Pressure Grows on MIT President To Stop Antisemitic Incidents

When unrest began to roil university campuses across the United States in the weeks after Hamas’ horrific Oct. 7 attacks in Israel, many faculty and administrators thought it was only temporary and would likely subside by Thanksgiving.

When protests persisted, and Jewish students and faculty complained about a wave of antisemitic incidents and rhetoric, some administrators assumed the turmoil would recede after winter break. The acts of discrimination, intimidation, and harassment against Jewish students have not only continued, they have metastasized into a systemic level of abuse that threatens the universities’ core academic and research missions.

At some of the most prestigious universities in the country, the level of vitriol and sheer volume of anti-Jewish hate poses new threats to university leaders allowing the hostility to pervade campus life.

Early this year, Sally Kornbluth, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, appeared to be the lone survivor of a disastrous congressional hearing in December in which she and the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania all refused to explicitly say that calls for the genocide of Jewish people violate campus rules of harassment.

Penn President Liz Magill resigned within days of her testimony amid a backlash of intense criticism from donors and alums. A few weeks later, a plagiarism scandal engulfed Harvard President Claudine Gay, snowballing with outrage over her congressional performance to topple Gay from her post.

But Kornbluth, who is Jewish and relatively new in her role, having assumed the position only in January 2023, managed to hang on through the new year and into spring. An endorsement by the MIT Corporation, the university’s governing body made up of a board of trustees, initially bolstered her standing.

MIT graduates and current faculty interviewed for this article attribute Kornbluth’s survival at least in part to the university’s focus on hard sciences. MIT’s alumni, these sources say, tend to take a more muted approach to voicing their complaints compared to other Ivy League schools known more for their social science strength. Harvard’s and Penn’s famous donors, many with large social media followings, publicly unloaded their outrage and demanded Magill’s and Gay’s removal.

But Kornbluth has her share of vocal critics who contend that the MIT Corporation’s endorsement of her handling of the post-Oct. 7 student unrest is based on its allegiance to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion dogma. The university administration’s insistence that the protests and anti-Israel activism are under control stands at odds with the experiences of many Jewish MIT students and faculty.

“In terms of the situation at MIT, I don’t think it’s any better than Harvard or Penn,” Retsef Levi, an operations management MIT professor, told RealClearPolitics.

“These pervasive hostile and harassing conditions have really devastated the Jewish and Israeli students, faculty and staff, essentially making it unsustainable for many of them to feel safe on campus to do their research and pursue the educational activities they came to MIT to do,” Levi lamented. “It’s a failure to protect the core mission of MIT.”

Much of the resentment boils down to what many in the Jewish community view as a double standard. Kornbluth, they argue, can’t square the university’s entrenched DEI culture and its anti-hate speech policies and prohibitions against discrimination with its tolerance of an incredibly vocal faction of the student body calling for “Intifada” and the outright destruction of Israel.

Some pro-Palestinian students and faculty at MIT argue they can call for the elimination of Israel and the Zionist movement without targeting the Jewish people as a whole. But Jewish students and faculty say that’s impossible – calls to end Zionism hit them at their core and constitute an attack on their heritage and identity.

While the debate rages on, MIT is struggling to keep order and allow Jewish students and faculty to pursue their university studies and work. Kornbluth and the MIT Corporation have been allowing the attacks against Israel and calls for the murdering of Jews in the name of free speech as long as they don’t target individuals or escalate into violence.

Like other universities across the country, MIT clearly never anticipated having to referee this existential clash and was woefully unprepared to handle it. But after nearly six months of protests and a series of antisemitic incidents, angry Jewish faculty and students argue MIT’s policies aren’t adapting, and the university is failing to protect Jewish students and faculty under near-constant attack.

The preamble to MIT’s student handbook governing behavior states, “In order to create a respectful, welcoming, and productive community, the Institute is committed to providing a living, working, and learning environment that is free from discrimination and discriminatory harassment.”

Anti-harassment training required of all MIT students and faculty said the university would consider “deadnaming” someone, i.e., using any LGBTQ+ person’s former name, would be considered a “violent act,” according to a slide labeled “LGBTQ+ 101: Education, Allyship and Self-Advocacy.”

So far, Kornbluth has promoted the narrative that “things are not as bad at MIT, and ‘most’ people feel ‘safe,’” Levi said. “But that’s just gaslighting what the [Jewish] community is talking and reporting about.”

When the unrest on college campuses erupted last fall, high-profile Jewish leaders in Wall Street and political arenas sought to shift the DEI model to make Jewish people part of the marginalized protected class. But billionaire hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman and his supporters quickly turned on the diversity programs themselves, arguing that the efforts, while promoting noble-sounding goals, have gone off the rails and are being used to normalize attacks against Jewish students and faculty.

Some in the MIT community take issue with DEI’s dominant role in admissions and individual departments’ focus and curricula. The prestigious science and engineering institution had historically operated as a meritocracy. They also blame DEI for promoting a simplistic  “oppressor vs. oppressed” model that casts Jews as people of white European ancestry and the oppressor against persecuted Palestinians. That framing is not only historically inaccurate, these critics say, but excuses hate speech against Jews.

Kornbluth points to her suspension of a student group engaged in anti-Israeli protests for violating campus protest rules as evidence of her willingness to take action. But critics say the members of the group, the Coalition Against Apartheid, or CAA, were never suspended from school and quickly reconstituted into differently titled groups with the same activities and goals, while essentially taunting the administration.

Talia Khan, a graduate student and president of the MIT Israel Alliance, testified before Congress in December that the school has become “overrun with toxic antisemitism.” Khan, the daughter of a Jewish mother and an Afghan Muslim father, said MIT leadership has done nothing to discipline the students responsible, including CAA members who organized the protests that violated school rules and have formed new organizations under different names.

“They have literally been sending emails signed, ‘Yours Truly, the CAA,’ with the CAA struck through and the group Reading for Revolution listed under it,” Khan told RCP.

Yet Kornbluth continues to cite the CAA suspension as evidence that she is taking action to ensure a safe academic and research environment. “We have clear, reasonable ‘time, place, and manner’ policies in place for a good reason,” Kornbluth said in a video explaining CAA’s suspension released to the students and faculty. “The point of these policies is to make sure that members of the MIT community can work, learn, and do their work on campus without disruption.”

“We also need to keep the community safe – and we can’t do that without enough advance notice to organize staff and police resources,” she continued. “That’s why we have the rules.”

Kornbluth concluded her statement by urging students and faculty to find a way to express their political views with “a basic sense of respect and empathy for other members of our community,” noting that “we do not tolerate threats to physical safety.”

“In a time of exceptional turmoil and polarization, I don’t see how we can do the important work of MIT if we can’t find a way to speak to what’s important to us without damaging the fabric of our community,” she said. “We must find a way to live and work together.”

Khan and other critics view such statements as little more than gaslighting. The university honored Isa Liggans, a known CAA member who organized a November protest that blocked a lobby in a main university building, with an undergraduate MLK leadership award. They also gave Austin Cole, a graduate student CAA member, a speaking role at the Feb. 17 MLK Celebration Gala. Cole then used his speech to invite attendees to the stage and conduct an anti-Israel protest at the gala as Kornbluth looked on in silence.

“Unfortunately, some of the major activists in CAA not only suffer no personal consequences but were recently awarded with speaking honors and prizes, which I really find outrageous,” Levi said.

Now, Kornbluth faces her biggest challenge yet. Two pro-Hamas student groups recently targeted several Israeli and Jewish MIT professors and the students who work with them in an attempt to disrupt and end their academic research projects. The effort undermines Kornbluth’s promise just a few weeks ago when suspending the CAA to allow academic and research work to continue undisturbed.

On March 8, a student group called the MIT Coalition for Palestine sent emails to several professors and students working with them. The letters criticized their research work because at least some or all of it was sponsored by or affiliated with Israel’s Ministry of Defense.

“We believe that to collaborate directly with a militant force actively committing genocide is to be complicit in their crimes against humanity,” Safiyyah Ogundipe, student leader of the group, wrote to several professors in emails obtained by RealClearPolitics.

The group’s student leader asked the professors for comment by midday Tuesday of the following week and implored them to “immediately cease these projects.”

Another leader of the MIT Coalition for Palestine sent other more nuanced emails to several students working with the targeted professors. The messages urged the students to take action, pressing them to request the source of their research funding and to resign from the projects if they felt comfortable doing so.

“We were shocked to find such direct complicity on MIT’s campus, a place of learning and exploration, and now, we feel it is our duty to expose these abuses of scientific work for egregious militarism, particularly during an active genocide,” Aaliya Hussain, a member of the MIT Coalition for Palestine, wrote in an email to those students.

It’s unclear if any of the professors or students responded to the emails or took any action related to them. The MIT Coalition for Palestine’s Ogundipe and Hussain did not respond to an RCP inquiry.

On Tuesday, the pro-Palestinian group shared their findings on Instagram via the CAA’s and MIT Graduates for Palestine’s accounts. In a post with an image of MIT’s iconic Great Dome dripping in blood, the groups wrote, “Hey MIT, why are you doing research for the IOF?” (The IOF reference is a pejorative term referring to the Israel Defense Forces as the Israel Occupation Forces or the Israel Offensive Forces.)

“Breaking down MIT’s decade-long complicity in providing technology for genocide of the Palestinians,” the groups continued on the Instagram slides, noting that the university has received millions of dollars in research funding from the Ministry of Defense of Israel.

One knowledgeable MIT source, however, says the U.S. Congress provided the money with the research sponsored by the IDF. The post lists its sources as “MIT VPF Brown Book,” audit reports, and “an internal grant management tool,” which is only available to MIT faculty, not students. For some members of MIT’s Jewish community, it was the last straw – and a clear violation of Kornbluth’s pledge to protect the university’s academic and research work.

“These students are using peer pressure to try to tear apart research groups,” one MIT professor who requested anonymity told RCP. “They’re starting to blacklist faculty.” The professor also pointed out that at least one faculty member likely helped the MIT Coalition for Palestine group access the internal grant management tool.

MIT spokeswoman Kimberly Allen did not respond to a question on whether Kornbluth condones the efforts to blacklist professors and their research. She also did not say whether anyone in the university leadership has intervened and disciplined the students for sending the emails condemning certain research projects as contributing to Palestinian “genocide.”

She didn’t respond to a question about the sources of the research funding.

“We underscore that MIT supports the excellent work of its faculty and labs,” Allen said in a statement. “As with all sponsored research at MIT, the projects mentioned involve work that is open and publishable and that contributes to knowledge that is freely available to scientists worldwide.”

“MIT faculty and researchers regularly work with scientists and entities in other countries, including Israel, following required due diligence for international projects. MIT strongly supports the principles of academic freedom that enable our faculty to engage with a wide array of partners in the pursuit of knowledge.”

To Khan and others, the administration’s failure to publicly condemn and punish students attempting to disrupt academic research is only emboldening them. “Nothing’s happened,” Khan told RCP. “They’re continuing to do exactly what they’ve been doing the whole time, which is to harass Jews and Israelis on campus, in their dorms.”

“MIT thinks that it can keep putting little band-aids on and stopping the spill, but the dam is going to break,” she predicted. The targeting of professors and efforts to shut down research projects is just the latest flashpoint in a long list, and there are signs that a bigger backlash is brewing. During a Nov. 9 protest, the CAA fully blocked MIT’s Lobby 7, the main entrance to the university, a violation of the university’s policies against indoor protests and blocking students’ access to classrooms and offices. When Jewish students responded with their own counter-protest, MIT leadership issued a written warning handed out to students that anyone remaining in Lobby 7 after 12:15 pm would be subject to suspension.

The Jewish protesters left, but CAA chose to stay and defy the president’s orders. Later in the day, following information circulating on social media about the protest, numerous protestors unaffiliated with the university arrived. Warnings were then issued by the MIT Police and Hillel Center for Jewish Life, a Jewish college organization, to avoid Lobby 7.

“MIT Hillel recommends that you do not directly engage the protestors for your physical safety and wellbeing,” a notice reads. “You may want to choose paths around campus that avoid Lobby 7.”

Roughly a month later, CAA hosted Miko Peled, a prominent Israeli who sympathizes with the Palestinian cause. Students who attended reported that Peled encouraged students to go to the Hillel Center and demand answers from Jewish students.

“You go to Hillel and whatever the mascot is there and tell them they need to answer how they don’t condemn the genocide in Gaza,” Peled said, according to an account in the list of incidents.

The same day Peled made those statements, a man unaffiliated with the university approached students at Hillel and accused them of being Mossad agents. He then peered through a Hillel lounge window and peed on it while the students watched, according to the list.

One non-Jewish student was so put off by the hostility toward Jewish students taking place in her majority pro-Palestinian dorm that the student penned an email to a pro-Jewish group sharing her concerns about the antisemitic dorm rhetoric.

“They say that Israeli Jews, including children, ‘deserve’ the violence perpetuated against them for residing in Israel while Palestine is occupied, and that Jews as a whole ‘deserve’ the treatment given to them at MIT and other universities if they support Israel,” the student wrote, noting that some students reported they were required to express their support for Palestinians and/or condemn Israel or risk being labeled a “genocide supporter.”

At a Dec. 14 protest at MIT’s Hockfield Court, crowds cheered for calls for “armed resistance” and others to “hold a knife to their throats,” according to the compilation of protest-related incidents circulating among the university’s Jewish community. The compilation notes the possibility of the phrases having figurative rather than literal meaning, but still considers them deeply concerning in the wake of the Oct. 7 massacre. An MIT advisory sent midday informed students that “due to a demonstration expected to take place” that afternoon, MIT buildings would be accessible only via an “MIT ID-reader system.”

“Please carry your MIT ID card or Mobile ID for building access.” David French, a lawyer who has defended free speech on campus, including the speech of Muslim students and staff members, penned an editorial for the New York Times in early March titled, “Harvard, M.I.T. and Systemic Antisemitism.”

In it, he called the litany of antisemitic incidents, including “acts of violence and physical intimidation,” on both campuses “horrifying.”

The university is also facing a lawsuit filed on March 8 by several MIT students and the StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice, or SCLJ. The suit accuses Kornbluth and other MIT leaders of allowing antisemitism to flourish on campus by tolerating the intimidation and harassment of Jewish students and faculty.

The lawsuit argues that MIT leadership is turning a blind eye to a growing list of incidents that violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires universities that receive public funding to protect Jewish students from discrimination and harassment.

Colombia University, Harvard University, New York University, and the University of Pennsylvania have faced similar suits over the last few months.

The lawsuit asserts that Jewish and Israeli MIT students have deferred graduation dates or exams as a result of antisemitism at the university. At the same time, some professors and faculty have left MIT because of the discrimination they faced or the hostile work environment created since the Hamas attacks on Israel.

It also alleges that Jewish professors reported incidents in which MIT students disrupted the academic environment and intimidated faculty by yelling outside offices of MIT’s Israel internship program while rattling the doors. One professor described a pro-Hamas and anti-Israel protest that took over the lobby of a building and physically blocked students from attending a class.

Rather than dispersing the protests, the lawsuit asserts that MIT warned Jewish students to avoid certain areas of the university, effectively sending the students “underground at their own university” with no repercussions for the protesters, creating a hostile environment for Jewish students.

The legal complaint alleges that protesters offered an $800 bounty for anyone who could identify a Jewish student who shoved his way through an area of a building blocked by protesters and ripped up some of the protesters’ material. The student was quickly identified after the X.com page “Stop Zionist Hate” shared a video of the altercation and offered the bounty.

A different post stated that the student “is wanted all over campus and the city.”

“Zionism and Israel are the scourge of humanity,” the post by @mehemmmmed declared. “His head should be crushed wherever he is seen.”

According to the complaint, “The student stayed locked up in their dorm for weeks with their friends bringing food, check-ins from police, and their family terrified for [the student’s] safety.”

“While less extreme, there are unfortunately many more cases of doxxing, promoted by MIT students,” notes a list of campus-related antisemitic incidents circulating among MIT’s Jewish community. The lawsuit asks the court to stop MIT from creating, maintaining, or executing policies that penalize or discriminate against Jewish students, requesting the firing of staff and the expelling of students “who engage in antisemitic behavior.”

On March 8, the same day the lawsuit was filed, the GOP-led House Education and Workforce Committee launched an antisemitism investigation into MIT.

North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx, the committee’s chairwoman, sent a letter to Kornbluth and MIT Corporation Chairman Mark Gorenberg demanding they hand over records related to charges of “pervasive” antisemitism following “numerous deeply troubling incidents and developments” at the university.

“We have grave concerns regarding the inadequacy of MITs response to antisemitism on its campus,” Foxx wrote.

In her letter, Foxx detailed numerous antisemitic incidents at MIT that have raised concerns, including incidents and protests in which the CAA has disrupted class, harassed Jewish students, promoted violence, and violated other MIT rules in “the course of conducting anti-Israel demonstrations and other activities.”

The committee also took issue with MIT’s decision to invite Dalia Mogahed, who endorsed Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel, to a lecture on Islamophobia. Mogahed wrote that “resistance, including struggle against a colonial occupation force, is not only acknowledged under international law but explicitly endorsed” and that “[a]s an occupied population, Palestinians inherently possess the right to resist.”

It wasn’t the first time MIT faculty welcomed virulent antisemites who condone terrorism to speak on campus.

The MIT students’ and SCLJ’s lawsuit takes issue with an MIT CAA-hosted event, “Allyship, Art, and Apartheid.” Held Oct. 22, 2022, nearly a year before the Hamas attacks, it featured three speakers, including Mohammed El-Kurd, a pro-Hamas Palestinian known for unhinged anti-Jewish hate speech and defending terrorism. El-Kurd has accused Israelis of eating the organs of Palestinians, extols hijacking of passenger airliners, and at a January rally in London called on Palestinian supporters to “normalize the [Oct. 7] massacres as the status quo.”

Not only did MIT allow El-Kurd to speak on campus, but several other departments, including the MIT Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, MIT Libraries, MIT Center for International Studies, and MIT Department of Anthropology, co-sponsored the event.

On April 18, 2023, MIT CAA’s Instagram featured a post about a Holocaust display on Yom HaShoah. The post showed that the Holocaust memorial had been defaced with “Free Palestine” slogans. Rep. Foxx also drew attention to “virulently” antisemitic remarks on social media made by multiple MIT faculty and staff, including MIT postdoctoral associate Afif Aqrabawi.

A self-identified Palestinian-Canadian, Aqrabawi has called Zionism “a mental illness” and denied well-documented reports of sexual violence by Hamas terrorists against Israeli women, dismissing them as “perverted rape fantasies.” (Postdocs are both students and employees of the university.)

Aqrabawi also referred to members of the Israeli military as “bloodthirsty and perverted Nazis,” all Israelis as “parasites,” and ridiculed Jewish MIT students’ fear for their safety. In one of his social media posts, the postdoctoral associate essentially dared MIT’s leaders to stop him, referring to himself as a test case for freedom of speech. “I don’t know how MIT will respond,” he wrote. “I may lose my job, maybe not. I guess I am the litmus test of whether freedom of free speech truly exists in America.”

When students complained about Aqrabawi’s social media remarks, an MIT faculty member serving as the associate department head for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Justice for Aqrabawi’s department denied that the postdoctoral associate’s public comments were antisemitic, according to the Education and Workforce Committee’s account.

Instead, the representative warned the students: “I would be very cautious before accusing any one of our colleagues, staff, or trainees of hate speech.”

Meanwhile, Sophia Hasenfus, an MIT Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging officer, a position of DEI leadership on campus, “liked” several extreme anti-Israeli social media posts, including one stating, “Israel doesn’t have a right to exist, it’s an illegitimate settler-colony like the U.S.”

During the Feb. 13 CAA protest that resulted in the group’s suspension, the group blocked a university building’s lobby, and speakers accused Jews and those supporting them of engaging in “white supremacy.” The protesters said they needed to have an “emergency” protest against the Israeli military’s possible ground invasion of Rafah, the city on the southern Gaza border where 1.4 million Palestinians have fled to escape fighting elsewhere in the war. The IDF mission led to the rescue of two Hamas-held hostages.

“Our safety is threatened by white supremacy, and the dangerous equation of Zionism,” students shouted, arguing that the Jewish tradition is used to justify Israel’s “colonialist, capitalist, white-supremacist agenda.” Other students shouted, “Hear us loud, hear us clear, IOF not welcome here.”

All Israeli men and women are required to serve time in Israel’s compulsory military service program, so the statement applies to all Israeli students and faculty on campus. The following day, Kornbluth suspended the CAA’s privileges as “a recognized student organization” for holding the unauthorized protest but made clear that “suspending CAA is not related to the content of their speech.”

She also chastised members engaged in vilifying or shunning Jewish students while simultaneously warning against casting “advocates for the Palestinian people as supporting Hamas.”

Kornbluth’s insistence on using parallel language for the two sides of the debate, these critics argue, is intended to disguise the painful reality: While there have been anti-Muslim incidents, one group of students is systematically inciting hatred of another.

In December, Mauricio Karchmer, a computer scientist who was born in Mexico to a Jewish family and immigrated to the United States in the 1980s, resigned his position as an MIT lecturer after five years. He wrote an op-ed titled “Why I Quit My Dream Job at MIT,” blaming “pervasive antisemitism” on MIT’s campus for his departure.

In the piece, he noted that several MIT faculty members, including those in the DEI department, endorsed antisemitic statements and slogans demanding the elimination of Israel.

Karchmer now has a new role teaching at Yeshiva University, a private Orthodox Jewish university with four campuses in New York City. In November, he said, the MIT faculty newsletter was almost “entirely dedicated” to the protests, with several professors parroting anti-Israel propaganda. In one editorial titled, “Standing Together Against Hate: From the River to the Sea, from Gaza to MIT,” linguistics professor Michel DeGraff wrote that the protesters calling for Intifada “have given me hope for the future.”

Karchmer isn’t calling for censorship but, instead, an administration-led acknowledgment that what the pro-Palestinian protesters are shouting about Israel is both hateful and wrong. He said that Kornbluth shouldn’t just set down vague rules about the process and weakly say that some things shouldn’t be said. She must be specific and explain why these statements are factually wrong and based in bigotry, he argued.

“If they organize a rally three days in advance, can they then say, ‘Gas the Jews’?” he asked in an interview. “In my view, the problem is that demonizing Israel and denying Israel’s right to exist is considered within the acceptable norms of what a student is permitted to express. It’s not only that they are allowed to voice such views, but in many academic circles, doing so is seen as a way to signal one’s virtues.”

The university also appears to be taking actions to protect its own DEI staff from protesters while failing to provide the same level of protection for Jewish students and faculty.

CAA affiliates distributed a pamphlet titled “Written Revolution,” which includes an open letter to Kornbluth. In the letter, a student recalls a CAA protest held outside the Institute Discrimination and Harassment Response, or IDHR, office. According to the pamphlet’s author, the IDHR issued no-contact orders after the event, preventing all CAA members from contacting IDHR staff “directly as members of CAA.”

Khan and other MIT critics say the no-contact policy shows that administrators are aware of the intimidating behavior of CAA members and are taking action to protect faculty members but are failing to implement campus-wide policies to safeguard Jewish students and faculty.

“The students are more emboldened by the fact that they haven’t been punished at all,” Khan said. “Now the IDHR doesn’t want anything to do with them.”

“It’s incredibly frustrating to see that literally nothing has been done,” she lamented. “The [school administrators] don’t look us in the eyes anymore.”

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

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About Susan Crabtree

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

Photo: WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 05: Dr. Sally Kornbluth, President of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, testifies before the House Education and Workforce Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building on December 05, 2023 in Washington, DC. The Committee held a hearing to investigate antisemitism on college campuses. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)