December 15, 2023

University of Pennsylvania and antisemitism: An open letter to Liz Magill - opinion

By Barbara Sofer

I loved attending the University of Pennsylvania, where I earned my bachelor’s degree in 1971. The university offered everything I’d dreamed of when I was attending a rural public school in Connecticut: intellectual, philosophical, and moral challenges within a framework of respect and tolerance. I am appreciative of that education which has empowered me throughout my life. Last year, I danced my way with pride up Locust Walk when my spirited classmates and I celebrated our postponed 50th-anniversary reunion.

An important reason that I decided to attend the University of Pennsylvania from among the universities that accepted me was the flexibility of the year abroad program. There was only one place I wanted to go: Israel. I could then test my impetuous high school decision to move to Israel and, at the same time, acquire a beginner’s ability to speak Hebrew.

From Jerusalem, I write to you now, these decades later.

My class’s campus experience was dominated by protests against the war in Vietnam, concern about university involvement in military industries, and overcoming racial barriers. I both participated in and covered tumultuous events for the Daily Pennsylvanian, our campus newspaper. What excellent preparation that was for life in Israel!

I felt secure as a Jew at Penn, and I wasn’t alone. The percentage of Jews reportedly rose to close to 30% at one point. That number has fallen at Penn to teens – as in other Ivy League universities.

When I made that decision to move to Israel, I’d only spent a high school summer in Israel. Ironically, while hiking along the covered bridge of the water-abundant shores of Salmon River near Colchester, Connecticut, I experienced an epiphany in which I would be walking in the arid Israel Negev. 

I tried to wave the image away. But what excuse did I have for not moving to Israel, when the Jewish people had finally returned to the Promised Land after striving to do so for 2,000 years and losing six million in the Holocaust? 

In every prayer, we remember Jerusalem. At every wedding, we break a glass not for good luck but to remember Jerusalem. No matter how comfortable or downtrodden we have been, we cry out “Next year in Jerusalem” at the end of our Passover Seder and at the end of our Yom Kippur fast.

GROWING UP in Connecticut, I hadn’t experienced antisemitism. My immediate family hadn’t suffered persecution, not from the Nazis or in Arab countries where Jews were second-class citizens. I was young and healthy, Penn-educated, with parents who could afford to visit me – unlike my grandparents who left the pogroms of Eastern Europe to live in the United States.

On that Junior Year Abroad, I not only confirmed that it was my obligation to live in Israel – I fell in love with the country. I am still thrilled to be part of the ingathering of Jews from all over the world. I was already living in Israel to welcome my brethren – some actual cousins – when the gates of the Soviet Union opened, and when faithful Jews came home from Ethiopia. 

I explored archaeological sites with their ancient Jewish symbols and ritual baths. The Bible was the guidebook to rocky hill and dale. Trees hand-planted around the country turned into forests. Vintners discovered ancient wine presses where their new grapes flourished. How could I not be part of this?

My first apartment had an outdoor toilet. For years I had no telephone. But life moved forward fast. In our New Jersey-sized country, the cellphone was invented, changing communication throughout the world. The desert I saw in my epiphany bloomed. Israelis became champions in desalinating and reusing water while harnessing solar energy. Not only has the Israeli economy grown, but so has the Palestinian.

Despite near-daily terror attempts, transplanted kidneys and livers go back and forth between Jews and Arabs. Covering stories in my workday at Hadassah Medical Organization, I give eye-witness reports from the shock trauma unit after a terror attack where medical professionals with first names like Liat and Fatma, Meir and Osama use everything they have learned to save patients, whether they are the perpetrators or the victims.

LIKE NEARLY all robust democracies today, Israel is struggling with political division, questions of human rights, and conflicting visions of the future. My Israeli children and grandchildren, all of whom serve the country, are already involved in these contentious discussions and will help mold the future.

I’m sure that when you took over the presidency of the university last year – with your own vision for Penn’s future – you couldn’t have imagined yourself in the midst of a controversy that has damaged the university’s good name, the safety, and the future of Jewish students.

Your unfortunate decision to grant a podium to thePalestine Writes Literary Festival has received wide media coverage. It was no secret that speakers who have nothing to do with Arabic literature but who are infamous Israel-bashers like Roger Waters and Marc Lamont Hill would appear. But the venom and libel that reportedly polluted the campus in the name of art was reminiscent of Joseph Goebbels. Our university was disgraced, our Jewish students and faculty endangered. There have already been attacks on the Hillel organization.

Much thought must have gone into crafting your response to the proposed festival. On one hand, you must have felt compelled to affirm the right to free speech. On the other hand, you must have struggled with the memory of the shameful record of prestigious European universities in not standing up for and protecting their Jewish students and professors, no matter how immense their contributions were to those institutions.

Your words: “While the [Palestinian Writes Literary] Festival will feature more than 100 speakers, many have raised deep concerns about several speakers who have a documented and troubling history of engaging in antisemitism by speaking and acting in ways that denigrate Jewish people. We unequivocally – and emphatically – condemn antisemitism as antithetical to our institutional values. 

“As a university, we also fiercely support the free exchange of ideas as central to our educational mission. This includes the expression of views that are controversial and even those that are incompatible with our institutional values.”

Embedded in that last sentence was the red line. It should never have been crossed.

You should have stood strong and insisted: “Not on my campus.”