Why University Presidents Hedged on Israel’s Right to Exist

by Rafael Medoff

Why did the presidents of some of America’s leading universities respond misleadingly to the question of Israel’s right to exist, when they testified before Congress on December 6?

And why did many in the mainstream media stumble so badly in their coverage of that part of the hearing?

The exchange on the topic was initiated by Congresswoman Virginia Foxx (Republican of North Carolina). She posed the question simultaneously to Harvard president Claudine Gay, Penn president M. Elizabeth Magill, and MIT president Sally Kornbluth: “Do you believe that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish nation?”

Dr. Gay replied: “I agree that the State of Israel has the right to exist.” Presidents Magill and Kornbluth then answered with the identical language, except that Kornbluth added that she “absolutely” agrees “that the State of Israel has the right to exist.” But that’s not what Rep. Foxx asked them.

The Virginia congresswoman specifically included the phrase “as a Jewish nation” in her question, yet the three university presidents specifically excluded it from their replies.

Not that you would know that from much of the mainstream media coverage.

The Associated Press and Reuters, which reported at length on the hearings, ignored the exchange concerning Israel’s existence.

The New York Times altered Rep. Foxx’s question before misreporting the presidents’ replies. According to the Times, “When asked whether they supported the right of Israel to exist, they all answered yes, without equivocation.”

CBS News, for its part, got the question right but the answers wrong.

It reported: “Foxx asked each individual president if Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish nation, and all three college presidents agreed that Israel does.”

There is no way to know whether the mis-reporting of the exchange was just sloppy reporting, or a conscious effort to paper over the presidents’ sentiments regarding Israel. Either possibility is troubling.

Here’s why the episode matters.

It is highly doubtful that the presidents’ omission was accidental—first, because the presidents must have carefully prepared for the kinds of questions they were likely to be asked; second, because they all used the same language.

Which means that in all likelihood, Presidents Gay, Magill and Kornbluth are personally uncomfortable with the concept of Israel as a Jewish state.

Israel’s Jewish identity has been one of its core principles since the founding of the state in 1948. The Israeli declaration of independence repeatedly refers to Israel as “a Jewish State,” not merely a state where many of Jews happen to reside. That document also describes the Land of Israel as belonging to the entire Jewish people, including those living around the world, and not just those living in Israel at the moment.

Legislation adopted by the Israeli parliament in 2018 fleshed out some of the ways in which the state is Jewish, including its national calendar, flag, anthem, and language. Additional details likely will emerge by national consensus in the years ahead.

This is not just a matter of semantics. Words can be weapons. Since the 1970s, Palestinian Arab spokespeople have promoted the creation of a “secular, democratic Palestine” instead of Israel. They think that sounds more moderate than explicitly calling for Israel’s annihilation. Some pundits today prefer the term “one-state solution.” But in practice, it’s the same as saying Israel should be destroyed, because such a state would have an Arab majority and therefore nothing about it would be Jewish.

Thus by declining to affirm that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state, the university presidents left room for the kind of “solution” that pretends to support Israel’s existence but actually means eliminating Israel.

If Presidents Gay, Magill and Kornbluth were willing to engage in that kind of linguistic slight-of-hand in testimony before the U.S. Congress, it is not hard to see why their response to the anti-Israel and antisemitic hysteria on their campuses has been so weak. A president who does not think Israel needs to exist as a Jewish state is not likely to crack down on mobs that are saying similar things, just more crudely, in their shouts, manifestos, and blood-red graffiti.

(December 2023)