The Middle East Studies Association expressed "dismay" with the University’s decision to deny progressive Jewish group Penn Chavurah's request to screen the documentary "Israelism," while also encouraging the Middle East Center director to resume his role.
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 Dec. 1 — called the ban of the "Israelism" screening “a disregard for your students’ constitutionally protected right of free speech and a violation of the principles of academic freedom.”
Nearly 100 community members attended a screening of “Israelism” — a film critical of Israel — last week in a room reserved by MEC. The University attempted to postpone the screening until February after discussions with the Division of Public Safety and administrators, a University spokesperson told The Daily Pennsylvanian.
A University spokesperson previously wrote to the DP that student organizers will face disciplinary action after they “disregarded the University’s direction and secured a different space to show the film."
In response to the University's threat of disciplinary proceedings, the MESA letter called on the administration to “desist from threats against Penn Chavurah and from disciplinary action against students involved in screening the documentary.”
The letter included a quote from a Nov. 28 statement released by the Penn chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which also expressed concern about alleged violations of academic freedom by University administration relating to Penn’s decision to prohibit the screening of “Israelism.”
In response to a request for comment, AAUP-Penn's Executive Committee directed the DP to the Nov. 28 AAUP message. AAUP-Penn added that the MESA statement “affirms that the Penn administration’s violations of academic freedom have harmed the academic mission and the international reputation of the University of Pennsylvania.”
The MESA letter urged the University to ask Professor Harun Küçük to resume his position as director of the Middle East Center, “with the apologies from the administration that are his due.”
AAUP-Penn announced Küçük’s resignation in the Nov. 8 letter, stating that he submitted his resignation in response to “inappropriate pressure from administrators.”
In response to a request for comment pertaining to MESA’s letter, Küçük wrote to the DP that the University stopping disciplinary proceedings against students who attended the "Israelism" screening would “set the right tone” in regard to future conversations.
“Events like this screening release tension on campus and open our channels of communication as a community,” he wrote. “I’d like to thank my colleagues and friends in MESA for kindly including me in their letter. I really appreciate their support.”
MESA emphasized the “heightened responsibility” that University leaders have during these “fraught times.”
“This country’s institutions of higher education should be places in which a broad range of perspectives can be expressed, debated and criticized,” MESA wrote. “Your administration’s actions in this matter are thus an abdication of professional, academic and civic responsibility.”
The letter was signed by Aslı Bâli, MESA president-elect and professor at Yale Law School, and Laurie Brand, Chair of the MESA Committee on Academic Freedom. Eve Troutt Powell, a professor of History at Penn, serves as the past president of MESA’s board of directors.
In a previous Nov. 9 letter, MESA called on Penn administrators to protect academic freedom and defend faculty members subjected to threats for pro-Palestinian speech. It expressed concern about the University's “failure to respond to the defamation and harassment” that pro-Palestinian faculty members had been experiencing.
Staff reporter Diamy Wang contributed reporting.