New York (CNN) — After facing mounting pressure for months, University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill announced that she was stepping down on Saturday. But her resignation alone won’t combat rising incidents of antisemitism at some of the nation’s most prestigious universities.
Fears over antisemitism have reached new heights over the past few months, following the October 7 terror attacks by Hamas in Israel and Israel’s subsequent attack on Gaza. With rising tension on campus over the war, universities have scrambled to address issues related to freedom of speech, hate speech and political debate, while alumni, donors and business leaders have condemned university leaders over their perceived inaction in combatting antisemitism on their campuses.
And, overlaid over all those concerns, is the fear that Jewish students, faculty and staff feel in danger at institutions across America.
“In the past few weeks I have not felt safe on campus,” Talia Kahn, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Jake Tapper last month.
Government officials and lawmakers have taken notice. Since the October 7 terror attacks, the Department of Education has opened investigations into fourteen colleges and universities across the country, including Harvard and Penn, “for discrimination involving shared ancestry,” an umbrella term that covers both Islamophobia and antisemitism.
Last week, Magill and her counterparts from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were called to testify in a hearing before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
Magill, along with Claudine Gay of Harvard University and Sally Kornbluth of MIT, gave widely criticized testimony, in which they failed to condemn calls for the genocide of Jews as explicitly against campus harassment and bullying codes.
On Friday, a bipartisan group of more than 70 members of Congress sent a letter to the boards of Penn, Harvard and MIT demanding that Magill, Gay and Kornbluth be removed.
Gay has since apologized for her remarks in an interview with the Harvard Crimson.
Magill’s exit on Saturday was followed by Scott Bok’s, who was chairman of the board of trustees at Penn. However, it’s not clear whether a domino effect of resignations will do much to assuage angry donors or address incidents of discrimination on campuses.
As tensions across college campuses have escalated in recent months, donors have threatened to withdraw their financial support from Penn and Harvard if they failed to adequately address concerns of antisemitism on their campuses.
Donors have been calling for Magill’s resignation since September, when the university allowed speakers that Penn’s administration acknowledged had a history of making antisemitic remarks to participate in the “Palestine Writes Literature Festival” on campus.
Last month, the Brandeis Center, a Jewish civil rights legal organization, filed civil rights complaints with the US Department of Education alleging Penn and Wellesley College failed to adequately respond to harassment of Jews, in violation of federal law.
Just last week, two Jewish students from Penn filed a discrimination lawsuit against the institution, alleging it “has transformed itself into incubation lab for virulent anti-Jewish hatred, harassment and discrimination.”
One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit alleged that on October 9, while walking on campus wearing garb that identified her as Jewish, including a Star of David, she walked by a group of pro-Palestine protestors.
According to the lawsuit, a protestor yelled to her, “you are a dirty Jew, don’t look at us.” Other protestors joined in, taunting Davis with: “keep walking you dirty little Jew,” “you know what you’ve done wrong,” the complaint alleges.
Another Ivy League maelstrom
Harvard has also been embroiled in tensions over alleged incidents of antisemitism in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war, and its embattled president has faced a flurry of criticism over the past two months.
On October 7, a coalition of student groups released a statement placing the blame for Hamas’ attacks on Israel’s government. The letter drew sweeping condemnation from business leaders and alumni, who called for the students whose groups signed the statement to be blacklisted. A spokesperson for the coalition later wrote in a statement that the group “staunchly opposes violence against civilians — Palestinian, Israeli, or other.”
Three days after the coalition posted its letter, Gay released a statement condemning the “terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas” and affirming that “no student group — not even 30 student groups — speaks for Harvard University or its leadership.”
In a speech at Harvard’s Jewish student organization in late October, Gay announced that she had assembled an advisory group of “faculty, staff, alumni, and religious leaders from the Jewish community” who “will help us to think expansively and concretely about all the ways that antisemitism shows up on our campus and in our campus culture.”
However, following her disastrous testimony before Congress on Tuesday, Rabbi David Wolpe, a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Divinity School, announced his resignation from the group. In a statement posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, Wolpe wrote that “the ideology that grips far too many of (Harvard’s) students and faculty, the ideology that works only along axes of oppression and places Jews as oppressors and therefore intrinsically evil, is itself evil.”
“Battling that combination of ideologies is the work of more than a committee or a single university,” he added.
CNN’s Matt Egan and Nathaniel Meyersohn contributed to this report.
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