Teenager from Jackson sues Ivy League institution over antisemitism

College freshman Jordan Davis, the daughter of a former Jackson town attorney, alleges the University of Pennsylvania has become an ‘incubation lab' for antisemitism.
Locust Walk on the University of Pennsylvania campus. Freshman Jordan Davis said it used be a friendly place for Jewish students and inspired her to attend the university (Chris Rycroft/ CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Jordan Davis said she chose to attend the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) because of the academics and networking opportunities. She also said she saw it as a chance to be part of a larger Jewish community.

“I was raised Jewish, and Jackson has a relatively small Jewish population,” Davis said. 

She said she and her mom visited the Philadelphia campus in the spring, calling it a great experience. 

“We were walking down Locust Walk, which is the main walk down the campus,” Davis said. “It was right before Shabbat, and they were handing out a bunch of challah. They had all of these cool things going on, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is totally where I want to be.’’’


“[Penn] is s a phenomenal institution,” said Jordan Davis who is suing the university over antisemitism on campus. “I’ve had great experiences with my academics there. I’ve had phenomenal professors and I’ve met amazing people there. I just hope to see some internal changes when I return.” (courtesy photo)

But just a few months later, during her first semester at school, Jordan said she experienced what she called “overt antisemitism,” had ethnic slurs yelled at her and ultimately felt unsafe on campus. 

She and another student have filed a complaint against the university alleging it has “transformed itself into an incubation lab for virulent anti-Jewish hatred, harassment, and discrimination.”

The lawsuit comes amid multiple complaints about rising antisemitism at Penn and universities across the country.

The students are seeking unspecified damages, but Davis said her aim is to help the campus community feel more supported and safe at Penn. 

“It’s really not okay for students to be walking around worried about what’s going on around them, ” Davis said. “To me, that is unacceptable.” 

A rise in campus antisemitism

A Penn spokesperson said they don’t comment on pending litigation, but they are aware of the complaint and haven’t had an opportunity to review it. 

The lawsuit, filed by senior Eyal Yakoby and Davis, seeks to hold Penn accountable under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for “the damages it has caused plaintiffs and for its failure to remedy the hostile environment on its campus.”

“Once welcoming to Jewish students, Penn now subjects them to a pervasively hostile educational environment,” the complaint reads. “Among other things, Penn enforces its own rules of conduct selectively to avoid protecting Jewish students from hatred and harassment, hires rabidly antisemitic professors who call for anti-Jewish violence and spread terrorist propaganda, and ignores Jewish students’ pleas for protection. In doing so, Penn has placed plaintiffs and other Jewish and Israeli students at severe emotional and physical risk.”

The lawsuit comes on the heels of multiple claims of antisemitism at Penn.

The lawsuit from freshman Jordan Davis and a senior student comes amid multiple complaints about rising antisemitism at Penn and universities across the country.

University President Liz Magill recently came under fire after testifying before Congress during a hearing about on-campus antisemitism at Harvard, MIT and Penn. She did not give direct “yes” or “no” answers when asked if calls for Jewish genocide violated school policies.

Magill and other Penn leadership resigned following the hearing amid intense pressure from donors and politicians over allegations of antisemitism.  

At the center of concerns over antisemitism at universities are a continued debate over what is protected free speech versus hate speech. 

“At the end of the day, if you are saying that it is okay for another human being to die, that is just inappropriate because, that in and of itself is saying that you’re okay with somebody inciting violence on another,” Davis said. “To me, that is a threat.” 

A recent report from the Anti-Defamation League and Hillel International found that 73% of Jewish college students reported antisemitism on campus this school year

Officials at the Department of Homeland security reports that both antisemitic and anti-Muslim threats continue to grow on college campuses across the U.S.

Mary Grossman, executive director of the Jackson Hole Jewish Community, said she has known Davis most of her life and that antisemitism on campuses has been brewing in recent years. 

“An ideology that has been taking over college campuses, which is in the name of social justice, DEI and diversity and inclusivity, has really fallen apart because of its hyper racialized but binary way of thinking,” Grossman said. “The Jews have fallen through the cracks.” 

From Jackson to Philadelphia

Davis was born in Arizona but raised in Jackson. Her mother, Attorney Audrey Cohen-Davis was the head of Jackson’s legal department for more than a decade.

Jordan Davis said she loved growing up in Jackson because of the access to the outdoors and sports. She played soccer and ice hockey, and said she always felt safe.

“I was raised Jewish, and Jackson has a relatively small Jewish population,” Jordan Davis said. (courtesy photo)

“It’s a wonderful place to grow up,” Davis said. “My parents didn’t have to worry if I was going over to a friend’s house at 9 p.m. at night. They didn’t worry if I was walking around the town square with some friends.”

Davis said her first semester at Penn started well, but soon after it began, a Jewish community center was vandalized and a swastika was discovered on a school building. 

“That was very shocking because I had never been in a situation like that,” Davis said. “I personally did not feel any support from the school.”

Penn administrators condemned the vandalism and swastika and promised to increase security.

“We unequivocally condemn such hateful acts,” read a letter to the school community from top Penn administrators. “They are an assault on our values and mission as an institution and have no place at Penn. Sadly, incidents of hatred, including antisemitic rhetoric and acts that denigrate Jewish people, have become all too common.”

The statement from Penn also acknowledged that antisemitic incidents occurred around the same time as campus visits by “controversial speakers.” 

The Palestine Writes Literature Festival, which took place in September, was a multi-day event that featured Palestinian writers, filmmakers and artists, but was not organized by the university. Community members and some University Board of Trustees members expressed concerns that some of the speakers had allegedly made antisemitic comments in the past. Festival organizers and attendees rejected those allegations.

Davis said she felt support during this time from rabbis at school and other Jewish students, “but the school took way too long to respond to it until it felt like they had to.” 

In the wake of the Israel-Hamas War, Davis alleges in the complaint that anti-Jewish sentiment became “turbocharged” on campus.

She said she was walking to class one day when there was a pro-Palestine rally happening.

“These three men who had their face covered started yelling at me like, ‘You dirty little Jew, you deserve to die. You don’t deserve to be on the same earth that we stand on,’” Davis said. “I immediately ran, I literally booked it out of there. And it was utterly terrifying for me, especially because I had never had someone speak to me that way, but also just for the fact that I was so taken off guard.” 

Davis said she cried for hours about the incident, but didn’t feel like she could go to school with a formal complaint, so she filed one anonymously. 

“That was because with their lack of response prior to October 7th,” Davis said. “I didn’t have full faith in their abilities to respond.”

Fostering changes

Grossman, with the Jackson Hole Jewish Community, said her son has also recently experienced antisemitism at college. She said he attends the Israel Conservatory of Music Program at the New School in New York, and was recently surrounded by thousands of protesters during class. 

“He has a video of it from his rehearsal room surrounding the Performing Arts Center,” Grossman said. “They brought in a billboard truck out in front of the performing arts Center with pictures of dead Palestinian babies and said the new school is committing genocide with this program.”

Grossman said she’s proud of Davis for filing the suit against Penn. 

“I’m all for protesting — that is great. But it so quickly crosses the line into action and conduct where they’re chasing kids down the school,” Grossman said. “They’re keeping students from attending classes. They’re intimidating and dominating discourse. And every aspect of your life from speech to your ability to work, your ability to go to school. It’s just getting out of control. And Jewish students are the target.” 

Davis isn’t saying how she linked up with Yakoby, the other plaintiff in the lawsuit against Penn. 

“I can’t get into some aspects, but basically both of us had experienced verbal violence coming towards us because of our ideology,” Davis said. “We came together and are hoping to have a positive outcome not just for the Jewish community but for all students.” 

Davis said she’s looking forward to returning to Penn in the spring, despite the lawsuit. 

“It’s a phenomenal institution,” Davis said. “I’ve had great experiences with my academics there. I’ve had phenomenal professors and I’ve met amazing people there. I just hope to see some internal changes when I return.” 

Davis said she plans to take more advanced science courses in the spring so she can pursue medicine after Penn. And she’s hopeful that civil discourse around conflict in the Middle East can improve, not just at Penn but around the country. 

“I really believe that there is a way to be pro-Palestinian without being anti-Semitic, and there’s a way to be pro pro-Israel without being Islamophobic,” Davis said. “That is a key thing that is missed, because I have friends on both sides. And if you think about it, both sides at the end of the day want the same thing. They want a place to call home. They want peace. They want happiness.” 

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About Tyler Pratt

Tyler has over a decade of experience as a jack-of-all-trades at public radio newsrooms across the U.S. He's a Columbia Journalism School alum with a passion for reporting on criminal justice, social justice, and LGBTQ+ issues. He loves New Orleans Saints football, dance floors, tasting new wines and trying out taco spots. Follow Tyler on Twitter @prattattak

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