“Obscene Festival of Hate”: Open Letter to University of Pennsylvania President

As a recipient of federal funds, UPenn is also bound by its obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, including prevention of hostile and discriminatory environments for students.
September 18, 2023
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Professor Liz Magill
President, University of Pennsylvania

Dear President Magill,

We write this letter to you on behalf of The International Legal Forum (ILF), an NGO and global network of over 4,000 lawyers and activists, including in the United States, committed to combating antisemitism and terror, and promoting peace in the Middle East.

We wish to convey our grave concern at the upcoming ‘Palestine Writes’ festival to be held at UPenn on 22-24th September, featuring speakers which have expressed highly inflammatory, racist and antisemitic views, as well as connections to US-designated terror groups and calls for the destruction of Israel.

The fact that this event is also happening during Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, is inexcusable, and only adds further offense and insult to the Jewish community.

Whilst we firmly believe in literature and culture as a form of expression, this event is not a celebration of art, but a festival of unhinged hate, bigotry and incitement against Jews. It is simply inconceivable that a university of UPenn’s stature, or any higher academic institution for that matter, would provide a platform for such unvarnished and blatant display of hatred, which would never be tolerated against any other minority, and nor should it be accepted with respect to Jewish students.

Some of the speakers scheduled to participate at the event for example, include the likes of Roger Waters, who has repeatedly engaged in antisemitism, including making such mendacious and racist claims about the “the Jewish lobby”. Mr. Waters is now being investigated by the German police, over engaging in Holocaust distortion, while wearing a mock-SS uniform during a recent series of concerts in the country. The US State Department has even said that Waters has “a long track record of using antisemitic tropes to denigrate Jewish people.”

Another speaker, Randa Abdel-Fattah, has previously claimed that “Israel is a demonic, sick project and I can’t way for the day we commemorate its end.”

Marc Lamont-Hill, also speaking at the festival, was previously fired by CNN, after calling for Israel’s destruction. He has also previously said that calls for Palestinians to “reject hatred and terrorism” was “offensive and counterproductive.” Meantime, Wisam Rafeedie, another speaker at the event, is a convicted member of US-designated terror group PFLP.

Susan Abulhawa, the executive director of ‘Palestine Writes’, has also previously expressed support for US-designated Palestinian terror groups Hamas, Islamic Jihad and PFLP, describing their terrorist actions, including those which have resulted in the murder of American citizens, as “self-defence by resistance groups”, while comparing Israel to Nazis and calling for a boycott of the Jewish state.

Is there truly no limit to the kind of unbridled Jew hatred and outright calls for incitement and display for terror, that will be directed at Jewish students and community on campus today, all in the purported name of ‘free speech’?

Whilst we acknowledge the statement released this week by UPenn leadership, including yourself, noting that some of the speakers at the event have a “troubling history of engaging in antisemitism by speaking and acting in ways that denigrate Jewish people”, with all due respect, the university’s statement and refusal to act in any meaningful manner, is woefully insufficient, flies in the face of the university’s legal obligations, and quite frankly, is utterly offensive to the Jewish community.

The fact that this public event is not organized by the university, as you claim, is besides the point. It is being held on university grounds, and is being sponsored, in part, by the University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Sciences. There is no affirmative obligation upon the university to agree to hold such an event on your grounds, let alone sponsor it, especially when the university has a record of cancelling events in the past, following concerns raised by the student community, however, yet again, the concerns of the Jewish students and community here are being completely dismissed and ignored.

As Member of Congress and UPenn alumnus, Rep. Josh Gottheimer, wrote to you in a recent letter of 10th September, 2023, “While policy discussions and differing views are a welcome and critical part of building cultural understanding, they cannot provide a bully pulpit for those who seek to divide others. If the University’s goal is to promote mutual understanding and bring students together, it will fail so long as antisemites and anti-Israel advocates are given a platform to spew hatred.”

With antisemitism in the United States, including at universities, already at record high, events such as the upcoming ‘Palestine Writes’ festival, only exacerbate the already hostile environment faced by Jewish students, fanning the flames of Jew hatred and potentially leading to antisemitic harassment and violence on campus. We understand that these concerns have also been expressed to you directly by Jewish students at the university and the local Jewish community.

We further wish to draw your attention to the fact that, as a recipient of federal funds, UPenn is also bound by its obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, including prevention of hostile and discriminatory environments for students, such as one that will inevitably be created as a result of this event.

If the organizers of the event wish to conduct this obscene festival of hate, they should not be afforded the privilege of doing so on university grounds, and sponsored by the university itself. Doing so would be not only a gross affront to the Jewish students and community on campus, it would also run contrary to UPenn’s mission of inclusion, respect and diversity, and be in breach of your federal legal obligations under the Civil Rights Act.

Accordingly, we call on the university to immediately:

  1. Disinvite the extremist, antisemitic and terror affiliated speakers above, from participating at the event;
  2. Revoke any official university sponsorship from the festival; and
  3. Rescind the approval to hold the event on campus grounds.

We also urge the university to formally adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, to guide you in identifying, calling out and investigating instances of antisemitism and harassment of Jewish students on your campus, as testament to your commitment to combating anti-Jewish hatred and discrimination.

With antisemitism, incitement and violence against Jewish students on campus already at record high, there can be zero tolerance for such unchecked hate.

We await your urgent response.

Yours sincerely,

Arsen Ostrovsky
Attorney & CEO, The International Legal Forum                  

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