(Bloomberg) -- Harvard University’s antisemitism crisis is escalating after thousands of alumni wrote to the institution’s board demanding change, a congressional committee said it would investigate the school and an influential rabbi resigned from an advisory group.
“This week demonstrated that Harvard cares more about avoiding legal risk than it does about student life, the promotion of democratic and pluralistic values, or a commitment to eradicating bigotry from campus,” wrote the Harvard Jewish Alumni Alliance in a letter to the Harvard Corp., whose fellows include Penny Pritzker and Ken Chenault.
The furor is worsening in the wake of Harvard President Claudine Gay’s widely panned congressional testimony Dec. 5, when she and counterparts from the University of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts Institute of Technology offered narrow legal responses to questions about whether calling for the genocide of Jews is against school policy.
The House Education and the Workforce Committee held the hearing to scrutinize antisemitism in the aftermath of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and the ensuing Israeli invasion of Gaza. Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe described Gay’s testimony before Congress as “bizarrely evasive.”
‘I Am Sorry’
Gay, seeking to quell the controversy, showed contrition in an interview Thursday with the Harvard Crimson.
“I am sorry,” she said.
“Words matter,” she added. “When words amplify distress and pain, I don’t know how you could feel anything but regret.”
Representative Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican and Harvard graduate who elicited the bungled responses, said the committee will investigate universities “with the full force of subpoena power.” Committee Chair Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican, added that the schools’ “policies and disciplinary procedures” would be under examination.
In its letter to the board, the Harvard Jewish Alumni Alliance urged the school to expel “any student or faculty who calls for violence against civilians.”
The association, which says it has more than 2,000 Jewish and non-Jewish members, also demanded that Harvard acknowledge its “existential antisemitism problem on campus” and investigate the funding sources of all Harvard-affiliated groups in case money comes from “bad actors” looking to foment hatred and eliminate the state of Israel.
The alumni, whose leaders include Clarence Schwab, Edmond Safra and Rebecca Claire Brooks, sent their letter the same day that Rabbi David Wolpe resigned from Harvard’s antisemitism advisory committee.
Wolpe, a visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School, said his decision was based on “events on campus and the painfully inadequate testimony” at the congressional hearing.
That “reinforced the idea that I cannot make the sort of difference I had hoped,” he said in a post on X.
“Belittling or denying the Jewish experience, including unspeakable atrocities, is a vast and continuing catastrophe,” wrote Wolpe, rabbi emeritus of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. He went on to praise Gay as a “kind and thoughtful person” and said most students at Harvard “wish only to get an education and a job, not prosecute ideological agendas.”
Gay backtracked a day after her testimony, saying on social media that Harvard won’t condone violent speech against Jewish students. Addressing Wolpe’s decision, she said she was grateful for his “advice, perspective and friendship” in recent weeks.
“With thoughtfulness and candor, he has deepened my and our community’s understanding of the unacceptable presence of antisemitism here at Harvard,” Gay said in an emailed statement. “We have more work to do and his contributions will help shape our path forward. Antisemitism has no place in the Harvard community, and I am committed to ensuring no member of our Jewish community faces this hate in any form.”
Penn President Liz Magill also was forced to clarify her remarks in a video and there are mounting calls for both leaders to resign, with criticism raining down from alumni, business leaders, faculty and politicians.
On Wednesday, the board at Penn’s Wharton School of Business urged the university’s board of trustees find new leadership, according to a letter seen by Bloomberg.
The Harvard alumni group said while it “understands” the calls for Gay to step down, it’s “also concerned that the plight on campus would deepen in the prolongated process of searching for a new president.”
Instead, they want the Harvard Corp., the university’s governing board, to step in and enact changes.
(Updates with Wharton board letter calling for new leadership.)
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