UPenn president declines to intervene in antisemitic conference on campus

In letter to ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, UPenn’s Elizabeth Magill highlights its ‘commitment to open expression’

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Exteriors of University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) located in Philadelphia

Citing the University of Pennsylvania’s “commitment to open expression and academic freedom,” the school’s president, Elizabeth Magill, indicated in a private letter to the Anti-Defamation League that she would not directly intervene in a Palestinian cultural festival that begins on Friday and features a number of controversial figures who have voiced antisemitic rhetoric.

In the letter to the ADL sent on Wednesday, Magill indicated other steps to support Jewish students on campus during the three-day conference. The university has faced mounting calls to exclude high-profile speakers including Roger Waters, an outspoken critic of Israel who has “a long track record of using antisemitic tropes to denigrate Jewish people,” according to the State Department.

“As you know, Penn’s commitment to open expression and academic freedom are central to our educational mission,” Magill explained to ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt in the letter, which was obtained by Jewish Insider. “This is true even — and especially — when keeping those commitments is most challenging.”

Instead, Magill emphasized that the university has implemented a “series of actions” to address “concerns raised about some of the speakers invited to the Palestine Writes Literature Festival,” which is scheduled to take place Sept. 22-24 on Penn’s campus in Philadelphia.

Among other steps cited in the letter, Magill said that university leaders had worked “in close partnership” with Penn Hillel to “provide support” in advance of the festival and had boosted security for campus Jewish groups during Rosh Hashanah and through Yom Kippur, which begins on Sunday evening. 

Despite the increased security measures, Penn Hillel was vandalized on Thursday morning before a service for Orthodox Jewish community members, when an unidentified perpetrator damaged the building’s lobby while shouting antisemitic slurs, according to witnesses who spoke with The Daily Pennsylvanian, UPenn’s student newspaper. 

It was not immediately clear if the incident was directly related to the controversy over the upcoming festival. 

In a statement posted to social media on Thursday afternoon, the ADL said it was “still collecting information” on the alleged attack, adding that it was “deeply disturbed by the antisemitic incident” at Penn Hillel. “Thankfully no one was hurt, but perpetrators need to be held accountable. Security measures need to be reviewed and adjusted.”

In a follow-up tweet, the ADL called on Magill and university leadership “to issue an unequivocal condemnation of the antisemitism associated with the festival this weekend and to completely dissociate the university from it.”

A spokesperson for UPenn did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday afternoon.

Greenblatt was among the first national Jewish leaders to publicly speak out against the festival last week, when he called Penn’s decision to host the conference “mind-boggling” and “insulting” in a sharply worded statement shared with JI. “If this were a conference to explore and celebrate Palestinian literature, none of us would object,” he said. “However, it is not. It is a gathering of anti-Israel and anti-Zionist activists, some of whom have a long history of antisemitic statements and comments.”

Since then, Greenblatt has spoken directly with Magill and followed up in writing, according to the letter obtained by JI on Thursday. The ADL’s Philadelphia chapter and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia have also been in touch with university leadership in recent weeks to urge the administration to publicly condemn the festival.

In a joint statement last week led by Magill, the administration condemned “antisemitism as antithetical to our institutional values,” while stressing that “we also fiercely support the free exchange of ideas as central to our educational mission. This includes the expression of views that are controversial and even those that are incompatible with our institutional values.”

But the festival — and the university’s response — have continued to field opposition. On Friday evening, for instance, Penn Hillel is planning a “massive” Shabbat Together demonstration to celebrate “Jewish pride, unity and togetherness” as the festival begins, according to a recent statement posted to social media. Ted Deutch, the CEO of the American Jewish Committee and a former Democratic congressman from Florida, will be among those in attendance, according to a spokesperson for the organization.

The festival’s organizer, Susan Abulhawa, has defended the conference, which features more than 100 speakers, accusing critics of engaging in “Zionist hysteria” that is typical of “the colonial mentality,” she told JI last week. 

Other speakers who are scheduled to participate in the festival include Noura Erakat, a Rutgers University professor who has suggested that Zionism is a “bedfellow” to Nazism, and Marc Lamont Hill, a former CNN commentator who was dismissed from the network after he used a phrase widely interpreted as a call for Israel’s elimination.

While Magill has described some of the event’s speakers as “deeply offensive, misaligned with the festival’s stated purpose” and at odds with Penn’s “institutional values,” she has reiterated the university’s “responsibility to foster open dialogue and cultural diversity on campus.”

Still, in her recent letter to the ADL, Magill acknowledged that the administration had yet to perfect its approach to addressing anti-Jewish prejudice. 

Moving forward, she said university leadership would refer to the Biden administration’s national strategy to combat antisemitism and the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, among other resources.

“Our commitment to countering antisemitism on Penn’s campus extends far beyond this event,” Magill averred. “There is more we can and will do to continue to create an environment where all members of our community can thrive and succeed.”

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