The University of Pennsylvania, one of America’s elite Ivy League institutions, last month published the final report of its anti-Semitism task force. It also published temporary guidelines  to accompany the report.

The report included what it described as “a set of recommendations aimed at promoting a culture of respect, inclusion and understanding”. Among them were a commitment to play a leading role in Jewish studies, enhancing existing programmes to promote cross-cultural understanding, clarifying guidelines on freedom of expression and enhancing indicent reporting. 

Even before the 7 October Hamas atrocities the university was embroiled in a controversy over anti-Semitism. In September it hosted a controversial Palestine Writes Literature Festival which included Roger Waters (who attended virtually) and Marc Lamont Hill as speakers. The American Jewish Committee (AJC) condemned both as anti-Semitic. It also maintained that Farha, a film shown at the festival, includes an anti-Semitic blood libel. 

Those who organised the festival insisted it was a celebration of Palestinian rights rather than an expression of anti-Semitism. Nevertheless many donors reportedly complained about the festival in advance of it happening. 

After the 7 October pogrom tensions increased still further. Although the university issued a public statement on 15 October condemning the Hamas terrorist assault on Israel there were new allegations of anti-Semitism. One involved Susan Abulhawa, a Palestinian American writer and organiser of the Palestine Writes conference. She wrote in the Electronic Intifada that “Palestinian fighters finally broke free on 7 October 2023 in a spectacular moment that shocked the world.”

The combination of the literary festival and the university’s response to 7 October led to donors withdrawing funds. On 16 November the university formed its anti-Semitism task force.

Things got even worse after President Elizabeth Magill’s disastrous testimony to congress in December. There she failed to say whether calls for the genocide of Jewish students were a violation of university policy. That lost the university a further $100m (£79m) in donations as well as $31m of federal funding being withheld from the university's School of Veterinary Medicine.

The university is also being sued by Jewish students for allegedly failing to fulfil its legal obligation to counter the hostile environment for Jewish students. Among their main concerns is the hiring of staff who the students maintain have helped promote an anti-Semitic culture. One example is a professor of Arabic literature, Huda Fakhreddine, who said of the 7 October pogrom that “it invented a new way of life” . The students also allege that selective enforcement of policies means that complaints regarding anti-Semitic conduct were not pursued.

The report’s recommendations are based on the premise that the university should clarify and regularly communicate its core values. Judging by the other recommendations these would include open enquiry and expression. It would also mean ensuring that disagreements, even when passionate, remain respectful. The report did not endorse any of the three well-known definitions of anti-Semitism: the International Holocaust  Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition, the Jerusalem definition or the Nexus Document. Evidently there was disagreement within the task force over which was best.

Another proposal was for the university leadership to reiterate its opposition to boycotting and divestment from Israel. The report went on to recommend enhanced international cooperation generally. One suggestion was the possibility of inviting Israeli, Saudi and Tunisian scholars to a conference to discuss the concept of national sovereignty. This is one of the strongest sections of the report. That is particularly when taken in conjunction with its debunking of the claim that excluding Jews from activities because they are Zionists is not anti-Semitic.

To enable students to meet people from backgrounds different to their own the report also recommended directing resources to organised activities such as cross-community dinners. Those who participate in such initiatives should also be asked to complete a written assignment reflecting on the experience.

The report proposed the banning of encampments and the clarification of open expression policies. The temporary guidelines issued with the report state that amplified sound is not allowed before 5 pm. Staff have the right to demand identification to check if a protester is affiliated to the university. Pennsylvania students and staff cannot act as a front for organisations not formally attached to the university who want to protest on campus. The wearing of masks was also prohibited

Another recommendation was that resources be directed towards increasing Jewish studies at the university. However, it is not obvious how this would reduce anti-Semitism on campus. The presence of the Shoah Foundation Institute’s archive did not stop the university hiring some professors with anti-Semitic views.

Finally, the report emphasised the need to regularly assess the campus climate. For this to happen reporting procedures will have to be clarified (forms to record subconscious bias were adjusted to specifically include reference to anti-Semitism in January). Everyone entering the university should undergo inclusivity training updated to incorporate better understanding of anti-Semitism.

The university’s recent anti-Semitic scandals are at odds with a relatively positive history towards Jews. It had a Jewish trustee, Moses Levy as far back as 1826. The Jewish Students’ Association was founded in 1924. It was the first Ivy League university to have a Jewish President Martin Meyerson in 1970 and since 2012 it has hosted the Shoah Foundation Institute’s Visual History Archive, a collection of more than 50,000 video testimonials of Holocaust survivors and other witnesses.

At present Pennsylvania has a D (deficient) rating from the Anti-Defamation League, an international non-governmental organisation and pro-Israel advocacy group. The real test of whether things can change will be when the next term starts in the autumn.

Guy Whitehouse is a member of the Academy of Ideas and the Free Speech Union. His views do not necessarily reflect those of those organisations.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Radicalism of fools project.

PHOTO: "Houston Hall - University of Pennsylvania" by chrisinphilly5448 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The aftermath of the 7 October Hamas pogrom in Israel has made the rethinking of anti-Semitism a more urgent task than ever. Both the extent and character of anti-Semitism is changing. Tragically the open expression of anti-Semitic views is once again becoming respectable. It has also become clearer than ever that anti-Semitism is no longer largely confined to the far right. Woke anti-Semitism and Islamism have also become significant forces.

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