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President of MIT announces effort to combat hate on campus amid tumult over Israel-Hamas war

An aerial view of MIT campus.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Amid fallout from the Israel-Hamas war, MIT President Sally Kornbluth announced this week a new effort to “combat hate” on campus with an initial focus on antisemitism. Chancellor Melissa Nobles, working with faculty, will lead a new council called “Standing Together Against Hate,” which will include group discussions, speaker series, reading lists, and programming in student residences.

“Antisemitism is real, and it is rising in the world,” Kornbluth said in a video published Tuesday. “We cannot let it poison our community.”

While antisemitism will be the initial focus, the council’s work will also address prejudice and hate against Arabs and Muslims.

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The announcement Tuesday came as MIT has grappled with a recent pro-Palestinian protest that drew national attention and campus backlash, and as colleges across the country are reporting increasing antisemitism and hate, following Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack. That incursion included beheadings, the kidnapping of children, and mass slaughter of civilians. Israel’s retaliatory response has killed thousands of women and children in Gaza.

University leaders across the United States have struggled to balance free speech principles and student well-being in recent weeks as emotions have run high and conflicts have escalated.

Kornbluth said that at MIT, some on campus are in “serious tension with each other because they see the current situation from starkly opposed perspectives.”

“For them, the arguments and sentiments expressed by the other side feel deeply to be a zero-sum existential threat,” Kornbluth said. “And I understand that. Because MIT is and must be committed to protecting freedom of expression, the intractability of the opposing viewpoints puts us between a rock and a hard place. We have been asked repeatedly to take sides. We have been told that not taking sides is tacitly endorsing one side or the other. Perhaps most concerning is that some of our actions have been interpreted as side-taking.”

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A growing number of Jewish and Israeli students have faced violent threats or attacks on campuses across the country.

Palestinian and Muslim students have reported feeling unsafe amid doxxing and intimidation efforts from outside groups and alumni.

At MIT, Kornbluth laid out her version of events of the pro-Palestinian campus protest last week that drew scrutiny.

The MIT-wide Coalition for Palestine advertised plans last week to hold a 12-hour “blockade” in Lobby 7, an MIT building. The group called for participants to sign up for shifts aimed at a corridor, Kornbluth said.

The group was demanding that MIT stop funding research that supports what they called “Israeli apartheid and the ongoing genocide against the Palestinian people,” according to an Instagram post from the group.

MIT administrators last Wednesday wrote to all students regarding the university’s policies. They asked students not to disrupt living, working, and learning spaces.

Administrators also wrote directly to the protest organizers “to remind them of the Institute’s guidelines for free expression at Institute events, including protests and demonstrations and asked them to meet immediately,” Kornbluth wrote.

She said the students declined.

Administrators asked them to reconsider, noting that violating university policy would risk discipline, and again they declined, Kornbluth said.

By Thursday morning, Coalition for Palestine demonstrators gathered in Lobby 7 despite not having permission to demonstrate in the space, Kornbluth said.

About two hours later, they were met by counter-protestors, who also did not have permission to demonstrate in that space, and interactions between the two sides became “loud and disruptive,” the president said.

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As tensions escalated between protesters and counterprotesters, administrators started to worry “that violence and further disruption could occur,” Kornbluth said. MIT administrators then distributed letters to demonstrators, because the volume was so loud, saying that students who remained in the lobby after 12:15 pm would be subject to disciplinary action.

Some students questioned the legitimacy of the letters, according to an Instagram post from protest organizers

A number of students remained and have been suspended from non-academic activities on campus. A spokesperson for the school declined to disclose how many students have been disciplined. Kornbluth said that MIT’s “response to last week’s protest is absolutely not a comment on the content of the views expressed.”

“Our response is the result of students having deliberately violated MIT’s policies against disrupting the functioning of our campus,” Kornbluth said.

The group alleged that administrators “issued new guidelines” a day before the planned protest, it said on Instagram.

After the protest, an open letter signed by students, alumni, parents, faculty, and staff to MIT leaders alleged that “many students were forced to squeeze through the intimidating protest, which included graphic signs,” to get to class.

Kornbluth wrote in the update to the campus community on Tuesday that “it is not accurate that movement around the MIT campus is constrained. Every day, thousands of students and staff move around campus as usual, including Jewish students and staff.”

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Hilary Burns can be reached at hilary.burns@globe.com. Follow her @Hilarysburns.