It was September of 2013, and Katie Hartman had nowhere to go. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, was rapidly approaching, and her family had forbidden her from returning to their New York home to celebrate.
Only weeks into her first semester as a college student, Katie’s parents insisted she stay put, get adjusted, form a community of her own. Katie, now a College senior, laughs as she remembers. “I was mad. I was so mad… I was like, you don’t want me, you don’t want me to come home, you’re the worst parents ever.”
And so the search began. “I was, like, on the hunt for Rosh Hashanah plans for the first time in my life.” She quickly found herself with at least four different services and dinners she could attend on campus.
Katie grew up Jewish, but was accustomed to attending services at a temple led by a rabbi. “And then I go to services here, and students are leading them! Students, kids the year above me, are leading full Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services!”
Over the course of the next two years, Katie would become increasingly involved in Hillel, Penn’s center for Jewish life. She currently serves as Hillel’s president.
Penn’s Jewish presence is vibrant and thriving. While Jews make up only about two percent of the United States population and 0.2 percent of the world population, Hillel International’s College Guide says that 26 percent of both Penn’s undergraduate and graduate population is Jewish.
Anti–Israel movements are commonplace on most college campuses, and show no sign of slowing. As anti–Israel rhetoric has grown on college campuses, so too has anti–Semitism. In June, the Anti–Defamation League (ADL) announced that 90 anti–Semitic incidents were reported from 60 college campuses in 2015, nearly double the 47 incidents reported from 43 campuses in 2014.
Penn’s Jewish population, however, is distinctly at odds with the ever–rising anger and violence towards both Judaism and Israel on college campuses at American universities. How did Penn evolve to become a haven for Jewish students, and why has it not succumbed to popular anti–Semitic rhetoric and action?
Penn has a long, healthy relationship with Jewish students—in distinct contrast to the contentious and exclusionary history of Jews and other minority groups on other Ivy League campuses.
A 1967 New York Times article on Ivy League Admissions said that while the Jewish population at other schools fluctuated in the mid–20th century, Penn’s Jewish population remained flat at around 40 percent. Schools like Harvard, Yale and Princeton were all accused of having quotas on Jewish students in an attempt to enforce a maximum number of Jews enrolled.
Penn had no such quotas.
Abbott Lawrence Lowell, who served as Harvard’s president from 1909 to 1933, was worried “a Jewish invasion” would drive away other students and “ruin the college,” according to the New York Times. Similarly, in 1910, journalist Edwin Emery Slosson noted the strong anti–Semitism at Princeton where he was told, “If the Jews once got in, they would ruin Princeton as they have Columbia and Pennsylvania.”
Although the quotas at other schools eventually died out, Penn’s reputation as a safe campus for Jews stuck. Today, Penn has the highest percentage of Jewish graduate students among the Ivy League, while the undergraduate population is a close second to Yale’s 27 percent. This also puts Penn 17th in percentage of Jewish students of all universities nationwide, behind schools like Yeshiva University and Brandeis University—universities that typically draw a high Jewish population. As far as total undergraduate Jewish population goes, Penn is sixth on Hillel’s list of “Top 60 Private Schools Jews Choose” with an estimated 2500 Jewish undergraduates—evening out to roughly one–fourth of the entire undergraduate population.
“When I went to college, you could fit all the Jewish students in my class in these chairs,” Richard Gelles says, pointing to the handful of metal chairs on the new plaza outside Perry World House. “And we knew who we were.”
Gelles—a sociologist who served as dean of Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice from 2003 to 2014—remembers being one of the very few Jewish students as an undergraduate at Bates College in the 1960s.
“We experienced anti–Semitism and we tried to cope with it individually and collectively as best we could,” he explains. “But that was an era when you didn’t point it out because if you pointed it out, you knew nothing was going to get done.”
While administrators today are much more responsive to concerns about anti–Semitism (and other forms of racism), it has nonetheless become a growing issue on campuses across the United States.
In July, the AMCHA Initiative (a group dedicated to tracking and preventing anti–Semitism on campuses) published a study that linked many of the outbursts of campus anti–Semitism in recent years to anti–Israel sentiment and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which urges consumers, institutions and governments to withdraw support or investment from Israeli companies.There is some disagreement as to whether anti–Israel sentiments can be conflated with anti–Semitism, but it is clear that anti–Israel activists have targeted Jewish students on their campuses.
This has been particularly true at schools in the University of California system, which has seen messages like “Zionists should be sent to the gas chamber” scrawled on the bathroom wall of a university building. A student’s nomination to UCLA student council was rejected in 2015 after the group questioned whether the student could “maintain an unbiased view” given her Jewish background.
Gelles co–authored a study released by Brandeis University on October 14 that focused on Jewish undergraduates’ experiences of anti–Semitism and anti–Israel hostility—and compared it with feelings of safety and belonging across racial, ethnic and religious identities, as well as gender and sexual orientation.
The study concluded that, “one of the strongest predictors of perceiving a hostile climate toward Israel and Jews is the presence of an active Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) group on campus.” The chair of Penn’s SJP group declined to comment on this article.
Penn, by comparison, almost seems immune to the increase of anti–Semitism on campuses.
AMCHA has not identified any examples of targeting of Jewish students at Penn or direct anti–Semitic expression since the beginning of 2015, only a few actions against Israel—including SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine) constructing a mock Israeli “Apartheid Wall” and airing an inflammatory film (The Occupation of the American Mind) during Israeli Apartheid Week.
“An anti–Semitic event or issue never bubbled up to Council of Deans or President’s Council,” explains Gelles of his time as dean.
Gelles points out that during this time he saw instances of other common campus issues such as racism, homophobia and sexual assault. “Certainly we have our outcroppings of intolerance and totally and completely inappropriate behavior, Gelles says. “But it’s not a campus that’s had swastikas.”
Nancy Baron–Baer, the Regional Director of the ADL’s Philadelphia office echoes this finding. She notes that Penn “seems to be a quiet campus when it comes to anti–Semitic behavior.”
The ADL has no reports of anti–Semitic incidents at Penn in the past few years, which Baron–Baer does consider “unusual” for a large university—though she points out that this doesn’t mean incidents haven’t occurred, just that they haven’t been reported to the ADL.
“It may be that at Penn, [Jewish] students don’t have that feeling of being marginalized,” Baron–Baer says. “They don’t feel unsafe or unsupported by the university.”
Katie agrees. “Penn has been very good to me in the past four years, and I am very, very thankful for that.”
(Katie Hartman, Hillel President)
One obvious reason for the lack of anti–Semitism on Penn’s campus is the large number of Jewish students. But it also might stem from the administration which, unlike other universities, largely avoids BDS involvement.
“When the faculty and administration are pushing BDS, it affects the entire campus culture,” Gelles notes.
Columbia professors are particularly vocal about their support of the BDS movement. In March 2016, forty faculty members signed a petition which called on Columbia to “divest from corporations that supply, perpetuate and profit from a system that has subjugated the Palestinian people,” according to Columbia Daily Spectator.
Gelles could only recall one instance of BDS being raised during his time serving on the University Council under the administration of former President Judith Rodin.
“She just shut it down. She shut it down so fast and so quickly and so decisively that it didn’t come up again in her administration and I never saw it come up any time since Amy Gutmann’s come to Penn.”
Jessica Faust, a College senior, feels that the prevalence of Judaism at Penn sometimes insulates students from the realities of rising anti–Semitism on other college campuses.
“I think that there are people who don’t necessarily, whether they’re Jewish or not, understand what anti–Semitism is as much because of how present and sometimes privileged the Jewish community seems at Penn,” Jessica notes. “And I think that those kinds of realities are still really present.”
According to the Brandeis study, 72 percent of Jewish students at Penn said they have had a conversation with a Hillel or Chabad rabbi compared to 30 percent of Christian students who said they have spoken with a chaplain or clergy person on campus. Similarly, 68 percent of Jewish students reported involvement with campus Jewish groups, compared to 33 percent of Christian students.
The study concluded that “anti–Semitism and anti–Israel sentiment have limited impact on the lives of Jewish students at Penn. Compared to other campuses issues, these concerns remain far in the background of campus life at Penn, and were rarely mentioned by students as among the most pressing issues on campus.”
Jewish life at Penn has flourished largely due to the presence of strong Jewish groups on campus. According to the study, Penn was selected in part because it was “historically the most welcoming to Jewish students of all Ivy League schools” and believed to have a relatively large Jewish undergraduate population.
The study found that 13 percent of Jewish students, and six percent of students overall reported a hostile environment towards Jews on campus, compared to the 29 percent of students who reported a hostile environment towards people of color on campus—including 54 percent of black students and 43 percent of Hispanic students.
Although 16 percent of students overall and 34 percent of Jewish students agreed that there is at least “a little” hostility towards Israel on campus, only two percent of Jewish students and ten percent of non–Jewish students express support for BDS.
Perhaps most importantly, 85 percent of Jewish students said they felt a sense of belonging at Penn—higher than any group included the study, beating heterosexual men (76 percent) and non–Jewish whites (75 percent).
That same semester that Katie found a place at Penn, Jessica was at a loss. As a freshman at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, she attended one meeting for Jewish students in a reserved classroom of the library, but found the cultural presence of Jewish life to be lacking.
“There just did not feel like a presence of Jewish life,” Jessica recalls. “Just a cultural space or presence and pride. I don’t feel like that was there.”
She lived close to campus and could travel back home for Jewish holidays, but doubted she would have celebrated at all if she had lived further away.
When she transferred to Penn her sophomore year she was surprised and appreciative to see how present Jewish life was on campus, even though she is not particularly religious.
“I just really really like that it’s just there if I want it even if I don’t get involved all the time,” Jessica says. “At Wellesley… it was something I just felt missing from my life and it felt like my Jewish identity became less and less because of it. Where at Penn, even if I’m not involved in Hillel, I feel more comfortable identifying as a Jewish person.”