My pride in my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, has endured doubt and despair during the past seven weeks as Penn has withstood a severe conflagration fueled by a surge of antisemitism and a lapse of leadership.
Not a recent day goes by without my becoming immersed in reports of strife on a roiling campus. Protests by Palestinian students, to include chants derogatory to Israel, sparking accusations of antisemitism by Jewish students and alumni, have created a sense of danger felt deeply by Jewish undergrads. Nazi swastikas have appeared on a campus building. As have anti-Jewish graffiti.
As a Jew and devoted alumnus, I am concerned. Wealthy alumni, predominantly Jewish, have closed their checkbooks. They angrily demanded the resignations of the president and board chair. They have publicized their discontent in national media.
Why are they irate?
Because the president, Liz Magill, refused to cancel the on-campus Palestine Writers Festival, which included antisemitic speakers. Magill also reacted slowly and initially weakly to the Hamas attack on Israel in the view of alumni. The resulting reaction has been ugly and rancorous.
The too-long contention relates to a combustible mix of academic freedom, free speech, donor discontent and Jew-hatred. University presidents must lead in a toxic environment. They must confront free speech and determine when it morphs into hate speech. They must uphold sacred academic freedom amidst deep venom targeting Jewish students. They must ensure campuses are safe for the conflicting groups of students.
And they must deal with donors furiously unhappy with the administration, severing financial support. Financial consequences cannot be ignored.
A non-academic term would be a “holy mess.”
So, readers, where do I stand regarding antisemitism on the campuses of Penn, Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, Coopers Union, New York University, George Washington University and Tulane?
While I disdain any form of antisemitism, having borne the brunt at times, and fear a potential Holocaust in our divided, tribal country, I cannot support calls for resignations of top leaders. It is extreme. The consequent upheaval would further strain currently fractured campuses.
The Hamas attack demanded immediate condemnation. Magill waited two days to respond. Too weakly, many thought. Then, she responded, far more strongly. Jewish alumni reacted angrily. Last week, she released an action plan to fight antisemitism. She is working hard to regain the trust of students, parents and alumni.
Hatred of Jews is a rabid disease that subsides, erupts, subsides and erupts again. No Jew can forget the horror of Adolph Hitler’s abject murder of six million Jews in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The scars never fully heal among Jews of all ages.
My parents were unyielding in their gloomy expectation of another mass slaughter in our world despite assimilation.
Hatred of all kinds will never vanish. Antisemitism goes back thousands of years. Why? Jews are considered “other.” Words such as “different” in appearance and religious come to mind, easily and maliciously stereotyped to perpetuate preconceptions and bias.
Our American democracy and communal unity depend on open-mindedness, underpinning the cohesion and tolerance that strengthens and nourishes our country. Lofty words that seem overly optimistic? Maybe so.
How do we live without noble aspirations? We are bereft if we cannot hope for a better future.
One last point: students have a long history of peaceful protests. I applaud their gumption and grit. However, protests that include messages and chants of hatred are not okay. These actions can lead to physical altercations, or worse. They can create an environment that encourages unjust attacks on Jews. They call for discipline, including expulsion.
A guest essay written by three students at Yale, Cornell and Brown and published recently in the New York Times is particularly incisive. The following paragraph precisely describes the currently poisonous climate pervasive at the universities cited above:
“All students have sacred rights to hold events, teach-ins and protests. And university faculty must present arguments that make students uncomfortable. University campuses are unique hubs of intellectual discovery and debate, designed to teach students how to act within a free society. But free inquiry is not possible in an environment of intimidation. Harassment and intimidation fly in the face of the purpose of a university.”
I will always be proud of Penn. I also will be critical at times. Condemnation of antisemitism is non-negotiable. Eradication would be ideal.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. After 44 years in Easton, Howard and his wife, Liz, moved in November 2020 to Annapolis, where they live with Toby, a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel who has no regal bearing, just a mellow, enticing disposition.