Peter Beinart & Omer Bartov on UPenn President Resignation, Gaza & the Weaponization of Antisemitism
Written by GRB on 12/12/2023
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at allegations that universities have failed to address threats of violence against Jewish students following a contentious congressional hearing on antisemitism and a broader effort to restrict pro-Palestinian speech on campus.
On Saturday, the University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill resigned her position over fallout from last Tuesday’s House Education Committee hearing. UPenn board chair Scott Bok, who announced her resignation, he also resigned soon after.
Magill was questioned along with Harvard President Claudine Gay and MIT President Sally Kornbluth by the right-wing Republican New York congressmember and Trump ally Elise Stefanik. This is Stefanik questioning Harvard President Gay first, then UPenn President Magill.
CLAUDINE GAY: … free speech extends —
REP. ELISE STEFANIK: It’s a yes-or-no question. Let me ask you this. You are president of Harvard, so I assume you’re familiar with the term “intifada,” correct?
CLAUDINE GAY: I have heard that term, yes.
REP. ELISE STEFANIK: And you understand that the use of the term “intifada” in the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict is indeed a call for violent armed resistance against the state of Israel, including violence against civilians and the genocide of Jews. Are you aware of that?
CLAUDINE GAY: That type of hateful speech is personally abhorrent to me. …
REP. ELISE STEFANIK: Well, let me ask you this: Will admissions offers be rescinded or any disciplinary action be taken against students or applicants who say “from the river to the sea” or “intifada,” advocating for the murder of Jews.
CLAUDINE GAY: As I have said, that type of hateful, reckless, offensive speech is personally abhorrent to me. …
REP. ELISE STEFANIK: Ms. Magill, at Penn, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s rules or code of conduct? Yes or no?
LIZ MAGILL: If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment, yes.
REP. ELISE STEFANIK: I am asking, specifically calling for the genocide of Jews, does that constitute bullying or harassment?
LIZ MAGILL: If it is directed and severe or pervasive, it is harassment.
REP. ELISE STEFANIK: So the answer is yes.
LIZ MAGILL: It is a context-dependent decision, Congresswoman.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill. She announced her resignation Saturday and will remain a tenured law professor at UPenn. Major donors to the University of Pennsylvania had demanded Magill’s resignation since September, after she refused to cancel the Palestine Writes Literature Festival on campus.
New York Republican Congressmember Elise Stefanik herself faced scrutiny for a campaign ad she ran last year that echoed Donald Trump and appeared to promote the white supremacist “great replacement” theory that Jews want to replace and disempower white Americans. She made similar comments after the mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, that was inspired by the “great replacement” theory. After news of Magill’s resignation, Stefanik called for the ouster of the Harvard and MIT presidents, writing on social media, “One down. Two to go.” She was echoed by Trump.
DONALD TRUMP: Thank you, Elise. What a job she’s done. You know, I watched the way — she’s very smart. I watched the way she was asking the questions, and they were asked in a very complex way. And these women, who I guess are smart, but, boy, that was — they were really dumb answers, weren’t they? But they were asked in a very complex way, and these people had no idea what the hell they were doing. I said, “You know, I think she’s got to lose her job.” I guess they’re all going to be losing their job within the next day or two, but one down, two to go.
AMY GOODMAN: This comes as Harvard President Claudine Gay has growing support. Some 600 professors signed a petition against calls for her to step down this weekend. The school’s board of directors met Sunday.
Congressmember Stefanik is a Harvard alumna and was removed from a Harvard advisory board in 2021 over her comments about voter fraud in the 2020 election that had, quote, “no basis in evidence.”
For more, we’re joined by Peter Beinart, editor-at-large of Jewish Currents and, as well, an MSNBC contributor, and Omer Bartov, a professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at Brown University, the Israeli American author of numerous books. His books include, recently, Genocide, the Holocaust and Israel-Palestine: First-Person History in Times of Crisis. He has been described by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum as one of the world’s leading specialists on the subject of genocide.
Peter Beinart, let’s begin with you. Your response to the congressional hearing and the grilling of the three women presidents of MIT, Harvard and UPenn, and the resignation then of UPenn President Magill, as well as the chair of the board of trustees, Scott Bok, who announced her resignation, then resigned himself?
PETER BEINART: This really isn’t about those individual presidents. It’s about the fact that given the extraordinary slaughter that’s happening in Gaza, there is a movement on college campuses and across America for a ceasefire and to end American complicity in that slaughter. And in response to that, the effort is now to try to limit the ability of people who want to protest U.S. policy and support Palestinian rights from being able to organize on college campuses. So the reason that you’re going after these presidents is to try to set a precedent and bring in people who will be much tougher on restricting the ability of students and faculty and others who want to organize politically against this war in Gaza. This is what this is about.
AMY GOODMAN: And if you can talk about exactly what happened, for people who missed it this past week? We just played an excerpt of the questioning by Stefanik. I mean, it went on for hours, the overall congressional testimony, but it came down to these points. And this is the critical point. She said, “It’s a yes-or-no question. Let me ask you this. You are president of Harvard, so I assume you’re familiar with the term ‘intifada,’ correct?” And President Gay says, “I’ve heard that term.” Congressmember Stefanik says, “You understand the use of the term ‘intifada’ in the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict is indeed a call for violent armed resistance against the state of Israel, including violence against civilians and the genocide of Jews.” This was the question they were asked. Elaborate on that, Peter Beinart, and talk about their responses.
PETER BEINART: Right. The premise of the question was just nonsense, right? The premise of the question is that “intifada,” which essentially means “uprising,” is the equivalent of an attempt at genocide at Jews. “Intifada” is actually a term that has been used even in uprising against Arab governments. Intifada can take nonviolent forms. The First Intifada had a lot of nonviolence. The Second Intifada, tragically, involved suicide bombings, which were horrifying and totally immoral. But these were uprisings in the context of oppression. It’s like saying a Ukrainian uprising against Russians that also killed Russian civilians would be an attempt at Russian genocide. It makes no sense.
But the problem was that these presidents, because they were not willing to contest the premise, because they were so lawyered up and defensive in their answers, that they basically accepted the premise and then were put in this ridiculous position where they didn’t — when they didn’t say it would be unacceptable for people to call for the genocide of Jews. Of course it would be unacceptable for people to call in mass protest for the genocide of Jews, but that’s not what was happening.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Omer Bartov into this discussion — you’re considered by the Holocaust Museum one of the leading scholars on genocide — and go to this second point. Congressmember Stefanik was asking the college presidents, she said, “Well, let me ask you this: Will admission offers be rescinded or any disciplinary action be taken against students or applicants who say ‘from the river to the sea’ or ‘intifada,’ advocating the murder of Jews?” equating “from the river to the sea” and “intifada” with the murder of Jews. Can you respond to this? And also explain that term and how it’s been used by both Hamas but also protesters and the Likud party in Israel.
OMER BARTOV: Well, hi, and thank you for having me.
First of all, I want to agree with what Peter was saying. I think that this whole debate is so off-kilter, that the terms that are being used are being misused and are not being challenged by these three presidents, who should have been better prepared, not by their lawyers, but actually to have studied the issue itself and to have spoken about how they think about it. Using the term “intifada” is, of course, wrong, as Peter was saying. It means “uprising.” And uprising against oppression, one should support it.
Using the term “from the river to the sea” can mean all kinds of things. There are 7 million Jews living between the river and the sea, and 7 million Palestinians. Historically, speaking about “from the river to the sea,” or, in fact, both banks of the river in the traditional Zionist revisionist ideology, meant that the Jews should be in control of Eretz Yisrael, of the — sorry, of the land of Israel. I apologize.
AMY GOODMAN: Repeat —
OMER BARTOV: Sorry.
AMY GOODMAN: Repeat that point.
OMER BARTOV: Yeah, sorry. So, the term “from the river to the sea,” or Greater Israel, which means Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, that land stretches between the Jordan —
AMY GOODMAN: We’re hearing you fine.
OMER BARTOV: Yeah. I’m sorry. I’m getting interruption here. Means the land between the Jordan and the sea, and, in fact, for some of the traditional revisionist movement, the right wing of the Zionist party, meant also across the river, even east of the river, into what is now known as Jordan, Transjordan at the time. So, to say that that is an antisemitic term or that it calls for the genocide of the Jews is nonsense. It can mean, if you look at it from the point of view of the Israeli right, that Jews have the right to rule over all the land of Israel. And many of the people who are now in Netanyahu’s government, the settler right-wing Jewish supremacists, such as Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, they would like to rule over all the land, and they would like the Palestinians to go away or to agree to be ruled over by the Jews. Now, it can also mean the opposite. If you look at what Hamas has been saying, it can mean exactly the opposite. Hamas indeed wants to create an Islamic Palestinian state where Jews would either have no room or would have to be living there in much smaller numbers and be tolerated.
And so, it does not mean what people say, unless you ask them what do they mean. And in that sense, putting these three presidents to answer these questions, to my mind, A, they should have said, “Look, if you speak about genocide, no one should condone genocide, not of Jews and not of anyone else. If you’re speaking about intifada or about political slogans, you have to explain what they are, how we understand them.”
But beyond that, I have to say that this whole discussion seems to me to be the least important issue. What is most important is that Israel now is — has been conducting a war for weeks and weeks in which it has killed thousands and thousands of Palestinians. It has moved them to a very small part of the Gaza Strip. It has destroyed their property and has not even made a commitment to allow them to return. And it’s been doing that with enormous amounts of American-supplied munitions, not only rockets, but also tank shells, artillery shells and anti-rocket rockets. And that has to stop, and there has to be a political plan as to how to move to the next day, which is what Netanyahu is refusing to do. This is the main issue, not how we talk about politics on American campuses. That’s useful to talk about it, but it’s not the main emergency issue right now to my mind.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you two questions. You’re in Paris, France, now, but you’re generally in Cambridge, and you’re a professor at Brown University in Providence. What should Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard, do you feel, at this point, should she do? Hundreds of Harvard professors have rallied around her. And I also wanted to ask about Hisham Awartani, who is the Brown University student, a student at your school, who was shot with two other Palestinian students in Burlington, could well be paralyzed, a horrifying situation. I mean, I think there’s no question that antisemitism is increasing around the country, and that is very serious, and also Islamophobia.
OMER BARTOV: Yes. I mean, both are, of course, increasing, and we should do everything we can against them. And what happened with Hisham and the other two Palestinian students is horrible. In some ways, I would say, it reflects both the heated discussion that we have about Israel-Palestine and also the kind of gun culture and violence that we have in America, quite separately from what is happening in the Middle East.
As for resignations of presidents, I think this is — this would be terrible. I totally support those — I’m not a Harvard faculty. My wife is. But I totally support those people who have come out against her resignation. I think it would give completely the wrong signal, because the pressure is coming in large part from donors. That will create an impression that there is pressure from moneyed people, that there’s pressure from often people identified with Jewish interests, with right-wing Israelis, with the Israeli government, to control speech. And just as there has been, I must say — and that was reflected in the responses by these presidents — great sort of timidity in saying anything that is not correct speech, to correct it the other way, to try and control it in a way that does not allow criticism of Israel, presents criticism of Israel as antisemitism. And to do it by firing, for instance, at Harvard, the first African American president of Harvard would be an absolute disaster, and I would totally oppose it.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to end by asking Peter Beinart about Democratic Congressmember — Republican Congressmember Stefanik and her history. This is Democratic Congressmember Jamie Raskin of Maryland speaking on MSNBC.
REP. JAMIE RASKIN: With lax Republican gun laws across the country, we’ve got to take very seriously anybody who’s making any kind of violent threats, especially genocidal threats. Having said that, where does Elise Stefanik get off lecturing anybody about antisemitism, when she is the hugest supporter of Donald Trump, who traffics in antisemitism all the time? She didn’t utter a peep of protest when he had Kanye West and Nick Fuentes over for dinner — Nick Fuentes, who doubts whether October 7th even took place, because he thinks it was some kind of suspicious propaganda move by the Israelis. And the Republican Party is filled with people who are entangled with antisemitism like that, and yet somehow she gets on her high horse and lectures a Jewish college president from MIT.
AMY GOODMAN: So, last year, Republican Congressmember Elise Stefanik of New York was criticized for seeming to endorse the racist “great replacement” conspiracy theory, the white supremacist theory maintaining white people are being replaced by people of color and that Democrats are deliberately trying to deluge the U.S. with immigrants in order to gain an electoral advantage. We all know what happened in Charlottesville, the mass protest where the Trump-supporting white supremacists kept repeating “Jews will not replace us.” Peter Beinart, can you respond to the woman who’s taking these women presidents, at least attempting to, and succeeded in the case of UPenn President Magill, down?
PETER BEINART: First of all, there’s a tremendous irony in the fact that Elise Stefanik is supposedly so upset about people saying Palestine will be free from the river to the sea, because Elise Stefanik supports the existence of one country which denies Palestinians basic rights between the river and the sea. And as for the idea that she has some great concern for Jews, as you said, she’s actually trafficked in the same “great replacement” theory that is what motivated the Pittsburgh shooter because of this insane idea that Jews are bringing in Black and Brown immigrants into the United States to replace white people. Elise Stefanik doesn’t actually care about Jews. What she believes in is ethnonationalism. She believes in a white Christian state in the United States. And she’s sympathetic to forces in Israel that believe in a Jewish supremacist state, because fundamentally she’s hostile to the basic principle that people should be treated equally under the law irrespective of race, religion or ethnicity. She’s hostile to it in Israel-Palestine. She’s hostile to it in the United States. That’s what motivates her.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. We’ll continue, of course, to cover this issue. Peter Beinart, editor-at-large of Jewish Currents, and Omer Bartov, professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at Brown University, author of a number of books, including, most recently, Genocide, the Holocaust and Israel-Palestine: First-Person History in Times of Crisis.
Next up, the State Department’s bypassing Congress to send nearly 14,000 rounds of tank ammunition to Israel. We’ll speak to Josh Paul, who resigned from the State Department to protest the Biden administration’s push to increase arms sales to Israel amidst its siege on Gaza. Back in 20 seconds.