20231207 claudine gay
Dr. Claudine Gay, President of Harvard University, testifies before the House Education and Workforce Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building. Image Credit: AFP

The president of Harvard University on Wednesday faced criticism and calls for her resignation over her comments at a Capitol Hill hearing on campus anti-Semitism.

The deadly conflict between Israel and Hamas militants has ignited tensions on many American college campuses, with protests flaring.

At Harvard, donors have specifically called for President Claudine Gay to offer more explicit support for Israel, and condemnation of student groups who have voiced support for the Palestinian people.

On Tuesday, Gay testified before the House Education Committee at a hearing dedicated to holding campus leaders accountable for anti-Semitic incidents.

Republican lawmaker Elise Stefanik likened student calls for a new intifada - an Arabic word for uprising that harks back to the first Palestinian revolt against Israel in 1987 - to inciting "genocide against the Jewish people in Israel and globally."

When Stefanik asked Gay if such calls would violate Harvard's code of conduct, the Harvard president said: "We embrace a commitment to free expression even of views that are objectionable, offensive, hateful.

"When speech crosses into conduct that violates our policies, including policies against bullying, harassment or intimidation, we take action."

Stefanik called on Gay to immediately resign, while Republican Senator Ted Cruz called the comment "disgraceful."

Prominent legal scholar Laurence Tribe, a professor emeritus at Harvard Law School, said Gay's "hesitant, formulaic and bizarrely evasive answers were deeply troubling to me and many of my colleagues, students, and friends."

Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, called Gay's comments "embarrassing because she accepted Stefanik's premise that saying 'intifada' is equivalent to a call for genocide, which is ridiculous."

And Dani Dayan, chairman of Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center, called on Gay and other university leaders to "empower and train their faculty and students to better understand the dangers of anti-Semitism."

"We invite university leadership to visit Israel and Yad Vashem during this university semester break in order to learn what past calls for the genocide of Jews has led to - the Holocaust," Dayan said in a statement.

On Wednesday, Gay issued a brief statement clarifying her testimony.

"There are some who have confused a right to free expression with the idea that Harvard will condone calls for violence against Jewish students," she said in a statement on social media.

"Let me be clear: Calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or any religious or ethnic group are vile, they have no place at Harvard, and those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account."