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Guest Columnists Olivia Haynie, Jack Starobin, and Evie Klein write about their experiences as Jewish students of professors accused of antisemitism. Credit: Abhiram Juvvadi

On March 28, 149 Penn alumni and current students sent a letter calling for the punishment of eight Penn professors to Interim Penn President Larry Jameson. The letter accuses these professors of involvement in “pro-terrorism events,” having “discriminated against students … for being Jewish, Israeli, or Zionist,”  negligence in their duties as teachers, and hindering “the right to freedom of thought and expression by Jewish students.” Nowhere in this letter do the authors provide examples that back up these claims. Many of these authors do not even know the professors of whom they speak. We are alarmed that so many alumni would sign onto a statement rooted in rumor, hearsay, and conspiracy.

Unlike many of the letter's signatories, we are Jewish students who know these professors. We have sat in their classrooms, read their work, and, in some cases, cried on their shoulders. We are writing in defense of our professors who are being slandered and used as political pawns in the ongoing attack on academic freedom and free speech. We stand by all eight professors. We are writing on only three of them at length because these are the three we know best.

Olivia Haynie: In defense of professor Fatemeh Shams

Since my first day in her class “Media and Culture in Contemporary Iran” last semester, Shams made me feel welcome and supported. When it came up in conversation that I was Jewish, she was very excited to tell me that we had a full day of the course dedicated to learning about the history of Jews in Iran. Our readings for that class were rich and incredibly powerful. We learned about Jews who escaped Poland and found safe haven in Tehran, Iran, during World War II. In class, we watched videos about the experiences of these Jews as well as the Jews who live in Iran today. To censure Shams and her classes would result in Penn losing the only class at this school that has provided me with the chance to learn about this important Jewish history.

Not only did Shams not discriminate against me for being Jewish, she encouraged me to share my experiences as a Jew in her class and allowed me to feel empowered citing my Jewish identity. Where the accusations that she impedes Jewish students’ freedom of expression in the classroom came from, I have no idea — especially since the signatories of the letter did not bother citing this claim. From my time in her classroom — time virtually none of the signatories had — I saw no proof of this practice and, in fact, saw proof of the opposite.

Shams was the only professor to reach out to me personally to see how I was doing after the events of Oct. 7, 2023. On Oct. 10, 2023, she wrote to me that she was thinking of me. She offered to even meet with me in person if I needed someone to talk to and that her prayers were with me and everyone else affected by the violence that had broken out. She recognized my Jewishness and the vulnerable state my community and I were in. 

In several of the pieces of “evidence” of Shams’ Jew-hatred that the signatories provide, they engage in logical fallacies. For example, the letter criticizes Shams’ tweet supporting a walkout for Palestine in October 2023. The signatories point out that protesters were ripping down posters, as if this is a relevant point, when nowhere in the tweet does Shams encourage, defend, or even mention posters being ripped down. There is also no evidence she was involved or even aware this behavior was taking place. They accuse her of saying “‘Israelites’ deserved the attack they received on October 7” without providing any evidence of this taking place.

Shams is one of the most compassionate and empathetic professors I have ever had while at Penn. Shame on anyone who says she does not care about Jewish students, and shame on anyone who dares to accuse her of supporting terrorism. Even more shame on those who would do so with no evidence. To slander a person knowing you have no reasons for your vitriol means that the only place the lies come from is one of hatred. This is not about supporting Jewish students: It is about silencing faculty who are pro-Palestinian, even if it is through immoral means. Now more than ever Penn cannot afford to lose brilliant minds like Shams and voices dedicated to justice and peace. Now more than ever, Penn cannot give in to bullies like the signatories of this letter who seek to limit free speech and academic freedom on our campus.

Jack Starobin: In defense of professor Anne Norton

I am a Jewish Penn student in Norton's "Language and Politics" class. When I read the recent alumni letter accusing Norton of antisemitism, I was baffled. The letter alleges that Norton has engaged in "disrespectful and dismissive treatment of Jewish students and the Jewish community." This description could not be further from the truth.

Let me begin with the most obvious counterexample to the letter's allegation. Norton has supported me in studying Jewish history. One of my assignments for her class required me to select and analyze a word that has "traveled" languages. I selected the word "ghetto," in part for its resonance with my Jewish heritage. As we discussed in class, the word "ghetto" first appeared in reference to the segregated Jewish quarter of Venice, Italy, in 1516. Jewish immigrants brought the word to the United States. The Nazis also used the word in their orchestration of the Holocaust.

Norton not only respected my choice to study this word but also helped me deepen my analysis of it. She posed illuminating questions about the evolution of the word's cultural significance in English, and she treated the entire discussion with the seriousness that the word "ghetto" deserves. As a Jewish student, I felt neither unusually conspicuous nor overlooked at any point in her class. I felt free to pursue my interests in community with my professor and my classmates.

In the middle of the semester, when a Jewish community group with which I'm involved hosted an event on campus, Norton gave nothing but support to me and my peers. She asked me how she could help us secure an event space, and she has continued to take a supportive interest in my Jewish community group's wellbeing.

Moreover, my class discussions with Norton have been some of the most engaging I've had at Penn. Norton draws on a remarkable breadth of texts and historical contexts to illuminate our readings each week. I am astounded that anyone would suggest, as does the recent alumni letter, that she exhibits a "reckless disregard for scholarly and professional norms." There has not been a classroom on this campus where I have felt safer, freer, or more excited to ask questions than hers.

The people who make me feel unsafe on this campus are those who seek to forcibly silence me and my peers for criticizing Israel. In the past year, I have received hate mail from strangers vowing to "pay my way to Gaza" — presumably to send me to my death for decrying Israeli apartheid. Strangers have called me a "kapo," a "race-traitor," and a "self-hating Jew" in response to my critical stance towards the Israeli government's perpetration of genocide in Gaza. MAGA members of Congress like Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) have invoked the notion of Jewish safety in service of a far-right political movement that explicitly welcomes neo-Nazi ideologues and attacks free speech on college campuses like Penn's.

These are the people who have "hindered the right to freedom of thought and expression by Jewish students" at Penn, to excerpt one of the allegations made in the alumni letter. Threats to our safety come from far-right politicians, strangers online, and a University administration that routinely caves to political pressure at the expense of academic freedom. Not Norton. Norton has modeled integrity in her commitment to the human dignity of Palestinian people, and she exemplifies rigor in her comportment in class.

If the authors of the alumni letter care about antisemitism, they should target real antisemites. They should stand against genocide and apartheid. They have nothing to condemn in Norton. If, as they say, they want to stand for a university that gives "equitable due respect" to all students, they have everything to learn from her example.

Evie Klein: In defense of professor Dwayne “Mr. Fish” Booth, a mentor who’s circumcised my heart in Jewish humor

I met Dwayne “Mr. Fish” Booth my first year from the suggestion of a Student Health and Counseling therapist to find someone on campus interested in humor. During our first conversation, he took complete interest in my work and goals as a student, an appreciation he shows to all who step into his classroom. My sophomore year, I took both of his classes, “Sick and Satired” in the fall and “WARNING! Graphic Content” in the spring. Among his pupils, Mr. Fish is known for his irreverent sense of humor, eccentric lectures, and ability to foster in-class dialogue. Questioning the material is encouraged, and I constantly use this right to tell Mr. Fish he’s wrong without repercussions. 

The rich tradition of Jewish humor also plays a major role in Mr. Fish’s curriculum. Dating as far back as examples in Talmudic midrash, Jewish humor has served as a tool for Jews to question for over a millennium. Mr. Fish teaches about great, 20th-century Jewish comedians like Mort Saul and Lenny Bruce, who used their humor not simply to entertain, but challenge authority. Mr. Fish has always encouraged me to celebrate this tradition, helping me feel spiritual value in carrying on this practice of my ancestors. 

This semester, I’ve had the opportunity to work with Mr. Fish in an independent study focusing on developing my skills as a writer and humorist. Assignments range from hourlong jazz listening sessions to writing exercises encouraging me to eavesdrop around campus. In between reviewing edits and discussing weekly readings, he always takes the time to ask about my personal life with genuine care. If I forget to disclose a detail about my dating history or family drama in person, he’ll eventually find out through an essay. 

In exchange, he keeps me updated on his own state of affairs. During a meeting in February, he told me about a far-right reporter who wrote a hit piece on his cartoons. As I left his office I said, “If anyone gives you trouble, tell them 100% of one of your classes is Jewish.” That Sunday, Jameson released his statement condemning Mr. Fish’s cartoons as antisemitic. 

I want to acknowledge the pain felt by members of my Jewish community from interpretations of Mr. Fish’s cartoons. The provocative nature of political cartooning leaves room for multiple interpretations, even those unintended by the author. However, I am horrified that my professor’s ability to criticize Israeli occupation and violence is being threatened. The most unsafe I’ve ever felt on campus as a Jew came following a slew of death threats against Mr. Fish. We were forced to temporarily stop meeting in person out of safety concerns. My ability to even debate my professor on his work was put in peril by actions allegedly meant to protect me.  

To see the University and alumni who have no insight into his character censor Mr. Fish dictates a worrying trend. There is nothing more Jewish than creating space for debate, and Mr. Fish’s classroom is one of the few places on campus where this right is fully protected. 


The authors appear to have written this letter not out of concern for the safety of Jewish students, but as a way to bully pro-Palestinian voices with whom the signatories disagree. If this letter's signatories really cared about Jewish students, they would not add to the tension and unease that has already taken over this campus. We hope the administration takes our words and experiences into consideration.

OLIVIA HAYNIE is a College senior studying sociology from Durham, N.C. Her email is

JACK STAROBIN is a College senior studying political science and economics from Olney, M.D. His email is  

EVIE KLEIN is a College senior studying political science from North Caldwell, N.J. Her email is