bar the group from holding events on campus or receiving university funds until the end of the fall semester.

“During this particularly charged time on our campus, we are strongly committed to providing spaces for student groups to engage in debate, advocacy and protest,” Mr. Rosberg said. But, he added, the groups would have to abide by university rules that require them to get approval for large gatherings and cooperate with administration.

Sonya Meyerson-Knox, director of communications for Jewish Voice for Peace, a pro-Palestinian group, called Columbia’s action “a terrible act of censorship and an attempt at intimidation,” adding that students from both groups were doing exactly what they were supposed to be doing — “Standing up against the war and calling for a ceasefire to save lives.”

Although universities have occasionally clashed with SJP chapters over the years, Columbia’s decision was at least the second punitive action against the network this week.

On Monday, Brandeis University, near Boston, banned its local SJP chapter from holding activities on campus.

In a notice to the group obtained by The New York Times, Brandeis blamed the national board of directors for encouraging the chapter “to engage in behavior that supports Hamas in its call for the violent elimination of Israel and the Jewish people.” Such behavior, the notice states, “is not protected by university principles.”

SJP members have insisted that the group is not inherently anti-Semitic, but researchers and Zionist groups have sharply criticized that claim.

At Penn, Ms. Magill, the president, has faced a fierce but so far unsuccessful campaign to oust her, led by Marc Rowan, chief executive of Apollo Global Management and chairman of the board of Wharton, the university’s business school. He accused her of tolerating anti-Semitism after a Palestinian writers’ conference was held on campus.

She, too, issued a series of announcements to quell the donor revolt.

On Thursday, she announced that the university was investigating “vile, anti-Semitic messages” that had been projected onto several campus buildings.

“For generations, too many have cloaked anti-Semitism in hostile rhetoric,” Ms Magill said in her message. “Projecting messages of hate on our campus is not debate, it is cowardice and has no place at Penn.”

At Harvard, Dr. Apart from administrative moves and statements, Gay reached out directly to her Jewish constituents. She delivered her remarks at the first Shabbat dinner after the Hamas attack. The Oct. 13 dinner, sponsored by the Jewish organization Chabad, was attended by about 1,000 people, mostly students, but also a few faculty members, alumni and donors.

dr. Gay said she learned a lot during the difficult week not only about the “excruciating pain and grief” of caring for loved ones in Israel, but also about the “pain and grief that many of you have experienced on our campus over the years.”

She paused to let that sink in before adding, “And what I’m trying to say is that Harvard has your back.”

She received a standing ovation. But her statements, at least so far, don’t seem to have mollified critics.

On Thursday, Whitney Tilson, a former hedge fund manager and Harvard student, said he was so angry at Harvard for not standing up to anti-Semitism that he declined an invitation to meet with a business school fundraising officer.

“The damage Harvard has done to its brand since Oct. 7 in history is rivaled only by New Coke and what Elon Musk did to Twitter,” he wrote.

Mr Tilson said on Friday that he considered Harvard to be “the least needy charity in the world” and had made only “a few small donations over the years”.

“But,” he added, “I also have a megaphone: I sent that email to nearly 10,000 friends and readers on some of my many email lists.”

Dana Goldstein contributed to the reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed to the research.

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