Calling for moral clarity on antisemitism, Pa. governor slams UPenn’s president

Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, addresses Israel, antisemitism and divides in the Democratic Party after a visit to Goldie, a falafel shop targeted by antisemitic protests

PHILADELPHIA — Pita with falafel, chips (the Israeli kind — French fries) and hummus: that’s Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro’s standard falafel order, in Israel or in Philadelphia. That’s what he purchased during a Wednesday morning visit to Goldie, a kosher falafel shop that over the weekend was harassed by a large group of antisemitic protestors. 

After his visit to the Rittenhouse Square restaurant, Shapiro, in his most detailed comments yet on the rising antisemitism on college campuses, forcefully called for moral clarity from leaders in their response to antisemitism. 

According to Shapiro, such moral clarity was absent in yesterday’s Capitol Hill committee hearing when the presidents of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania were asked whether calls for genocide against Jews violated their schools’ codes of conduct. 

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) asked UPenn President Elizabeth Magill on Tuesday if students calling for the genocide of Jews violate the university’s code of conduct. Magill equivocated in her answer. “If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment,” Magill responded. “It is a context-dependent decision.” Stefanik pressed her to say “yes” or “no,” but Magill would not. 

“The simple answer,” Shapiro noted, “is yes, that violates our policy.”

“Leaders have a responsibility to speak and act with moral clarity, and Liz Magill failed to meet that simple test,” he added. “That was an unacceptable statement from the president of Penn. Frankly, I thought her comments were absolutely shameful. It should not be hard to condemn genocide.”

Shapiro called for Penn’s board to “meet soon” to decide whether Magill’s testimony “represents the views and values of the University of Pennsylvania” but said he would wait to see what action they take before taking action himself.

“I’ve made concrete recommendations to them on the kind of steps that I thought they needed to take to make sure that all students feel safe on their campus,” said Shapiro, who has spoken to Magill numerous times since the Hamas terror attack in Israel on Oct. 7. “They have seemingly failed every step of the way to take concrete action to make sure all students feel safe on campus. And then the testimony yesterday took it to the next level.” 

He praised the leadership of other Pennsylvania universities, including Carnegie Mellon and Penn State, calling Magill “the exception.” 

Shapiro sat down for an interview with Jewish Insider at a Philadelphia café after his visit to Goldie, which garnered international headlines after a video of the antisemitic mob went viral.  A pro-Palestinian demonstration amassed outside the restaurant on Sunday evening, with protestors chanting, “Goldie, Goldie, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.” 

That the protestors targeted a Jewish-owned business, after boycotts earlier this fall of other restaurants owned by Jewish Philadelphians, “conjures up images of 1930s Germany,” Shapiro said.

“To come to the restaurant simply because it’s owned by a Jew and hold that Jew responsible for Israeli policy — that’s the definition of antisemitism,” said Shapiro, a Democrat.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro and his wife, Lori Shapiro, walking into Goldie, the kosher felafel shop in Philadelphia on Wednesday.

Shapiro told JI he is in touch with local law enforcement about the incident at Goldie but declined to say whether any cases have been opened. “Rest assured they would have all the support they may request from our state police should they need it,” he said. 

Political leaders ranging from President Joe Biden to local city council members, among them progressives who have been deeply critical of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, have weighed in to condemn the protest against Goldie. 

“Leaders need to speak with moral clarity,” said Shapiro, who added that he did not talk to the White House before they issued a statement boosting his own condemnation of the incident. “To see that response from the president of the United States, and from leaders on the left and the right, I think shows the kind of moral clarity that we need, that we did not see from the mob when they were outside of that building this week.”

Shapiro, whose campaign for governor last year highlighted his Jewish faith, extended his call for moral clarity to the Oct. 7 attacks.

“There is a lot of room for nuance when it comes to Israeli policy, both pre-October 7, and the manner in which they’ve responded post-October 7,” Shapiro explained.

“I think that there can be no debate, no nuance, when it comes to really two key aspects here of the situation: Number one, Hamas is a terrorist group that launched an unprovoked brutal attack in Israel, raping women, assaulting and killing children and taking 240 hostages, including at least 10 Americans,” he continued. “The second thing there should be no debate and no nuance on, is that we do not tolerate antisemitism or Islamophobia, and we have to call that out.”

He offered his clearest comments to date about Israel’s political system and the American response to the Oct. 7 terror attacks.

“I’m someone who personally thinks Benjamin Netanyahu is a terrible leader, who has been leading Israel down a really dangerous, destructive path. I’m someone who favors a two-state solution, someone who believes the Palestinians should have their own state and live peacefully side by side, assuming they of course acknowledge Israel’s right to exist and forego violence against Israelis,” Shapiro said. “I’m someone who appreciates the nuance of that debate, but also recognizes that it’s pretty black and white when it comes to combating terror, speaking out against terror and speaking out against hate and bigotry and antisemitism.”

A savvy political operator who is widely believed to be a potential presidential contender in the future, Shapiro expressed astonishment at some activists and political figures on the left who have sought to minimize Hamas’ brutality to promote the Palestinian cause. 

“I’m not sure how we lost our way in this country, where some people are trying to twist themselves up like a pretzel and somehow not condemn Hamas’ actions,” he said. “Here in this country, we should be on the side of the hostages, not the hostage takers. I’m not quite sure why that’s hard for some people to grasp.”

Shapiro acknowledged the free speech rights of Pennsylvanians to speak out about the situation in the Middle East, regardless of which side they come down on. 

“There is a place for peaceful protest,” he said, “certainly in the birthplace of our democracy.” He pointed to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ attempt to ban pro-Hamas student groups — which faced litigation by the ACLU — as going too far.

“As for what Governor DeSantis did in Florida, I think that’s the wrong approach. I don’t believe in either criminalizing or banning peaceful free speech,” Shapiro said. “We of course know it crosses a line when it incites violence, and that we can’t tolerate. But we want to protect free speech.” At the same time, he added, “we can’t have large groups of students feeling unsafe as a result of those protests, or having chants of ‘genocide’ screamed at students on campus.” 

The result, Shapiro argued, should be more education on antisemitism and on hate. But even more than that, he said, students should learn how to read news critically and how to make sense of the morass of information they encounter on social media. 

“Given the fact that so many people, especially younger people, are getting information, getting their news through social media, we need to make sure that they are careful consumers of that information,” he said. 

Some Democratic activists within the Muslim community have threatened to stay home in 2024 rather than supporting Biden, given his support for Israel. Shapiro, who has already appeared on the campaign trail for Biden, largely brushed those concerns aside. He expects them to come around in the end. 

“I think when push comes to shove, and folks have a choice between Joe Biden and the chaos of Donald Trump — Donald Trump, who’s peddled all types of Islamophobia and antisemitism over the years — I don’t think we want to go back to that chaos,” he said. “I would hope that, notwithstanding this momentary difference, that when people have to make a judgment next year about the direction of this country that they don’t want to go back to the chaos that Donald Trump brought.” 

Shapiro is believed to harbor his own presidential ambitions, and in September he was the keynote speaker at the New Hampshire Democratic Party state convention. A Philadelphia sports fan, Shapiro acknowledged that it’s not a typical destination “for people who hate the Boston Celtics.” 

“They gave me a platform to talk about President Biden and also to talk about the progress we’re making here in town,” said Shapiro.  

On Thursday, Shapiro will celebrate the first night of Hanukkah at Penn, where he will participate in a public menorah lighting. He plans to meet with Jewish students “to make sure they know that we see them, we’re here for them [and] we want them to feel safe, because many of them do not feel safe on campus right now,” he said. 

“I think any university president’s really top responsibility is to make sure students feel safe and secure on campus.” 

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