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Harvard President Claudine Gay apologized for her remarks at the end of her congressional testimony, which sparked fierce national criticism and led the leadership of Harvard Hillel to say they don’t trust her to protect Jewish students at the University.
“I am sorry,” Gay said in an interview with The Crimson on Thursday. “Words matter.”
“When words amplify distress and pain, I don’t know how you could feel anything but regret,” Gay added.
Gay said she sought to use her testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on Tuesday to highlight efforts underway at Harvard to combat antisemitism. Her remarks, however, only served to inflame criticism of Gay’s response to reports of antisemitism on campus.
The full hearing lasted for nearly six hours, but it was a tense 90-second exchange with Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.) at the end of Gay’s testimony that went viral on social media, drawing national condemnation from the White House to Harvard’s Jewish center.
“At Harvard, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment?” Stefanik asked.
“It can be, depending on the context,” Gay responded.
But Stefanik pressed Gay to give a yes or no answer to the question about whether calls for the genocide of Jews constitute a violation of Harvard’s policies.
“Antisemitic speech when it crosses into conduct that amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation — that is actionable conduct and we do take action,” Gay said.
Stefanik tried again.
“So the answer is yes, that calling for the genocide of Jews violates Harvard code of conduct, correct?” Stefanik asked.
“Again, it depends on the context,” Gay said.
“It does not depend on the context. The answer is yes and this is why you should resign,” Stefanik shot back. “These are unacceptable answers across the board.”
As the backlash grew into an uproar, Gay issued a statement through Harvard’s official social media channels on Wednesday in an attempt to clarify her response to Stefanik’s line of questioning.
“There are some who have confused a right to free expression with the idea that Harvard will condone calls for violence against Jewish students,” Gay said. “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.”
But the damage had been done, an error Gay acknowledged on Thursday as the fallout continued. The House Committee on Education and the Workforce announced an official congressional investigation into antisemitism at Harvard. Hours later, Rabbi David Wolpe resigned from an advisory group to combat antisemitism on campus that Gay established only weeks earlier, citing her congressional testimony.
“I got caught up in what had become at that point, an extended, combative exchange about policies and procedures,” Gay said in the interview. “What I should have had the presence of mind to do in that moment was return to my guiding truth, which is that calls for violence against our Jewish community — threats to our Jewish students — have no place at Harvard, and will never go unchallenged.”
“Substantively, I failed to convey what is my truth,” Gay added.
Gay, however, said it was her pleasure to attend the hearing and answer questions from the Committee’s members.
“When the committee invited me to attend the hearing, I didn’t hesitate to agree,” she said. “It was an opportunity to just convey the depth of both my personal commitment and the institutional commitment to combating antisemitism.”
But Harvard Hillel President Jacob M. Miller ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, and Hillel Campus Rabbi Getzel Davis wrote in a statement Tuesday evening that Gay’s testimony did exactly the opposite.
“President Gay’s failure to properly condemn this speech calls into question her ability to protect Jewish students on Harvard’s campus,” Hillel’s leadership wrote. “President Gay’s testimony fails to reassure us that the University is seriously concerned about the antisemitic rhetoric pervasive on campus.”
Gay said that over the past two months, she has heard “wrenching testimony about how much pain” students are in.
“To contemplate that something I said amplified that pain — that’s really difficult,” she said. “It makes me sad.”
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