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Uproar over university presidents' remarks on antisemitism underscores tensions on campuses

Four hours of tense testimony on Capitol Hill this week with presidents of the nation's most elite colleges has kicked off a flood of anger from donors, alumni and politicians -- but it's also reignited simmering tensions for students.

College campuses, often the heart of debate in the U.S., have been a central point of protest and dialogue on the Israel-Hamas war for the past two months -- a role that also has brought tension, discomfort and pain, Jewish and Palestinian students said in interviews.

MORE: Presidents of universities grilled on efforts to counter antisemitism on campus

Where they do agree is that they broadly don't feel supported by their school administrations, something the hearing underscored, they said.

"We are concerned that they're not addressing [antisemitism or Islamophobia] because they're so afraid and they're so paralyzed by not upsetting people," said Talia Khan, a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and president of the MIT Israel Alliance. "And that's the problem is that there's no student on campus who's happy -- Jewish students aren't happy, Muslim students aren't happy."

MORE: US Department of Education investigates 6 more schools for discrimination amid tensions over Israel-Hamas war

PHOTO: Harvard President Claudine Gay, left, University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill, center, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Sally Kornbluth listen in a hearing of the House Committee on Education, Dec. 5, 2023, in Washington. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Harvard President Claudine Gay, left, University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill, center, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Sally Kornbluth listen in a hearing of the House Committee on Education, Dec. 5, 2023, in Washington. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

The presidents of the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University and the MIT were grilled for hours by the House Education Committee earlier this week. The leaders repeatedly condemned antisemitism, vowing to do more to combat it.

But it was a line of questioning from New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik quizzing them on how they would respond to calls for the "genocide of Jews," that drew the most attention.

Stefanik's question was about chants of "intifada," the Arab word for "shaking off" or "uprising," at protests on campuses.

"Does that speech not cross that barrier, does that speech not call for the genocide of Jews and the elimination of Israel?" she asked. "Is that speech according to the code of conduct or not?"

"We embrace a commitment to free expression and give a wide berth to free expression, even views that are objectionable," said Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard University.

Asked the same question, Elizabeth Magill, president of Penn, said "it is a context-dependent decision." Sally Kornbluth, the president of MIT, said it would be investigated as harassment, "if pervasive and severe."

The presidents refused to give a simple "yes" or "no" answer. Instead, they gave carefully worded responses touching on the tricky issue of free speech.

The viral moment sparked condemnations from donors, governors and senators, as well as calls for the leaders to step down.

MORE: Penn's president apologizes for response on how to handle calls for 'genocide of Jews'

Amid the firestorm of backlash, the presidents of Harvard and Penn issued follow-up statements to clarify and walk back their testimonies.

Khan, the student at MIT, said the testimony underscored the university's failure to protect students.

"We're here to study. I'm here to do a PhD in mechanical engineering," Khan said. "I want them to do something to make us feel safe."

MORE: Harvard's president answers backlash over response to calls for 'genocide of Jews'

This was echoed by a Penn students who spoke at a press conference on Capitol Hill earlier this week.

"As a student, I do not feel safe," Penn student Eyal Yakoby said.

Others at the press conference, such as Jonathan Frieden, a Harvard Law student, pleaded for protection.

"Do something," Frieden said. "Protect Jewish people. Protect your students."

It comes as Penn and Harvard -- as well as a growing list of nearly 20 school districts and universities since the war began -- are under investigation for complaints of antisemitism or Islamophobia on campus, both of which have risen at alarming levels.

PHOTO: A truck driving around Harvard's campus identifies people who signed onto a controversial letter supporting Palestinians in the wake of an attack by Hamas. (ABC News)
PHOTO: A truck driving around Harvard's campus identifies people who signed onto a controversial letter supporting Palestinians in the wake of an attack by Hamas. (ABC News)

MORE: The Israel-Hamas war has college campuses on edge. How some are tackling the issue.

But Palestinian students at Harvard say that while their schools are attempting to address antisemitism with task forces -- even discussing it on Capitol Hill -- Islamophobia has been treated with far less gravity.

Students say the fears are growing, particularly after three college students of Palestinian descent were shot and seriously injured in Vermont last month.

"We have nothing equivalent for Palestinian, Arab, Muslim students or supporters of Palestine to address or combat the very obvious, very public, very targeted harassment campaigns that we've been facing," said Tala Alfoqaha, a Palestinian-American law student at Harvard.

After at least 30 student groups released a letter, in part, blaming the Israeli regime for "all unfolding violence" in the wake of Hamas' Oct. 7 attack, they have faced public outrage and harassment including doxxing. Several groups have since retracted their signatures and the authors later released a statement clarifying that they do not condone violence against civilians.

"Our statement's purpose was clear: to address the root cause of all the violence unfolding. To state what should be clear: PSC staunchly opposes all violence against all innocent life and laments all human suffering," the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee said in a subsequent statement released.

Alfoqaha said her name and face have been broadcast on a truck with a billboard on it that drives around campus, doxxing pro-Palestinian students, and a website has been put up in her name, which has led to professional consequences.

"It feels like we are being collectively gaslit," she said. "I feel like the institution's response, our government's response, the responses of our politicians that refuse to acknowledge Palestinians suffering continue to leave the Palestinian story as less than a footnote in their narrative of events."

PHOTO: Palestinian supporters gather for a protest at Columbia University, Oct. 12, 2023, in New York. (Yuki Iwamura/AP Photo, FILE)
PHOTO: Palestinian supporters gather for a protest at Columbia University, Oct. 12, 2023, in New York. (Yuki Iwamura/AP Photo, FILE)

She said she watched the hearing with dismay.

"[Stefanik] is asking about, you know, these hypothetical genocides that Palestinians obviously do not support, when there is an actual genocide taking place against Palestinians," she said.

More than 17,000 people have been killed in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Health, amid the Israeli offensive in response to Hamas' the Oct. 7 terror attack that killed more than 1,200 people in Israel, according to Israeli officials.

Lea Kayali, also a Palestinian-American student at Harvard Law School, says she, too, took issue with the line of questioning, which she says conflated protests for Palestinian freedom with antisemitism.

"To be honest, at this point, I have absolutely no faith that the Harvard administration is going to be using their platform to espouse the truth about what students on campus stand for when they say 'free Palestine,'" she said.

"I have no hope that the administration is going to support us or even, you know, try to create space for us to live normally as students and express our outrage about a genocide."

Gabriella Martini, a graduate student in a group called Jews for Ceasefire at MIT -- a group of MIT students and alumni calling for a ceasefire and end of the occupation, according to its Instagram account -- said she's worried the doxxing that's happening at Harvard could make its way down the road to MIT.

"The pattern of institutional support for students who are advocating for Palestine, and not just Jewish students, has been so subpar that I think we're all struggling to fully trust that the institutions will come to our aid," she said.

Martini, along with other students in Jews for Ceasefire, traveled to Capitol Hill for the hearing.

Watching it, they said their perspective on what is happening on college campuses across the country felt ignored. The national conversation has pitted Jewish students against Arab and Muslim students, even though there are a multitude of views, Martini said.

PHOTO: Students participate in a protest in support of Palestine and for free speech at Columbia University campus, Nov. 14, 2023, in New York. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Students participate in a protest in support of Palestine and for free speech at Columbia University campus, Nov. 14, 2023, in New York. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

"I really reject the idea that advocating for the Palestinian people is inherently antisemitic," Martini said.

There has been a lot of discomfort and pain on campus, she said, as people realize their views are "in tension" with one another.

Martini said she felt sympathetic to Israeli students on campus or people with friends and family in Israel "who feel like they're really wrestling with grief after Oct. 7 and that it's very painful to be in spaces where people are protesting on behalf of the Palestinian people, like they feel like their experience is not being acknowledged fully."

"But I don't think that's antisemitic," she said.

Uproar over university presidents' remarks on antisemitism underscores tensions on campuses originally appeared on abcnews.go.com