Antisemitism on college campuses came to a head last week in Congress. Israel being attacked just over two months ago seems to have unleashed unprecedented levels of Jew-hatred of various sorts all over the world, including on university campuses. If Hamas did it, so can everyone else? No, but I guess that’s what the world thinks. As a Penn alumna, I have been most closely following what was going on there. The protests, the shouts for genocide, and the lack of appropriate response from the leadership, namely (then) President Liz Magill.
After the Congressional hearing, I was more upset by Liz Magill’s attempted apology than by her original remarks. Some things cannot be apologized for. Especially not while the wound is raw. You cannot emotionally rip somebody (or group of people) apart and then tell them the next day that you didn’t actually mean it. Or rather you can, but it’s completely unacceptable. We know from Pirkei Avot 4:23 that Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar teaches: “Do not appease your friend in the time of his anger…” I don’t think Liz regularly reads through Pirkei Avot, so she is probably not familiar with this teaching. But it is an extremely smart and poignant one which she violated. Trying to calm someone (or in this case, Jews all over the world) immediately after severely affronting them on a national level is ill-advised.
Liz learned her lesson the hard way because clearly people didn’t respond well to her non-apology. She resigned from her position as President of University of Pennsylvania less than a week later. Likely because she otherwise would have been fired. Her goodbye statement simply stated that she felt privileged to lead an institution like Penn and work with its people to advance its missions. That’s a paraphrase, but that’s as deep as it got. No heart. No soul. No regret. Maybe embarrassment.
Refusing to state that calling for the genocide of Jews breaks Penn’s code of conduct is equal (according to my understanding) to stating that calling for the genocide of Jews is acceptable behavior at Penn. Even saying that it “depends on the context” doesn’t make it better. Following up later to say that in fact such behavior is “evil” and “threatening” is just stupid because such strong beliefs do not change so rapidly. I do believe that people can change, but doing a 180 within a day or two is not possible. Which means her follow-up statement was a blatant lie used as a last minute ploy to save herself after she realized the gravity of her words or lack thereof.
I was also quite shocked by how idiotic (for lack of better word) she looked during the hearing. I hope someone did a facial analysis (if that’s even a thing) since I found it fascinating to watch her expressions. She certainly was feeling severely uncomfortable. That was obvious. Her lack of eloquence and the repetition with which she spoke were very odd since I would expect the president of an elite university to at least be poised and well-spoken if nothing else. I’m assuming she’s book-smart if she was elected to such a role, but her street-smarts seem lacking.
I wonder if she was hesitating because she wanted to express her condemnation of antisemitism but her lawyers instructed against it? Or did her lawyers tell her that she should speak up against antisemitism but she couldn’t bring herself to do so? She was clearly tongue-tied, so it was obvious that she was not speaking her own words. Either way she said what she said, and it doesn’t really matter what she was thinking because those words did and always will represent her and what she stands for. They belong to her now. Because they came out of her mouth under oath in a public forum.
Liz had only been serving as the president of Penn for just over a year. Not exactly a record holding length of presidency. Her legacy at Penn is now her antisemitism and her lack of ability to properly do her job. Her lack of ability to understand the complexities inherent within the diversity of Penn’s student body. Not a great legacy. In addition to Liz though, I also wonder about the supporting leaders of the university that worked under her. Do they feel the same way that she does but their voices are less public so they can hide in the closet and keep their views to themselves?
I’m curious what would have been if Amy Gutmann was still the president of Penn. I never had much to do with her, but I remember her being well-liked and pretty pro-Jewish. I believe she herself is Jewish, but she certainly has Jewish pride, as at least her father was Jewish. I don’t know if Liz was well-liked or not because I was never a student during her presidency. But Amy Gutmann came to several Hillel events and had a warm relationship with many student leaders of the Jewish community. I somehow can’t imagine her sitting in front of Congress and stating that it’s fine for students to call for the genocide of their Jewish counterparts. I really don’t think it would have happened, especially since she is vocal on X about how antisemitism is unacceptable. Now she’s doing bigger and better things, so I guess Liz did not consult her about dealing with this particular situation.
I’m not sure what is next for Penn, or any universities for that matter that have been publicly antisemitic (even the ones who were not a part of this infamous hearing.) Antisemitism in America and all over the world is not in a good place, so there isn’t exactly a quick fix. Both the newly appointed Interim President and Board Chair (a proud Jewish woman) certainly seem to be committed to trying to rebuild. They have a difficult task ahead though.
With all of the hate that has been going on these days, it’s nice to see someone suffer the consequences, especially in such a public way for the world to see and take note. So many people are getting away with antisemitic words and actions. It’s kind of ironic because Liz’s whole argument in Congress was that words are only problematic based on context, and her words are what essentially got her fired. The context was clearly not in her favor.
I hope that more and more people continue to learn their lesson and realize that hateful speech and actions are unacceptable anywhere. About anyone. This is not just about Jews. Accepting calls for genocide of any group is unacceptable. Plain and simple. Jews just happen to be in the line of fire right now. Allowing any such behavior is not a functional way for society to exist. People need to stop getting away with murder. Literally.