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Penn community members rally for Israel on Oct. 20, marching from the LOVE Statue to Penn Hillel. Credit: Abhiram Juvvadi

Over 300 Penn faculty members signed an open letter calling on the University community to condemn the Hamas attacks on Israel and support Israel’s right to defend itself.

The letter was made public on Oct. 24 and was mostly signed by Penn faculty in Wharton and the Perelman School of Medicine. The letter praised a statement from President Liz Magill condemning Hamas on Oct. 15 “despite the unfortunate delay in forcefully condemning [antisemitism].” The faculty also offered support to the University community and called for “respectful and civil discourse" while refusing to allow hateful rhetoric.

“Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences,” the letter said. “We must not tolerate hateful speech on campus. We insist on respectful and civil discourse, and we condemn any forms of Islamophobia or [antisemitism].”

After privately expressing concern to the administration about incidents of antisemitism on campus and safety concerns among some community members, Professor of Clinical Radiology Brian Englander said he met with other faculty, including Professor of Psychology Michael Kahana, to draft a letter that addresses the attacks from Hamas on Oct. 7 and the resulting violence in Gaza and Israel. 

The faculty also aligned themselves with Penn administration and said that Israel has an obligation to defend itself with “strength and determination.” The letter called Israel’s war in Gaza “involuntary” and prompted by Hamas’ brutality. 

Kahana, who signed the letter, called the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza a “terrible, horrendous tragedy" which was prompted by Hamas’ decision to attack Israeli civilians. Over 1,400 citizens were killed in Hamas' attack on Israel on Oct. 7, and at least 8,796 people in Gaza have been killed since then, according to The Washington Post.

The faculty letter also recognizes the diversity of Penn’s campus and expresses respect for Palestinian colleagues, students, and members of the broader community. 

While Kahana said that he expects some accusations of the letter being biased due to its perspective on the attack, Englander said that the letter recognizes the loss of all innocent civilians and the various faiths, nationalities, and political beliefs that compose the Penn community. He added that the goal of the letter is to bring the community together.

Professor of Statistics and Data Science Abraham Wyner, who signed the letter, said that Penn’s administration and the United States government have been slower to act on antisemitism because it is hard for them to delineate the boundaries of free speech. 

Recent incidents of antisemitism on campus include a spray-painted swastika discovered in Meyerson Hall and an unknown individual who overturned furniture and vandalized Penn Hillel while shouting antisemitic rhetoric. 

Additionally, faculty members and students who participated in pro-Palestinian rallies have told the DP that they  received violent threats as a result of their involvement.

On Wednesday, Magill announced a University-wide action plan to combat antisemitism, including an adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, which Wyner said he supports.

Kahana said he has a personal connection to the conflict from directly experiencing an act of terrorism in Jerusalem in October 1994, when he was visiting Israel to give a lecture at Tel Aviv University. 

Professor of Political Science Bob Vitalis wrote in a statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian that while he partly agrees with the letter, it will have “zero impact” on the overall conflict and the civilians affected in both Israel and Gaza. Vitalis previously signed an open letter in support of the Palestine Writes Literature Festival

I only wish that the [Israel Defense Force] was bound by the same oath that both Palestinian physicians and those at the University of Pennsylvania are sworn to uphold: First do no harm,” Vitalis wrote.

One professor, who was granted anonymity due to a fear of retaliation and supported the Palestine Writes Festival, said that the letter demonstrates a longtime tension between the professional schools and the School of Arts and Sciences, describing their cultures as substantially distinct.

The professor said they believe that the conversation on campus surrounding the war turned the conflict into a strife between Muslim and Jewish students, which is what the "warmongers" want to happen. 

“[A]s long as we keep the focus on something like antisemitism, it's going to look like a war of religion,” the professor said. “And that's not a good place to be for our campus.”

Signatories of the open letter who spoke with the DP said the letter was designed as a starting point for faculty to express their opinions constructively. Englander said it serves to support students who might feel scared or hurt as well as show alumni that the professors are taking an active role in teaching and helping their community. 

“It's really just allowing faculty to voice their personal beliefs and opinions and passions in a way that I hope is constructive and speak to our students who are really hurting right now,” Englander said.