UPenn Student Government Rejects Internationally Accepted Definition of Anti-Semitism

Student leaders bow to pressure from pro-Palestinian group

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April 9, 2021

The University of Pennsylvania's student government abandoned a resolution endorsing an internationally recognized definition of anti-Semitism, bowing to pressure from pro-Palestinian campus activists who worried the measure would make it harder to criticize Israel. 

Seniors Yarden Wiesenfeld and Samuel Kim earlier this week introduced a resolution calling on university officials to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's definition of anti-Semitism. Members of the student-led Penn Against the Occupation objected to the measure, which they feared would bar students from condemning the "apartheid" state of Israel, the Daily Pennsylvanian reported.

Neither the resolution nor the proposed definition of anti-Semitism mentions Israel. The Undergraduate Assembly did not respond to a request for comment, but President Mercedes Owens told the Daily Pennsylvanian that student leaders lack the necessary authority "to define systems of inequality" at the university.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance defines anti-Semitism as "a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews." Twenty-nine countries, including the United States, have adopted the definition, as have the United Nations and several American universities.

Wiesenfeld and Kim proposed adopting the definition as a way to help students determine when criticism of Israel constitutes anti-Semitic speech, Wiesenfeld told the Washington Free Beacon.

"It is not legally binding, does not censor, and does not provide policies for how to address anti-Semitic incidents," Wiesenfeld said. "It was very disappointing that all [Undergraduate Assembly] members who spoke at the meeting took a neutral stance on the resolution, which led it to being tabled. It is never appropriate to be neutral when it comes to racism and hate speech." 

Penn Against the Occupation seeks to bring "meaningful action toward ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine," according to its website. The group says it does not tolerate anti-Semitism but denounces Israel's "settler colonialist practices" and "system of legalized racial discrimination" against Palestinians.

Wiesenfeld noted that anti-Semitism "takes many forms'' at the University of Pennsylvania. "Jewish students are the target of more subtle forms of discrimination," the senior said. "This includes the distortion or omission of historical facts about Jews by professors, disregard for religious observances when scheduling major events such as commencement, and social media posts seeking to incite violence against and silence pro-Israel students." 

Palestinian student groups across the United States have pressured student governments to adopt anti-Israel legislation. Governing bodies at several universities have passed Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions measures against Israel at the behest of a national pro-Palestinian group, Students for Justice in Palestine. Those activists have been known to bully and intimidate Jewish students on college campuses.

Wiesenfeld said she supports both Israeli and Palestinian rights to self-determination and does not support "language that frames the two beliefs as though they are in opposition to one another."

Penn Against the Occupation did not respond to a request for comment.