Penn denied the progressive Jewish student group Penn Chavurah's request to screen the movie "Israelism," prompting University community members to rally in protest of the University's decision.
Penn postponed the screening until February after discussions with the Division of Public Safety and administrators, a University spokesperson told The Daily Pennsylvanian. Penn Chavurah still plans on screening the film on the originally scheduled date of Nov. 28 at 6:30 p.m. at Meyerson Hall, which was reserved by the Middle East Center, the group said.
"We are actively working to find a date in February when the film can be viewed and discussed safely and constructively," the spokesperson wrote.
In response to the postponing of the film, Penn Chavurah and IfNotNow Philly organized a rally on Nov. 27 at Penn Commons, opposing what they said was the University's censorship of the film. The film screening was originally scheduled over the summer to take place on Oct. 24 but was postponed due to the recency of the Hamas attacks on Israel, according to College senior and Penn Chavurah organizer Jack Starobin.
The organization submitted a request to reschedule on Oct. 26, and on Nov. 21, the University denied their request, Starobin told the DP. Starobin said that the University informed him that if the film screening takes place as planned tomorrow, the status and funding of Penn Chavurah as a student organization may be jeopardized.
“Penn has released at least eight statements in the past several weeks talking about its supposedly earnest concern with antisemitism, and yet it just censored a Jewish student organization from hosting a film made by Jewish filmmakers talking about Jewish people,” Starobin said.
"Israelism" is an award-winning documentary on the transformation of American Jews in relation to Israel. It follows the lives of two young American Jews who, after witnessing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, develop a conflicting relationship with Israel and the ongoing conflict. The film has been screened at other universities, including Haverford and Bryn Mawr, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Notre Dame University.
"Israelism" has drawn controversy from national organizations for its portrayal of Israel. Earlier this month, Hunter College also canceled a screening of "Israelism," prompting backlash from the school's Senate.
Starobin said that during an initial meeting with the Executive Director of Student Affairs Katie Bonner on Nov. 21, she expressed concern that the film was not right for the current climate on campus, adding that there is a lot of vitriol on campus and some community members would respond poorly to the screening.
During their second meeting on Nov. 27, Starobin said Bonner explained that there is more complexity to the University’s denial but did not clarify what that complexity is.
A University spokesperson told the DP that the University "[appreciates] the understanding of Penn Chavurah, who have been both passionate and respectful of their fellow Penn community members."
At the rally, Starobin said that the University’s censorship of the film shows that Penn is prioritizing the wishes of a right-leaning political agenda over their students’ safety and right to free speech.
“By censoring us, the University is giving in to the extortion of far-right donors and politicians who insist on silencing all critics of Israel, even at the expense of our safety and free speech, even as Israel commits what more and more of the international community is calling a genocide against Palestinians," Starobin said. "Censoring progressive Jews is only the latest example of Penn caving to the far-right."
At the rally Starobin also said that the University has not censored pro-Israel events, highlighting recent events hosted by Penn Hillel and MEOR Penn, accusing Penn of violating its open expression guidelines.
Engineering sophomore Lily Brenner, who attended the rally, agreed that the University’s actions were a violation of the open expression guidelines.
“It’s pretty hard for [the University] to make all these arguments about how much they care about antisemitism on campus while silencing Jewish voices that aren’t agreeing with what their donors are saying,” Brenner said.
She added that the film offers an important alternative perspective to the “strictly Zionist, pro-Israeli view” that she said is often shown on campus.
Starobin described "Israelism" as a call for dialogue, where individuals with different perspectives can sit down and discuss the recent events of the Israel-Hamas war in a meaningful way. After the screening, the group will host a question-and-answer session with the director of the film, Erin Axelman.
Axelman told the DP that they found Penn’s response to the proposed movie screening disturbing, saying that the University admitted to Starobin that they haven’t seen the film.
Axelman also said that the film is an important testament to the breadth and diversity within the American Jewish community when pertaining to views on Israel.
“We need to show the world that we Jews of conscience have the ability to both fight for our own safety while also condemning human rights violations when we see them, including when those human rights violations are being done by Jewish people,” Axelman said.
History professor Amy Offner, the president of the Penn chapter of the American Association of University Professors, spoke at the protest and said that the University’s refusal to grant a room reservation to the group is a violation of academic freedom.
"It’s the job of the university administration to resist" pressure from donors and trustees and attempts to violate academic freedom, Offner said.
"The donors may say what they want, but the faculty and the students should continue to have the intellectual life that the University exists to protect and create," Offner said.
Offner added that AAUP has sent sent a letter to administration asking for a condemnation of targeted harassment of Penn faculty, to which they received no response.
2023 School of Social Policy & Practice graduate and member of IfNotNow Philly Ella Israeli saw a screening of the movie over the summer and said that the film moved a lot of people in the Jewish community.
“Penn and people on campus equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism, so anything that goes against Israel people are saying is antisemitic, and I'm actually an Israeli American Jew, and I'm here to say that that’s not the right equation,” Israeli said.
College senior Mica Lin-Alves, who also attended the rally, told the DP that the University’s decision to postpone the screening was disappointing.
“I've read so many of Penn’s statements coming out where they said they're hoping to foster communities of dialogue and have times where there's going to be ideas exchanged and where people can talk about this in a civil manner," Lin-Alves said. "And so it's just really confusing to me, I suppose, why they refused this."
Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify a quote from History professor Amy Offner, the president of the Penn chapter of the American Association of University Professors.