The Middle Eastern Studies Association called on Penn administrators to protect academic freedom and defend faculty members subjected to threats for pro-Palestinian speech.
The letter from MESA's Committee on Academic Freedom — sent to President Liz Magill, Provost John Jackson Jr., Associate Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Jeffery Kalberg, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Steve Fluharty, and Vice Provost for University Life Karu Kozuma on Nov. 9 — expressed concern about the University's “failure to respond to the defamation and harassment” that pro-Palestinian faculty members have been experiencing.
MESA’s letter focuses on a change.org petition that circulated in late October. The petition — which has received over 6,000 signatures as of publication — calls for the removal of associate professor of Arabic literature, Huda Fakhreddine, associate professor of Persian literature, Fatemeh Shams, and artist-in-residence at Penn’s Creative Writing Program Ahmad Almallah, due to remarks that the petition alleged were antisemitic.
The MESA letter disagrees with these remarks' characterizations as antisemitic, arguing that criticism of Israel and its ongoing military campaign in Gaza is not antisemitic.
“Such a broad and vague definition of antisemitism, and its politicized deployment to silence critical voices, is dangerous and serves to undermine legitimate efforts to combat actual hate speech and real manifestations of antisemitism,” MESA wrote.
The statement also makes note of Magill’s recent statements, specifically those that have offered support for the Jewish community at Penn and condemned antisemitism. MESA called on University leadership to offer the same concern for Penn community members who have faced harassment due to their Middle Eastern origin or public support of Palestinians.
“Like other members of the University of Pennsylvania community, these faculty, students and staff are entitled to your recognition and support,” MESA wrote. “Your silence about such incidents is thus distressing and manifests an abdication of your responsibility.”
The signatories of the MESA letter call on Penn administrators to take action to have the "offensive" petition removed, also calling for Penn to "denounce the defamation and harassment" of these faculty members.
“The petition is a malicious attempt to target and defame Penn professors of Middle Eastern origins who repeatedly condemned violence on both sides on campus rallies,” Shams wrote in a statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian. “It has repeatedly taken their words out of context, twisted, and decontextualized them. It is on the University administrators to do everything they can to stop this smear campaign of bigotry against us."
Fakhreddine and Almallah did not respond to request for comment by the DP.
The DP previously reported that multiple Penn faculty members and students have received threats following their involvement as speakers during pro-Palestinian demonstrations on campus in the past month. Professors told the DP that they reported these threats to members of the University's administration but did not receive messaging from higher-level administrators.
“I received one line from the dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, and a longer follow-up from the humanities dean, but nothing from the president and the provost,” a professor told the DP.
The MESA letter specifically referred to Magill’s statement released on Nov. 6, which condemned threats of violence against Jewish community members that were sent to staff.
"The perniciousness of antisemitic acts on our campus is causing deep hurt and fear for our Jewish students, faculty, and staff and shaking their sense of safety and belonging at Penn," Magill wrote in the statement. “Every member of the Penn community deserves to feel safe on our campus."
MESA wrote that higher education institutions should create an environemnt where "a broad range of perspectives can be expressed, debated and criticized."
The letter was signed by Aslı Bâli, MESA president-elect and professor at Yale Law School, and Chair of the MESA Committee on Academic Freedom Laurie Brand. Brand is also a professor emerita at the University of Southern California. Eve Troutt Powell, a professor of history at Penn, serves as the president of MESA’s board of directors.
The Office for University Life declined a request from the DP for comment.
Faculty Director of the Middle East Center Harun Küçük wrote in a statement to the DP that he believed the recent discussion on campus “has been on the superficial objects of fear and not the deep cause of the fear,” and emphasized the need for dialogue and academic freedom.
“I’m afraid we will have to work very hard to rebuild our social fabric. The earlier we start, the easier our job will be,” Küçük wrote. “The cost of delay will probably be permanent paranoia, which will slowly but surely poison every part of this community. Instead of avoiding disagreement, we have to face it head on by providing freedom, resources and venues so that disagreements nourish rather than kill our educational mission.”
On Nov. 2, the School of Arts and Sciences launched a dialogue series titled “Living the Hard Promise: A Dialogue Series” to engage the campus community in respectful conversation amid campus tensions over the ongoing war in Israel and Gaza.
Magill announced a University-wide action plan to combat antisemitism on Nov. 1, alongside a presidential commission to address "interconnectedness of antisemitism and other forms of hate" faced by Jewish, Palestinian, Muslim, and Arab communities.
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 combatting Islamophobia on campus.
"I know that our Palestinian, Muslim, and Arab communities feel unseen and that their pain and grief have not been acknowledged," Magill wrote in the announcement. "They have also been targeted with harassment and horrific threats. This is unacceptable and must be addressed with equal vigor."
“We will also defend the free exchange of ideas that is essential to our educational mission,” Magill said. “Those in positions of leadership must not act as censors. Our duty is to ensure that our faculty and student scholars have freedom and security to pursue academic discourse unthreatened.”