The president of the University of Pennsylvania has apologised for refusing to denounce calls for a genocide against Jews as hate speech.
Liz Magill, as well as fellow presidents Claudine Gay of Harvard and Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, were accused of equivocating on the rise of anti-Semitism on American campuses during a congressional hearing on Tuesday.
Their testimony triggered calls for them to resign and drew condemnation from across the political spectrum, including from the White House.
But after telling Congress that treating calls for genocide against Jews as harassment depended on the “context”, Ms Magill tried to repair the damage by posting a video of herself apologising on the university’s website.
She admitted that she had not been “focused” on the issue as she faced a ferocious grilling from Elise Stefanik, a Republican member of Congress for New York.
“There was a moment during yesterday’s congressional hearing on anti-Semitism when I was asked if a call for the genocide of Jewish people on our campus would violate our policies,” she said in the two-minute video published on Wednesday.
“In that moment, I was focused on the university’s long-standing policies – aligned with the US Constitution – which say that speech alone is not punishable,” Ms Magill added.
“I was not focused on – but should have been – the irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate. It’s evil, plain and simple.”
Ms Magill said that she wanted to “clarify” her position after the controversy, acknowledging that any call for a genocide against Jews would in fact constitute “harassment”.
She said: “I want to be clear: a call for genocide of Jewish people is threatening, deeply so.”
“It is intentionally meant to terrify a people who have been subjected to pogroms and hated for centuries and were the victims of mass genocide in the Holocaust.
“In my view, it would be harassment or intimidation.”
Jewish students at the university have complained of anti-Semitic graffiti and racial slurs on campus, and two have filed civil rights lawsuits in the wake of Hamas’s Oct 7 attacks on Israel and the subsequent war in Gaza.
Ms Gay, who also said that treating calls for genocide against Jews depended on the “context”, joined Ms Magill in backtracking from her congressional 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 on Wednesday.
“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.”
Reacting to the academics’ testimony on Tuesday, Andrew Bates, a spokesman for the White House, said: “It’s unbelievable that this needs to be said: calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country.”