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A complaint filed by the Brandeis Center refers to Penn’s campus as a “hostile environment for its Jewish students.”

Credit: Giuliana Alleva

The Brandeis Center, a Jewish legal rights advocacy group, filed a federal complaint with the Office of Civil Rights of the United States Department of Education, alleging that Penn failed to respond to the harassment of Jewish students.

The 27-page discrimination complaint alleges that Penn violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects against discrimination in programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. It suggests that Penn has nurtured a hostile environment against Jewish students and failed to protect them from harassment, representing a violation of the statute. 

The complaint refers to Penn’s campus as a “hostile environment for its Jewish students” and — citing the harassment of Jewish students on campus — alleges that Penn has failed to take measures “reasonably calculated to end the harassment, eliminate any hostile environment, and prevent the harassment from recurring.”

The Center filed a similar complaint against Wellesley College on Nov. 9, and it previously has filed complaints on behalf of students at the University of Vermont and the State University of New York at New Paltz.

Founder and Chairman of the Brandeis Center and former Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the United States Department of Education Kenneth L. Marcus wrote in a press release that the complaint is intended to hold the University accountable.

“These colleges and universities have failed to keep Jewish students safe and are in clear violation of well-established federal civil rights law," Marcus wrote.

The complaint provides a timeline of Penn's alleged mistreatment of its Jewish students. It focuses on circumstances surrounding the Palestine Writes Literature Festival — and the University's response to it — as well as the changes in the campus environment following Hamas's Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

1996 College graduate Deena Margolies, a staff attorney at the Brandeis Center, said she was a proud Penn alumna but was heartbroken that some Jewish students feared for their safety, showing their Jewish identity, or demonstrating their support for Israel.

"That was not my experience," she said.

The complaint alleges that the Palestine Writes festival featured at least 25 antisemitic speakers, including Susan Abulhawa, Randa Abdel-Fattah, Bill V. Mullen, Marc Lamont Hill, and Roger Waters. It also critiqued the incorporation of the Festival into several courses' curricula and Penn's failure to quickly distance itself from the festival.

Though the University informed students that they could request exemptions, the complaint says that this was insufficient.

"Instead of Palestinian culture and poetry, the Festival celebrated ideologists advocating for the destruction of Israel as a Jewish State," the complaint alleges.

The complaint also cites antisemitic events that have since occurred on campus, particularly following Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel. It accuses Penn of delaying emphasis of the University’s stance against antisemitism until Oct. 15 — over a week after the attack.

The complaint references alleged antisemitic incidents and rhetoric at events sponsored by Penn Against the Occupation. It also mentions a march participant pushing a bystander and tearing down pictures of missing Israeli civilians, and alleges that several Penn professors who participated in the Palestine Writes festival "posted vitriolic anti-Israel and pro-Hamas statements and cartoons on their X and Instagram accounts." 

The Center suggested that Penn discipline these professors similarly to others who have "made derogatory remarks against minorities," such as Penn Carey Law professor Amy Wax.

"Penn students report feelings of intense distress and fears for their safety while the rallies continue and while their professors continue to show their support for Hamas," the complaint reads.

The complaint provided a list of suggested remedies for the University to better protect its Jewish community, including the appointment of an independent investigator, enforcement of the University's moral code of conduct, increased education about antisemitism, and strict review and approval policies to ensure the University does not conduct or finance programs that deny equal protection.

“I do want students to know that if they do encounter any other antisemitic incidents or if they feel frightened that they should contact us because we can always send in an add to the complaint," Margolies said. "We don't want students to feel like this is it."

Last week, multiple Penn staff members received antisemitic emails threatening violence against Jewish community members and naming Penn Hillel and Lauder College House. Penn Police and the FBI said at the time that they were conducting a joint investigation into a possible hate crime.

A vacant Campus Apartments property next to the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi was vandalized with the phrase “The Jews R Nazis” last month. DPS has since launched an investigation.

In October, Penn committed extra funding to meet Hillel’s extra security needs through the end of the 2024-25 school year, the organization said in an email addressing concerns about the safety of Jewish students. There has been heightened security for Hillel, the Katz Center, Lubavitch House, campus spaces for Muslim worship, and the Christian Association since September.

On Friday, Magill committed to "vigorously pursue" violations of Penn's conduct policies and of the law following recent acts of hate in the Penn community. Magill also recently announced a University-wide action plan to combat antisemitism on campus, emphasizing increased security and education. 

While many commended the plan, some students told the DP that they wanted to see follow-through from the University or a stronger commitment to combating Islamophobia on campus.

The Center is now waiting for the Office of Civil Rights of the United States Department of Education to review the complaint and potentially open an investigation.