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Penn students protest the school’s denial to show a film critical of Israel, with plans to screen anyway

University of Pennsylvania students were planning to protest Monday night after the school denied a progressive Jewish group there the right to screen a film critical of Israel on campus this week.

Students at Penn Chavurah wanted to show Israelism, which has drawn significant controversy this year, but the school cited “a potential negative response on campus” and used the word “vitriol,” according to one of the film’s producers and a student.

The university had offered to allow students to screen it in February, said senior Jack Starobin, 21, a board member and student organizer for Penn Chavurah, but he said the group planned to show it on Tuesday evening anyway — without the university’s permission.

» READ MORE: Petitioners nationwide ask Penn to defend those who speak in support of Palestinians

“It’s alarming,” said Starobin, a political science and economics major from Olney, Md. “One of the most fundamental aspects of a high-quality education is freedom of speech, freedom of expression and I feel like that freedom is being really jeopardized by this decision.”

Penn said in a statement that “the safety and well-being of the Penn community is our top priority” and that “after discussions with Penn Public Safety and University administration,” the decision was made to postpone the screening.

“We are actively working to find a date in February when the film can be viewed and discussed safely and constructively,” the university said.

Another sticky situation

The most recent showdown creates another sticky situation for the Ivy League university, already under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for its handling of antisemitism on campus and under criticism from others for not supporting its Palestinian and Muslim students and faculty in the wake of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which killed 1,200 people, and Israel’s subsequent war on Hamas, which has led to the deaths of more than 13,000 Palestinians inside Gaza.

» READ MORE: U.S. Department of Education investigates Penn, Lafayette, over antisemitism and Islamophobia allegations

The documentary, which debuted at a film festival in February, depicts the stories of “two young American Jews raised to unconditionally love Israel” until they travel to Israel and the West Bank and “witness the brutal way Israel treats Palestinians,” according to the film’s website. The film was made by two Jewish filmmakers who grew up in circumstances similar to the protagonists in their film.

The film has drawn controversy for its portrayal of Israel, and Abraham H. Foxman, former national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who is featured in the film and is a Holocaust survivor, said on X, formerly Twitter, that he regretted participating, calling it “an anti-Israel and anti-American Jewish community film.”

The film has won several prizes since its debut, including an audience award at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and best documentary at the Arizona International Film Festival.

And it has been screened on more than 20 college campuses, many of them since Oct. 7, including Oberlin, University of Akron, Claremont McKenna, Middlebury, Tufts and Notre Dame, and was scheduled to be shown at Georgetown, Ohio State University and the University of San Francisco on Monday, said Erin Axelman, co-director of the film and one of its producers. Haverford and Bryn Mawr colleges held a screening on Oct. 6, one day before the attack. Rutgers postponed a screening, but Axelman said they are finalizing a date for December. Hunter College, which initially declined the request to screen the film, has now agreed to show it following a backlash from faculty and students, Axelman said.

Several groups, including Penn Chavurah and “If Not Now Philly,” which describes itself as a group of American Jews working to end its community’s support of occupation, was organizing the 5:30 p.m. protest. In the meantime, Starobin said Penn’s Middle East Center was able to secure a room in Myerson Hall where the film will be shown Tuesday evening.

» READ MORE: Under pressure from Jewish community, Penn president unveils plan to combat antisemitism

In a meeting with a university official Monday, Starobin said he was told that if Penn Chavauh obtains a university room for the screening without explicitly stating what the room is for, it could lose its funding and status as a student group.

Penn did not respond to questions about the potential Myerson Hall viewing.

Academic freedom endangered?

The university has been roiled in controversy since the Palestine Writes literature festival was held on campus in late September, drawing criticism for allowing some speakers who have a history of making antisemitic comments.

Since Oct. 7, Penn, like other colleges across the country, has heard from Jewish students who have said they felt threatened by antisemitism; this semester, Penn has experienced several antisemitic incidents, including the drawing of a swastika inside Meyerson Hall and vandalism at Penn Hillel. Powerful donors have withdrawn financial support and called for Penn president Liz Magill and board chair Scott L. Bok’s resignation.

Meanwhile, a petition signed by more than 500 academics and writers from inside and outside the United States has called on the University of Pennsylvania to defend its students, faculty, and staff against targeted harassment for speaking in support of Palestinians.

The Penn chapter of the American Association of University Professors said Penn’s refusal to grant the student group permission to reserve a room to screen the film on campus this semester is “one more expression of our university leadership’s failure to uphold the principles of academic freedom —principles enshrined in Penn’s policies and essential to the mission of a university.

“Academic freedom entails the freedom of students to learn, and to encounter and critically examine multiple interpretations of the world… In denying students these freedoms, the university administration violates its own policies and endangers the principles of academic freedom that are essential to the research and teaching mission of a university.”

Starobin said students first sought permission to show the film on campus over the summer and had secured permission for Oct. 24. But then students, he said, decided to postpone the event given the Oct. 7 attack.

When they sought approval in late October to screen the film on Nov. 28, the university initially did not respond and then ultimately last week said it would not grant approval this semester, Starobin said.

Axelman said there has been an aggressive and “defamatory” email campaign against the film, which has been in the works since 2016. They have heard from universities hosting the screenings that they have received a large volume of emails encouraging them to ban it, Axelman said.

The film, he said, is based on his own story — he grew up in rural Maine — and many of his friends, who were given a “mythical” or “heroic” narrative about Israel, “the cornerstone of our Jewish identities.”

But, he said, more young American Jews are realizing that isn’t the whole story, and have decided they must fight antisemitism at the same time they fight against the oppression of Palestinian people, working for their freedom and rights.

The film chronicles the stories of Simone Zimmerman and Eitan (whose last name is not used), who served in the Israeli military and participated in the occupation of the West Bank.

Screenings of the film were paused for 10 days after the Oct. 7 attack, but have since resumed, Axelman said.

“Our film could play an important role in understanding the root causes of this conflict,” he said.

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