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Festival fury

Top UPenn supporters protest their alma mater’s antisemitic festival

Former SEC chairman Jay Clayton, Apollo Global Management CEO Marc Rowan and Washington Commanders owner Josh Harris signed onto an ADL letter urging university leaders to denounce some of the event’s speakers

Stuart Ramson/AP Images for Chobani

Chobani Founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya addresses graduates, families and faculty at the 2018 Wharton MBA Graduation Ceremony on Sunday, May 13, 2018, in Philadelphia.

Several prominent trustees and alumni of the University of Pennsylvania have signed an open letter expressing “deep concerns” over the school’s controversial decision to host a Palestinian cultural festival featuring multiple speakers who have demonized Israel and voiced antisemitic rhetoric. 

The new letter, which had drawn more than 2,300 signatures as of Thursday evening, calls on the school’s president, Elizabeth Magill, to take a number of steps to address the Palestine Writes Literature Festival, which begins today on the university’s campus in Philadelphia and runs through Sunday.

“The University of Pennsylvania should be doing all within its power to distance itself from the event’s antisemitic speakers, make clear that such antisemitism is wholly at odds with the university’s values, and take proactive steps to ensure that Jewish students, faculty and staff are safe and welcome at Penn,” the signatories write in the letter, which was organized by the Anti-Defamation League.

The letter urges Magill to issue “a clear and unequivocal statement specifically denouncing the event’s platforming of known antisemitic speakers,” most notably including Roger Waters, the Pink Floyd co-founder and vocal critic of Israel whom the State Department has accused of “using antisemitic tropes to denigrate Jewish people.” 

Moreover, the signatories request that UPenn’s academic departments and units, some of which sponsored the festival, “re-examine their policies and protocols” for backing events and strongly suggest that administration officials introduce “mandatory antisemitism awareness training across the university,” among other steps.

The signatories include Josh Harris, the private equity investor who recently acquired the Washington Commanders; Marc Rowan, the CEO of Apollo Global Management; Jay Clayton, the former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission; Aerin Lauder Zinterhofer, the billionaire cosmetics heiress and businesswoman; and Jeff Blau, the CEO of Related Companies.

“The most potent weapon we have against antisemitism is to speak out,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL’s CEO, said in a statement to Jewish Insider on Thursday. “The people who signed this letter love Penn — many have donated huge sums to it and volunteered countless numbers of hours serving as trustees and advisors. In a moment of intensifying antisemitism across the country, I applaud them for taking a stand.”

Greenblatt said he hoped that “Penn’s leadership will follow their lead and issue an unambiguous condemnation of the toxic antisemitism associated with the so-called ‘festival’ this weekend and to completely dissociate the university and its departments from it.”

In a private letter sent to Greenblatt on Wednesday, Magill indicated that the university had taken some steps to address the signatories’ requests, noting that the administration had “initiated a review of the process by which groups external to Penn” can hold campus events.

The university leadership, Magill said, would also “build upon our existing training and education” efforts “to ensure we are including antisemitism awareness as part of our equity and inclusion programs.”

Magill emphasized to Greenblatt that she had led a joint statement last week “unequivocally” condemning antisemitism, while “fiercely” expressing support “for the free exchange of ideas.” 

Still, such comments have not been forceful enough for critics of the university’s approach, particularly after Penn Hillel was vandalized on Thursday morning before a service for Orthodox Jewish community members. While it remains unclear if the incident was related to the festival, it has only fueled calls for the university to further distance itself from the event. 

“Neither academic freedom nor freedom-of-speech principles prevent the university from using its own voice to speak out against antisemitism wherever and whenever it occurs, especially on campus,” the university’s trustees and alumni argue in their letter.

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

“Unfortunately, without stronger leadership from campus administrators,” the signatories write, “antisemitism has and will continue to find a home in academia by those who allow antisemitic beliefs to be couched in anti-Israel or anti-Zionist fig leaves.”

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