During my time as an undergrad at Penn, the racial tension both on and off campus wasn’t only palpable, it occasionally spilled over into real-world violence. Three moments during my tenure helped define Penn’s, and by extension the nation’s, struggle with racism and antisemitism.
In 1988, Cyril Leung, a graduate student from Hong Kong was bludgeoned to death, just off campus. Leung’s murder, along with that of graduate student Meera Ananthakrishnan, prompted then-Vice Provost for University Life Kim Morrisson to deliver a eulogy to help anchor the University’s commitment to student safety and racial diversity.
And in 1988, the world’s most infamous antisemite, Louis Farrakhan, was invited to speak on Penn’s campus.
Jews from all over campus and Philadelphia showed up to protest. Most were shocked that Farrakhan was given a platform on campus. That makes sense to me. Why give a platform to such ignorant and vile hatred? Only, the University didn’t see it that way (neither did The Daily Pennsylvanian). So the speech was held as planned.
And … since I hadn’t heard or known about Farrakhan in 1988, I paid for a ticket, walked through lines of protestors, and attended the speech.
It was eye-opening.
I was amazed at how gifted an orator Farrakhan was. He spoke in lofty, almost musical tones, and found ways to be funny and affable. He had people laughing and engaging in call-and-response exchanges with him. It was a masterful performance that saw him playing the role of provocateur, and he played that role — and his audience — like a master craftsman.
He railed against Jews. He railed against Israel. He called the criticisms of him lies and then impugned anyone who sought to criticize him as attacking the rights of all Black people everywhere. He blamed Jews for the African chattel slavery trade.
I stayed for the entire speech, partially transfixed, and partially in shock. How was it that none of my Jewish teachers or mentors had ever shared any of these claims with me? I left in deep fear that night: fear that my religion had been omitting powerful truths from me and fear that those in attendance would now use the information I’d just learned to target my religion as being responsible for their community’s pain.
It took time to process what I experienced. Part of that was spent learning just how badly Farrakhan had lied, not just about America, but about Jews. Part of that was learning how to let go of my fear and to instead trust in my fellow humans — and in myself — to separate fact from fiction.
Precisely as the University allowed me to do for myself.
Thirty-five years later, I remain 100% grateful that Penn not only gave me the privilege to attend that event, but the trust that they gave me to attend an antisemetic event and make up my own mind. That trust wasn’t an accident. When then-University President Sheldon Hackney was interviewed about the speech for The New York Times, he said ''open expression is the fundamental principle of a university,'' and that the University ''must do everything in its power to make it possible for people to come and hear'' Farrakhan.
Hackney wasn’t ignorant. In that same interview, he also admitted that the event ''could either be very good or disastrous." "I'm hoping it will be an occasion for some educational discussions of race relations on campus," he said. “But it could be confrontational and arouse a lot of emotion in which nothing constructive can take place.'' Despite the risk of strong emotions, he remained committed, first and foremost, to open expression on Penn’s campus.
As a Jew with close ties to Israel, I detest Farrakhan’s repulsive positions on and rhetoric about Jews and Israel. But I love and admire Hackney’s approach in 1988 to trust that Penn’s students could separate fact from fiction and make up their own minds.
More of this is needed now because history will continue to repeat itself.
Last month, it was the Palestine Writes Literature Festival. Now, as in 1988, campus groups were in an uproar. Now, as in 1988, the University president had to make a public statement about the event. Now, as in 1988, some students and faculty didn’t like that statement. Now, as in 1988, the event took place anyway and it featured speakers who, like Farrakhan, were rabid antisemites.
I do not support or condone antisemites or antisemitism; I do not support the Iran-backed Hamas terrorist movement whose founding charter called for the “obliteration” of Jews and the State of Israel and whose “new” Charter promotes the same. I do not support anyone who defends Hamas, including the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement which, like Hamas, advocates for a one state solution that removes Israel from the map. That Hamas recently committed the largest terror attack in Israel’s history on Oct. 7 and then called for an international day of rage just a few days later — for me — clearly illustrates the heartlessness of that organization and those who support them.
Here’s what I do support: the University’s decision, now as in 1988, to allow diverse, unethical, or even hateful speakers to come on campus to talk about what they believe. While some expressions of hatred deeply offend my Jewish faith, it is my faith in America’s First Amendment that takes precedence in most cases. The world is wide, it presents incredible diversity, and some of what we humans will experience during our lives is not kind.
I therefore don’t believe that universities, in general — nor Penn, specifically — should act as moral or ethical gatekeepers for what their students can or might experience when presented peacefully. Rather, I believe that the greatest gift Penn can bestow upon its students is the opportunity to develop the essential skill of critical thinking. That way we can all learn to question what we hear, learn how to separate fact from fiction, and, ultimately, make up our own minds.
The alternative is sad and, ultimately, authoritarian: that we will censor what students might see so that we can mold their minds to our own liking, not theirs.