At MIT, Administrators Allow Unlawful Encampment To Displace Lawful Israeli Independence Day Event

'President Kornbluth assured us … that the encampment would be removed in time for our Yom Ha'atzmaut celebration,' letter from Jewish group says

MIT anti-Israel protests (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
May 7, 2024

In the run-up to an annual Israeli Independence Day celebration at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, university president Sally Kornbluth assured student organizers that an unauthorized anti-Israel encampment—located in the same area where the Jewish students planned to hold their event—would be cleared in time. It wasn't, prompting school officials to walk back their promise and press the Jewish students to reschedule or relocate the event, messages obtained by the Washington Free Beacon show.

On April 24, Kornbluth privately told student leaders of the MIT Israel Alliance, Talia Khan and Eitan Moore, that the encampment would be removed within four days, Khan and Moore said. The MIT Israel Alliance had reserved the same campus lawn occupied by the unauthorized protesters, Kresge Oval, for its May 7 Yom Ha'atzmaut celebration.

"President Kornbluth assured us in private communications that the encampment would be removed in time for our Yom Ha'atzmaut celebration," Khan and Moore wrote in a Monday letter to MIT administrators.

But Kornbluth went on to push back her deadline to clear the encampment—first to May 1 and then to May 3, according to Khan and Moore. Then, on May 5, MIT Office of the President chief of staff Aaron Weinberger told the group that the school would not be able to "bring the encampment to an end … in time for the event on Tuesday afternoon." He asked the students to move the celebration.

"We can offer two options: May 7 on Hockfield Court or May 14 on Kresge oval, as originally requested," Weinberger wrote in an email, which was obtained by the Free Beacon. "Either way, we will work with you to ensure you have the support you need for a successful event."

The Jewish students responded defiantly, vowing on Monday to "continue with our celebration as planned." That same day, Kornbluth directed anti-Israel protesters to "leave the encampment peacefully by 2:30 p.m." While some obliged, a small group remained in the encampment as the student organization behind it, MIT Coalition Against Apartheid, called for reinforcements to "defend" the area. Around 6 p.m., protesters breached a fence surrounding the encampment, flooding the lawn, and remained overnight.

By Tuesday afternoon, the encampment remained intact. MIT Israel Alliance went ahead with its event anyway, which it held just outside a fence meant to contain the unauthorized protesters in the encampment. MIT put the fence back up after protesters stormed it Monday, according to a student.

(The fence blocking off the MIT encampment in Kresge Oval)

(Jewish students at MIT celebrate Israeli Independence Day just outside of the encampment)

(The entrance to the MIT encampment as of Tuesday afternoon)

(The inside of the MIT encampment as of Tuesday afternoon)

"The Jewish and Israeli community at MIT … has undergone some of the worst violence, hatred, and injustice in the past 7 months," Khan and Moore wrote in a Monday letter to Kornbluth, "and we have seen the MIT Administration stand idly by as classmates, lab partners, and even our professors praised the murder of our friends and family, called for violence against Jews, and most recently chanted 'Death to Zionists' on MIT campus."

"You claim that if we are willing to wait just one more week, on top of the seven months we have already waited for you to act, you will finally support the Jewish community and take action against those calling for our deaths and the deaths of our loved ones," the students continued. "We don't believe you. … We will hold our celebration of Jewish self-determination, as planned."

Kornbluth's failed attempt to clear the encampment—and shifting deadline to do so—comes as the president faces congressional scrutiny into her handling of campus anti-Semitism.

The House Education Committee formalized an investigation into MIT in March, roughly three months after Kornbluth appeared before the committee alongside then-Harvard University president Claudine Gay and then-University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill. The hearing was a disaster, and both Magill and Gay resigned in its wake.

Now, the committee, led by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R., N.C.), is in the process of obtaining internal documents regarding Kornbluth's response to campus anti-Semitism. In a March letter sent to Kornbluth, Foxx expressed "grave concerns regarding the inadequacy of MIT's response to antisemitism on its campus," citing "hypocrisy and selective enforcement of Institute rules."

MIT did not respond to a request for comment.

In her Monday directive to disband the encampment, Kornbluth said student protesters who opted to leave voluntarily would avoid suspension. Those who stayed in the encampment would face immediate suspension, she said.

Hours later, after protesters breached the campus lawn and retook the encampment, Kornbluth issued a Monday evening "update." She said most students "had left the enclosed tent area" on Monday afternoon before "a large number of outside demonstrators arrived" and caused a "surge." None of those demonstrators were arrested, Kornbluth said.

"As we write, about 150 students and others are standing in a circle around the tents and others are nearby chanting," she said. "While no arrests have been made on campus, police officers from MIT, Cambridge and the state remain on the scene to preserve public safety."

"We have much work still to do to resolve this situation, and will continue to communicate as needed," Kornbluth said.

Kornbluth has a history of walking back promises to discipline anti-Israel protesters. In November, she threatened to expel students engaged in unsanctioned protests before opting to place those students on a "non-academic suspension," which allowed them to continue attending class. Kornbluth said she did so to protect foreign students, citing "serious concerns about collateral consequences for the students, such as visa issues."