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israel-palestine-design-kylie-cooper

(Artwork CC BY-SA 3.0)

Credit: Kylie Cooper

Recently, I read on Twitter that the Penn Center and Program in Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies formally endorsed a petition entitled “Gender Studies Departments in Solidarity with Palestinian Feminist Collective” that accuses Israel of “apartheid,” rejects any notion that “both sides” have valid complaints, and calls on feminists worldwide to support the Palestinian “right to return.” I feel compelled to speak up. 

Universities are centers of academic learning whose primary mission is the pursuit of knowledge and the search for a deeper understanding of the world around us. The University itself should not support any group's political activism, no matter how righteous some members of the group feel their cause is. When I came to Penn, I was instructed by my faculty mentor that I was not to use my Penn letterhead for any purpose that was not related to my scholarship. Though I was tempted — when I applied for a mortgage, when my favorite candidate didn't win the nomination — I never did so. I always kept in mind that it would be improper for me to use the Penn name for my individual interests, personal or political.

So I wonder: for whom does Penn GSWS speak? The Center’s faculty? The majority of women at Penn? When one uses the Penn name, the answers to these questions should be clear. Each of us at Penn is free, even welcome, to express our political views publicly as long as we do so forthrightly under our own name. What we are not free to do is conceal our names under a university heading or impute our individual views to an entire community.

The document signed by Penn GSWS is also problematic because it precludes healthy intellectual debate. The document implies that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be viewed exclusively through the lens of anti-racism, feminism, colonial struggles, and intersectionality. Would the Holocaust, terrorism, antisemitism, and pan-nationalism not also be reasonable lenses? More importantly, would a student in GSWS feel comfortable bringing up such questions in a classroom?

Something has gone amiss. Individual student groups can lobby for one political faction (e.g. Penn Law Students for Justice in Palestine), but that is not the role of the University or any faculty-sponsored center. Universities receive enormous benefits from the federal government — scientific funding, non-profit status, etc. They are the beneficiaries of great philanthropy from alumni. The legitimacy of a university rests on a belief that faculty will contemplate difficult questions, confront their own biases, and submit their findings to skeptical critics. The legitimacy of a university will be threatened if we move towards a different model, where intellectual pursuit takes second stage to political activism.

I also note that "inclusion" is central to Penn President Amy Gutmann's Penn Compact. My own department chair coined the motto for Penn’s Chemistry Department: "Whoever you are and wherever you are on your journey of scholarship, you are welcome here in Penn Chemistry." I wonder whether Israelis would feel included at Penn GSWS. This idea recalls the Eat Up the Borders Instagram post from the summer: "We want to provide a platform where we can gather around a table to share history, culture, language, and most importantly, FOOD. In order to best serve our guests, we decided to remove one of our food vendors for Sunday's event so that we could deliver an optimal experience to all. This decision came from listening to the community we wish to serve and love." Apparently, if you love your community and want to promote a multicultural experience, but find that not everyone wants to get along, the way to be inclusive is to disinvite the Israelis.

At Penn, do we want a university where departments are held to the same standards as food truck block parties in West Philadelphia? And what if not everyone agrees on who the enemy is? Will every Penn department start endorsing political positions — a pro-Palestinian GSWS Department, a pro-Israel Jewish Studies Program, a pro-fracking Chemical Engineering Department, an anti-nuclear power Earth and Environmental Sciences Department? Will students segregate themselves in politically like-minded dorms? If we walk down this path, we will inevitably produce students who are unable to engage rationally with each other, which will further increase America's political polarization.

I am by no means suggesting that a Penn faculty member or student must be apolitical. I also understand that in certain disciplines, it may be difficult to disentangle elements of intellectual pursuit from political activism. But that said, Penn's mission and credibility are undermined when a University center and program endorses a political movement’s talking points instead of promoting meaningful scholarly discourse.

JOSEPH SUBOTNIK is the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn endowed term Professor of Chemistry. His email is subotnik@sas.upenn.edu

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