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In a letter, President Liz Magill described previously undisclosed steps that Penn is taking in response to concerns raised about some of the speakers invited to the Palestine Writes literature festival.
Magill's letter to the Anti-Defamation League, which was obtained by The Daily Pennsylvanian, discloses that Penn has initiated a review of the process that external groups use to reserve Penn's space and host events on campus. She also said the University would improve equity and inclusion training and education programs for faculty, staff, and students to include antisemitism awareness.
“These steps are intended to support the Jewish community at Penn and combat antisemitism,” Magill wrote.
The letter was sent on Sept. 20 to Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO and national director of the nonprofit ADL, It was written in response to a conversation between Magill and Greenblatt on Sep. 18 and a follow-up letter that Greenblatt sent to Magill on Sep. 19, according to the letter.
A Jewish student, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, said that the correspondence shows that while Magill is trying to portray herself as someone prioritizing "respect and dignity for every person on this campus," in reality, her actions fall short of offering support to many members of the Penn community.
"Spaces like Hillel are important on campus because they create space for Jewish students to explore their own sense of self and their cultural identity," the Jewish student said. "That is also what Palestine Writes is doing. It is creating a space for a group of people to come together explore their sense of self and collective identity."
A request for comment was left with a University spokesperson. The steps detailed in the letter went beyond Penn's previous statement about the festival and also acknowledged criticism of one specific speaker, Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters. Magill did not commit to intervening in the event by disallowing Waters to attend, a demand made by Penn Hillel, which cited espousal of "Jewish hate."
Magill wrote that the actions taken align with the Biden-Harris Administration's strategy for countering antisemitism. The plan outlines a “whole-of-society approach” to tackle antisemitism in the United States, according to the White House website.
Penn’s Division of Public Safety is also providing increased security to Penn Hillel and the off-campus Lubavitch House prior to and throughout the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, according to the letter. In addition, University leaders are “actively working to determine appropriate security measures for Jewish students who reside in on and off-campus housing,” Magill wrote.
In the letter, Magill said that she and Penn administrators have taken multiple actions in response to the concerns, including meeting with academic leaders in the School of Arts and Sciences, student representatives from Penn Hillel, and students interested in Palestinian art and culture.
College first year Ashwin Laksumanage said that most advocates for the Palestine Writes festival felt that the University was "buying into negative and incorrect rhetoric" about the event in its response. While they said that Penn should not allow certain voices to go unchallenged, the University was failing to recognize the oppression in the region of Palestine.
In the letter, Magill added that the University will “redouble [its] work with student organizations and other groups to encourage efforts to understand the interconnectedness of different forms of bigotry and oppression,” calling out the Interfaith Service for Penn’s MLK Symposium and Baccalaureate Ceremony as programs that focus on this goal, and stating that Penn will continue working with the Office of the Chaplain and the Division of University Life as part of this.
Magill also wrote that Penn will “review and build upon existing training and education programs” to include antisemitism awareness as part of equity and inclusion programs based on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, which is used by the United States Department of State but faced criticism in May when the United Nations was pressured to adopt the definition.
As the new measures are implemented, the University will engage Penn faculty as well as organizations like the ADL and IHRA that work on combating antisemitism, she wrote.
The IHRA's definition states that antisemitism is "a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities."
Penn Hillel Co-President and College junior Lauren Krasilovsky wrote in a written statement to the DP that she supports Magill's "efforts to support [the Jewish] community and enact necessary change."
"It’s imperative that Penn clearly and transparently define antisemitism and apply that definition to the policies and inner workings of the University," Krasilovsky wrote.
Previously, in 2021, the Undergraduate Assembly indefinitely tabled a student-proposed resolution for Penn to adopt this definition of antisemitism after critics alleged the definition could censor criticism of Israel and advocacy for Palestinian rights.
The anonymous Jewish student said that Penn adopting the IHRA's definition of antisemitism would be "deeply concerning.”
"This definition of antisemitism has been rejected by Jews at Penn before, and I believe it should be rejected by Jews at Penn again," the Jewish student said.
The student added that while he finds Magill's "impulse to try to cultivate an environment at this University that is as supportive of all of its students as possible" admirable, she has instead isolated major parts of the campus community through her words and actions.
"[Magill] has not, at any point, supported Palestinian or Arab students throughout this entire controversy in any way comparable to the way she has been attempting to support Jewish students," the student said. "I think she does a disservice not only to Palestinian and Arab parts of this community, but also to Jewish students by conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism."
Magill wrote in the letter that Penn's commitment to open expression and academic freedom was "central to our academic mission," even when maintaining those commitments proved difficult.
“I am personally committed more than ever to addressing antisemitism in all forms,” Magill wrote. “The University of Pennsylvania has a long and proud history of being a place for people of all backgrounds and faiths, and acts of antisemitism have no place at Penn.”