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President Liz Magill testified to the United States House Committee on Education and the Workforce regarding antisemitism on college campuses on Dec. 5.

Credit: Ethan Young

Read the main takeaways from the hearing here.

WASHINGTON — House representatives scrutinized Penn President Liz Magill for hours on Tuesday, asking her to answer for what they described as “specific instances of vitriolic, hate-filled antisemitism” on campus this fall. 

In the nearly five-hour-long hearing of the United States House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Magill and two other university presidents fielded questions from dozens of members across both sides of the aisle about Jewish student safety, the role of donors in higher education, and the boundaries of free speech on campus. 

Magill testified alongside Harvard University President Claudine Gay, Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Sally Kornbluth, and American University History and Jewish Studies professor Pamela Nadell.

In her opening statement, Chairwoman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said the hearing was intended to hold university leaders accountable for the campus environment and address alleged reputational damage to higher education since the start of the Israel-Hamas war.

“As you confront our questions in this hearing, remember that you are not speaking to us, but to students on your campus who have been threatened and assaulted,” Foxx told the hearing room, later speaking with The Daily Pennsylvanian about the “troubling” environment on college campuses.

In her opening statement, Magill focused on “essential” immediate actions that Penn is undertaking, including increased security and the formation of an antisemitism task force. She also emphasized the University’s increased vigilance to acts of hate and its strategy for “long-term change” that will allow Penn to become a higher education leader on combating antisemitism. 

Balancing safety with free speech

Magill emphasized the need for balancing the principles of safety and free expression on Penn’s campus. 

“In these times, these competing principles can be difficult to balance, but I am determined to get it right, and we must get this right,” Magill said. “The stakes are too high, and Penn would not be what it is today without the strong Jewish community, past, present, and future.”

In her testimony and a message to the Penn community minutes before she testified, Magill made note of Sunday’s pro-Palestinian march through Philadelphia, which culminated in a rally of over 500 attendees at 40th and Market streets. Penn Police are investigating graffiti along the Walnut Street march route.

“This hearing this morning takes place just two days after the Philadelphia community witnessed in horror the hateful words and actions of the protestors who marched through the city and then near our campus,” Magill said. 

Discipline for antisemitism and Islamophobia

The Sunday march, the most recent in a string of pro-Palestinian demonstrations criticized by Magill and Jewish students, was cited by many representatives, including Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), throughout the hearing. Good said that the rally on Dec. 3 is indicative of antisemitism being a larger problem at Penn than Islamophobia.

As part of its antisemitism action plan, Penn will hire a new administrator with a skill set to prevent and respond to antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hate.

In one tense exchange, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) repeatedly asked Magill whether individuals who call for the genocide of Jewish people violate Penn’s policies or code of conduct.

“If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment,” Magill told Stefanik, later adding, “It is a context-dependent decision."

This response prompted Stefanik to continue probing.

“This is the easiest question to answer. 'Yes,' Ms. Magill,” Stefanik said. “Conduct meaning committing the act of genocide? ....This is unacceptable, Ms. Magill.”

Magill ultimately reiterated that calling for the genocide of Jews "can be harassment." 

In a post on Instagram following the hearing, the Penn Israel Public Affairs Committee criticized Magill’s answer to Stefanik’s question. 

"Calling for the genocide of Jews doesn’t necessarily violate Penn’s rules, but these 5 things do...” the post read.

PIPAC then went on to list activities, such as having scooters within University buildings or playing drinking games, which are against University policy.

In an email to the Penn Hillel community, Rabbi and Executive Director Gabe Greenberg and College juniors and Hillel co-presidents Lauren Krasilovsky and Olivia Domansky also criticized how Magill's statement said that the characterization of calls for genocide depend on context.

"Throughout the hearing, Magill and the other college presidents sought to delineate their support for free speech, no matter how objectionable, so long as it does not turn into violence," the email said.

Magill repeatedly said Penn’s approach to speech is guided by the U.S. Constitution, often disagreeing with characterizations made by representatives such as Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), who said Penn "treats speech differently” depending on whether the criticism originates from left- or right-leaning groups. 

Members of Congress also asked Magill about Penn’s response to University of Pennsylvania Carey Law professor Amy Wax, the University’s policies for transgender athletes, President Joe Biden’s time as a presidential professor of practice at Penn, and whether the University was being influenced by foreign donations from countries like Qatar.

“You're speaking out of both sides of your mouth," Banks told Magill after asking why Penn allowed Pink Floyd singer Roger Waters to speak at the Palestine Writes Literature Festival in September.

In response, Magill reiterated her condemnation of some of the Palestine Writes speakers facing allegations of antisemitism, noting that the controversial September conference featured over 100 speakers. 

Confronting Hamas and education about antisemitism

Representatives also asked Magill about her acknowledgment and condemnation of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, which Magill described as “brutal and barbaric.” 

When asked by Foxx about attending a briefing requested by the Wharton Club of Israel following Hamas’ attack, Magill replied that she would need to check her schedule to verify.

Several committee members referenced their own ties to the Penn community, including 1998 Wharton MBA graduate and Rep. Brandon Williams (R-N.Y.), who asked Magill if Penn has the funds to address antisemitism.

"I am ashamed to be an alumni of your university," Williams said.

Magill also told Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) that she was “devastated” to hear that his constituent, a Penn student, reported that he is afraid to go to the library.

“The safety and security of our campus is my top concern," Magill said.

Several representatives focused on Penn’s level of commitment to education about Jewish history and antisemitism on college campuses. Magill noted that she is particularly proud of Penn’s Jewish studies program, specifically highlighting the Katz Center for Judaic Studies. 

Multiple lines of questioning asked for each president’s assessment of specific phrases repeated by pro-Palestinian community members at demonstrations on their campuses.

On multiple occasions, Magill cited the Open Expression guidelines as policy and reiterated the need to call out antisemitic rhetoric when it occurs on campus.

Many Democrats acknowledged the challenges described by some Jewish students since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel, with several calling on stopping Republican attempts to strip funding from the U.S. Department of Education and Office of Civil Rights, both of which they said was needed to combat antisemitism.

“The fear Jewish students are facing is real and justified,” Rep. Kathy Manning (D-S.C.) said.

Beyond the witnesses

Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.) called for the committee to hold additional hearings, including on the topics of Islamophobia and affirmative action’s impacts on minority students.

The hearing drew a range of Penn students to D.C., including College senior Eyal Yakoby, who sued Penn on Tuesday and spoke at a House Republican leadership press conference about his experiences with antisemitism on Penn’s campus, and members of progressive Jewish student group Penn Chavurah, who held a rally and press conference along with other progressive and pro-Palestinian Jewish college groups.

Also in attendance were a range of students from other schools, such as George Washington University sophomore Rhea Biswas, who said it was “intentional” that the hearing did not discuss Muslim communities on college campuses who have also faced harassment.

“I’m here because I know that Penn is under investigation for Islamophobia and antisemitism,” Biswas shared. “This hearing is only covering antisemitism. Why is Islamophobia not a topic?”

Dvir Blivis, part of a group of individuals at the hearing to “support Israel” was concerned about the "rise of antisemitism on college campuses.“

“We are very close to the point where people will start getting hurt,” Blivis said. 

Following the majority of the questioning, Blivis said he was “content with the bipartisan approach from both sides of the aisle” but hoped that in the future the presidents would “be more brave to say exactly what they mean.”

Darci Rochkind, a senior in high school at Bethesda Chevy Chase High School, said that instances of antisemitism on college campuses have caused her to rethink her college application choices. 

“That’s my fear when I’m going to college,” Rochkind said. "I question, am I going to feel safe going to a Shabbat dinner at Hillel? And how am I going to feel welcome?”