You need a good vocabulary to get into college, and an even better vocabulary to run one. So how did college presidents last week suddenly have so much trouble saying a single word?
During a hearing on antisemitism, in front of Congress and TV cameras, the presidents of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania were asked by U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik on Tuesday whether calling for the genocide of Jews violated their schools’ rules on bullying and harassment.
This should not be a hard question. Calling for the murder of any race or religious group should be a non-starter at a college. Would screaming for the genocide of Blacks, Latinos, gay or transgender people be tolerated for a second in the Ivy League? Never. Nor should it be. To deny that would get you fired before you could finish your sentence.
But faced with that same simple question regarding the genocide of Jews, the presidents struggled with their answers.
“It is a context-dependent decision,” said Penn’s president Liz Magill.
Stefanik was aghast.
“That’s your testimony today?” she asked. “Calling for the genocide of Jews is ‘depending upon the context’?’’
Stefanik reposed her simple question. But Magill again gave a blurry response.
Finally, Stefanik said, “I’m going to give you one more opportunity for the world to see your answer. Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s code of conduct when it comes to bullying and harassment — yes or no?”
Now, I imagine Penn students would like to get three chances to answer the same question. But Magill never wavered. Her answer should have been an unequivocal “YES!”
How could they miss this?
Magill was not alone. When Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, was asked the same question by Stefanik, she replied, “It can be depending on the context.”
Wait. Doesn’t Harvard warn its students that using the wrong pronouns, fat-shaming, or engaging in “Cisheterosexism” (defined as “the privileging of heterosexuality”) qualifies as “abuse” and promotes “violence” on campus?
But calling for the genocide of Jews depends on the context?
The blowback to the presidents’ testimonies was swift, with numerous politicians calling for their ouster and rich donors threatening to withhold financial gifts.
Realizing their jobs — and hundreds of millions in endowments — were at stake, Gay and Magill later tried to lessen their poor performances with apologies. Magill, looking like she was making a hostage tape, read a statement in which she claimed to be thinking more about the school’s free speech policies than the harm such policies could engender against Jewish students. It didn’t sway anyone.
She resigned — or was forced to resign — in part because her original comments were the ones that stuck in people’s minds. They weren’t part of damage control. Those presidents knew they were coming before Congress. They knew what they’d be asked. Why not just say “Of course calling for the genocide of Jews is not tolerated at our school”?
Who would be upset by that? No matter what side you take in the current Israel-Gaza conflict, if you can’t say you stand against the genocide of Jews, then you stand for it, and you don’t belong anywhere near a college campus.
But silence is a contagious disease these days.
Proof that words do matter
Following the university presidents’ debacle before Congress, a prominent rabbi named David Wolpe, who is at Harvard for a year as a visiting fellow, resigned from a committee on antisemitism that was advising Gay, the school’s president.
I grew up with David, so I called him to ask why he thought she said what she did.
“Part of the problem is that there is ideology at Harvard and elsewhere that everybody is either an oppressor or oppressed,” he said. “You divide people like (you’re using) a meat cleaver.”
This mode of thinking creates axes of oppression, Wolpe explained. And in those axes, “Jews (are seen as) oppressors and therefore they can’t suffer.”
Now, how exactly a group that constitutes 2% of America’s population yet endures 60 percent of its religious hate crimes is “the oppressor” is an enigma.
But the fact that such thinking covers silence on genocide is sad. And, to use Stefanik’s words, unacceptable.
Look. This is not a referendum on the Palestinian question. This is not a referendum on Gaza or Hamas or a ceasefire or anything else. Save those arguments for another day.
For now, just think about this. Three of the top universities in America, places ready to punish virtually every microaggression — a Halloween costume, a flag, a pronoun, anything that might make students feel “unsafe” — saw their presidents unable to give a simple, one-word answer as to whether calling for the slaughter of Jews is against their conduct code.
How safe would you feel sending your Jewish kids there?
Elite educators often use the phrase “words matter.” In this case, the word was “yes.” And three high ranking leaders choked on it.
If that doesn’t make you nervous, I don’t know what will.