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'Witch hunt': Penn faculty sue university over congressional probe into pro-Palestinian activity

Penn Faculty for Justice in Palestine seeks to stop university from complying with Congress' probe, arguing it violates academic freedom
People gather to protest the banning of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace at Columbia University in New York City, on 20 November 2023 (Michael Santiago/Getty Images via AFP)

A group of faculty members at the University of Pennsylvania is suing the university in an attempt to stop the school from complying with a request from Congress to hand over all material, teaching or otherwise, related to pro-Palestinian activity and sentiments on campus.

The proactive lawsuit is the latest legal saga unfolding at universities in the US, which since 7 October have seen a crackdown on speech related to Palestine. It also comes after the presidents of Penn, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) were called in for a contentious congressional briefing in December over the large number of pro-Palestine rallies taking place on campus.

Since that hearing - in which the protests were characterised by unchecked claims of being sympathetic to Hamas and calling for violence against Jews - the presidents of both Harvard and Penn have resigned.

In January, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce issued a series of letters to Harvard, Columbia, MIT and Penn requesting they provide the committee with documents related to the schools' "response to antisemitism on its campus".

"The Committee is engaged in a partisan witch hunt by seeking syllabi, academic papers, and other material from Penn faculty of all ranks, with the search highlighting keywords like Jew, Israel, antisemitism, Palestine, Gaza, resistance, settler colonialism and diversity, equity and inclusion, to name most of their criteria," the Penn Faculty for Justice in Palestine (PFJP), a group of faculty, staff and graduate students, said in a statement shared with Middle East Eye.

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Then in February, the committee issued a subpoena against Harvard, accusing it of not complying with its request, marking the first time the committee has subpoenaed a university since the congressional committee was created in 1867.

'The Committee is engaged in a partisan witch hunt'

- Penn Faculty for Justice in Palestine

The legal complaint was filed last Friday by the PFJP and seeks an injunction that would bar Penn from sharing the information with Congress, which the lawsuit states includes "student information by Penn deemed confidential" under federal law.

"Penn's compliance with the Committee's letter threatens the privacy, safety, academic freedom and careers of the individual plaintiffs and of many other members of the Penn Faculty for Justice in Palestine," reads the lawsuit, which was seen by Middle East Eye.

MEE reached out to the university for comment on the lawsuit but did not receive a response by the deadline given to the university.

Doxing students, faculty, staff

The war in Gaza began on 7 October, when Hamas led a surprise attack on southern Israel, killing around 1,200 people and taking at least 240 hostages back to the besieged enclave. In response, Israel declared war, launching a full-scale military operation that began with a devastating and indiscriminate bombing campaign followed by a ground invasion of Gaza.

So far, Israeli forces have killed more than 31,000 Palestinians, laid siege to and attacked hospitals, targeted other civilian infrastructure, including schools and mosques, and attacked medical workers.

While the Biden administration has fully backed Israel's war efforts, demonstrations calling for an end to both the war and Israel's occupation of Palestine erupted across the US, particularly at universities that have become a focal point for organising in support of Palestine.

However, the response at many universities has been to crack down on these rallies, including in Florida where the group Students for Justice in Palestine has been banned. Similarly, late last year, Columbia University moved to ban the two groups SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP).

“After October 7th, our protesting the beginning of Israel’s retaliation against Gaza were met with the doxing of many of us - students, postdocs, staff and faculty - and little if any statements on the part of the administration to support our right to free speech," Eve Troutt Powell, a history professor at Penn and plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in a statement shared with Middle East Eye.

"As the monstrous onslaught of Israel’s instrumentalist attacks continue to kill thousands and thousands of Gazans, we have continued to confront not only our despair but also being demonised as antisemites while Palestinian lives are discounted as half as valuable as Israeli lives."

Freedom of speech

The PFJP also accuses the House committee of using the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism in its probe on US campuses.

The IHRA is a controversial definition of antisemitism in that it equates criticism of the state of Israel with antisemitism.

Progressive Jewish groups have in the past criticised the definition and the attempts to codify it into US law, arguing that doing so could hinder free speech.

According to the lawsuit, the congressional committee's request for documents from Penn also includes material surrounding the Palestine Writes literature festival held on campus grounds in September 2023.

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The festival witnessed the gathering of Palestinian writers from all around the world, including Gaza, and held panels discussing Palestinian literature and culture.

The festival also received a series of last-minute attacks from pro-Israel and Zionist groups.

Huda Fakhreddine, a professor at Penn and another plaintiff in the lawsuit, said that the past few months since the literature festival and the war in Gaza have shown the limits of respect to free speech on university campuses in the US.

“We live, teach and study in a country that values the freedom of expression - or so we thought," Fakhreddine said.

When the university hosted the literature festival, the professor said "the reaction of wealthy donors and trustees and the petition of 4,000 alumni against the festival caught Penn by surprise, so much so that the university failed to acknowledge how the onslaught of anti-intellectual anger endangered the festival organisers and its mission as a university".

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