(JTA) — After Oct. 7, Michael Kahana joined hundreds of his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania in signing an open letter condemning Hamas and expressing support for Israel and its right to self defense. But the psychology professor wanted to do more.
So Kahana sent an email to the 340 signatories on the letter, which came amid scathing criticism of Penn’s response to Hamas’ attack on Israel, and invited them on a trip.
This week, the 39 Penn professors who took Kahana up on the invitation spent three days traveling in Israel, in the first solidarity visit by faculty members of an Ivy League school since the outbreak of the war on Oct. 7 and the congressional hearing on campus antisemitism that led directly to the resignation of Penn’s president.
Many but not all of the professors on the trip were Jewish, and some were visiting Israel for the first time. During their 66-hour visit, they met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog and families of hostages including Rachel Goldberg, the Israeli-American mother of Hersh Goldberg-Polin who has emerged as a stalwart voice advocating for the more than 130 people still held by Hamas in Gaza. In what has become a new rite of passage for visitors to Israel, they also visited devastated Gaza border communities where they heard accounts from survivors and first responders, according to a statement released by the mission’s tour operator, Israel Destination.
A significant focus of the mission was meeting with academic colleagues from major Israeli institutions, the statement said, including the Hebrew University, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Tel Aviv University, to allow for “deeper mutual understanding of the challenges posed to academia by war and conflict on one side, and antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiments on the other.” The delegation also met with Penn alumni living in Israel and heard from Israeli officials, including Amir Yaron, the governor of the Bank of Israel who previously was a professor at Penn’s Wharton School of Business, during a banquet at Tel Aviv’s ANU Museum.
“I was truly surprised to see how much our visit meant to our Israeli colleagues and by my own overwhelming emotional response to hearing from Israelis firsthand,” cinema and media studies professor Peter Decherney, who worked with Kahana to organize the trip, said in the statement.
The delegation took place amid a backdrop of tension at Penn, which was already embroiled in an antisemitism controversy surrounding a Palestinian writers conference on campus when Hamas attacked Israel. President Liz Magill resigned in December shortly after being called to testify before Congress about campus antisemitism — and refraining from saying that calling for the genocide of Jews was a violation of the university’s code of conduct. (Penn’s board president also resigned and has been replaced temporarily by Julie Platt, who also chairs Jewish Federations of North America.)
While the group was in Israel, a second college president who took the same stance during the congressional hearing stepped down. Harvard University’s Claudine Gay also faced allegations of plagiarism that emerged as her critics took aim following the university’s initial response to Hamas’ attack.
Kahana pointed to the global academic community’s failure to express support to Israeli academics after Oct. 7.
“Academic communities are incredibly small, tight-knit families that span the globe,” Kahana said, according to the statement. “When the horrific trauma of October 7 struck the Israeli academic community, people awaited words of comfort from their close colleagues and friends, but for many, those words did not come.”
Kahana and Decherney barely knew each other prior to organizing the trip, even though they have worked on the same campus for years. In fact, many of the Penn professors, from varied disciplines like statistics, film, and orthopedics, had never met before the mission.
Now, the professors are “returning home with a greater understanding of how the U.S. academic community can support their Israeli colleagues during this traumatic time, and with renewed vigor to withstand the antisemitism and anti-Israel feelings prevalent on campus,” the statement said.
Decherney expressed his hope that the visit would “inspire more university communities to move past divisive cultures and come themselves.”
According to Yair Jablinowitz from Israel Destination, which specializes in educational tourism, since the Penn mission became public, the tour operator has received dozens of inquiries into similar visits from representatives at other universities, including Harvard, Columbia, Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — many of which are, like Penn, facing federal Department of Education investigations over their handling of antisemitism complaints.
“There is definitely now a drive to go on these types of delegations,” he told JTA. “The Penn delegation had an influence not only on the academic world in Israel and the people of Israel that they met, but also on Ivy League schools throughout North America.”