On November 21, 2023, the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) denied Penn Chavurah’s – a progressive Jewish student group – application to reserve a room to screen the film Israelism, citing concern for “the safety and well-being of the Penn community.”
Israelism is an award-winning documentary that follows two young Jewish Americans as they travel to Israel and Palestine, and developed critical perspectives on Israeli government policies as a result of their experiences. The university’s denial of a room to screen the film occurred against the backdrop of a Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, during which over 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals were killed and more than 200 abducted, and the Israeli military’s subsequent bombardment of the Gaza Strip which, as of mid-December, has reportedly killed more than 18,000 Palestinians. The violence has led to heightened tensions on campuses in the United States and other countries.
Prior to October 7 – over the summer of 2023 – Penn Chavurah received university approval for an event that included a screening of Israelism, followed by a Q&A. The event was originally scheduled to take place on October 24. However, after October 7, Penn Chavurah decided to postpone the film screening. In late October, the group submitted a new room reservation request to show the film on November 28. After consultations between Penn’s Division of Public Safety and administrators, the university denied the group’s request. Executive Director of Student Affairs Katie Bonner reportedly later expressed concerns to Penn Chavurah organizers.that showing the film could inflame tensions on campus. A university spokesperson said they would postpone the event until February 2024
On November 27, Penn Chavurah and IfNotNow Philly, a progressive Jewish organization, organized a protest at Penn Commons against the university’s refusal to allow the film to be screened on campus.
In addition, Penn’s Middle East Center submitted its own room reservation application, scheduling a screening of Israelism for November 28. In its application, the Center did not disclose its plans to show the film. On November 27, the night before the event, Penn reportedly informed the members of Penn Chavurah that the status and funding of the group could be revoked if the film screening went ahead. The group decided to continue with the screening on November 28. Around 100 students and faculty members reportedly attended the event. Penn security officers ensured that only those with valid Penn IDs could attend the screening; there were no incidents reported.
Following the event, the university announced that the students who organized the screening would be referred to the school’s Office of Community Standards and Accountability to determine whether they violated the Code of Student Conduct.
In response to the university’s handling of the film showing, the director of Penn’s Middle East Center, Professor Harun Küçük, submitted his resignation. In a later media interview, he urged Penn to stop the disciplinary proceedings against the students who attended the film screening.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about an attempt by higher education authorities to limit the right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly on campus by denying a student group the space for a previously approved event and by exerting pressure to prevent the event from happening. University authorities have a responsibility not to interfere with student expression and assembly, so long as it is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. University actions that limit the rights to free expression or association on campus have a chilling effect on academic freedom and university autonomy, and undermine democratic society generally.