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

"A call for genocide of Jewish people is threatening -- deeply so," Magill said.

December 7, 2023, 6:32 PM

The University of Pennsylvania's president on Thursday faced new backlash for her comments during a congressional hearing -- after she had already apologized for how she said she would handle remarks in the university community calling for the "genocide of Jews."

The Republican-led House Education Committee announced Thursday that it is opening an investigation into the policies and disciplinary procedures at Penn, Harvard and MIT after finding testimony from Elizabeth Magill, Penn's president, along with that of Harvard President Claudine Gay and MIT President Sally Kornbluth -- "absolutely unacceptable."

Rep. Virginia Foxx, the committee's Republican chairwoman, said members have "deep concerns with their leadership and their failure to take steps to provide Jewish students the safe learning environment they are due under law."

Several of Pennsylvania's elected leaders have denounced Magill's comments made during Tuesday's congressional hearing, with some calling for her resignation. The university's board of trustees held a hastily scheduled meeting Thursday, but there is no board plan for imminent leadership change at Penn, according to the university spokesperson.

During the House Education Committee hearing Tuesday on how three university presidents have handled antisemitism on their campuses, Magill had a tense exchange with New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik.

Stefanik asked Magill to respond "yes or no" if calling for the "genocide of Jews" violated Penn's rules or code of conduct.

University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill reads her opening statement during a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, Dec. 5, 2023 in Washington.
Mark Schiefelbein/AP

Magill replied, "If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment. Yes."

Stefanik followed up: "I am asking, specifically, calling for the genocide of Jews, does that constitute bullying or harassment?"

Magill responded that it was a "context-dependent decision."

"It's a context-dependent decision -- that's your testimony today? Stefanik countered. "Calling for the genocide of Jews is depending upon the context?"

Hours later, amid bipartisan backlash, including from prominent Democrats, Magill apologized for her response in a video posted on the university's website.

"I was not focused on, but I 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," Magill said in the video.

In a reversal, using direct language, Magill said that type of language is "harassment or intimidation."

"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 hatred for centuries and were the victims of mass genocide in the Holocaust," she said.

Magill said Penn will take a "serious and careful look" at its "longstanding policies aligned with the U.S. Constitution, which say that speech alone is not punishable."

"In today's world, where we are seeing signs of hate proliferating across our campus and our world in a way not seen in years, these policies need to be clarified and evaluated," Magill said.

Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania bashed Magill's "absolutely shameful" comments in the back-and-forth with Stefanik.

"That was an unacceptable statement from the president of Penn," Shapiro, who is Jewish, said Wednesday. "Frankly, I thought her comments were absolutely shameful. It should not be hard to condemn genocide."

Shapiro said if calling for the genocide of Jews "doesn't violate the policies of Penn, well, there's something wrong with the policies of Penn that the board needs to get on, or there's a failure of leadership from the president, or both."

Shapiro is a nonvoting board member at the university.

During the Tuesday hearing, Stefanik called on Magill -- as well as the other university presidents who testified -- to resign.

Rep. Elise Stefanik speaks during a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, Dec. 5, 2023 in Washington.
Mark Schiefelbein/AP

A petition on demanding Magill's resignation had more than 14,000 signatures as of Thursday afternoon.

Pennsylvania State Sen. Steve Santarsiero, a Democrat, has joined the call to oust Magill saying that her "coached" answer "utterly failed to express the moral clarity that the question demanded."

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn., called Magill's response to Stefanik "offensive" in a post on X.

"President Magill's comments yesterday were offensive, but equally offensive was what she didn't say. The right to free speech is fundamental, but calling for the genocide of Jews is antisemitic and harassment, full stop," Casey said.

Sen. John Fetterman, D-Penn., said Magill's comments were "embarrassing."

"There is no 'both sides-ism' and it isn't 'free speech,' it's simply hate speech," he said to The New York Times. "It was embarrassing for a venerable Pennsylvania university, and it should be reflexive for leaders to condemn antisemitism and stand up for the Jewish community or any community facing this kind of invective."

National leaders are weighing in as well.

At the lighting of the National Menorah for Hanukkah on Thursday, second gentleman Doug Emhoff, who is Jewish, condemned the university presidents' remarks.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (R) watches as Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff delivers remarks during the Annual National Menorah Lighting, at the Ellipse of the White House, Dec. 7, 2023.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

"We’ve seen the presidents of some of our most elite universities literally unable to denounce calling for the genocide of Jews as antisemitic. That lack of moral clarity is simply unacceptable," Emhoff said.

"Let me be clear: When Jews are targeted because of their beliefs or identity, and when Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred, that is antisemitism and it must be condemned, and condemned unequivocally and without context," he said.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., said Thursday morning that antisemitic comments should never be tolerated on college campuses.

"I think it's important for every university leader to unequivocally make clear that antisemitism has no place on a single college campus," he said.

White House spokesman Andrew Bates blasted the university presidents for their responses as well.

Liz Magill, President of University of Pennsylvania, testifies before the House Education and Workforce Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building on December 05, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

"It's unbelievable that this needs to be said: calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country," Bates said in a statement.

Harvard President Claudine Gay issued a statement Wednesday to clarify her comments similar to Magill's during the hearing that drew bipartisan ire.

"Calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or any religious or ethnic group are vile, they have no place at Harvard," she said.

ABC News' Selina Wang contributed to this report.

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