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UPenn Under Fire for Hosting “Palestine Writes Literature Festival”

The University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) is currently facing some serious criticism for hosting the “Palestine Writes Literature Festival” on September 22-24 featuring anti-Israel speakers such as former Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters and academic Marc Lamont Hill.
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September 15, 2023
University of Pennsylvania (Jon Lovette/Getty Images)

The University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) is currently facing some serious criticism for hosting the “Palestine Writes Literature Festival” on September 22-24 featuring anti-Israel speakers such as former Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters and academic Marc Lamont Hill.

According to The Daily Pennsylvanian (DP), the festival is also being sponsored by and partnering with various UPenn departments, such as the Department of Cinema and Media Studies and Kelly Writers House. The DP also reported that 15 students from various Jewish student groups at Penn had written a letter to the university that “while we appreciate the learning opportunity that can come from Palestinian literature, we are concerned that the students will be exposed to anti-Jewish propaganda, harm Jewish students who take Arabic, and open the Jewish community at Penn to discrimination.” They also said they were concerned about speakers invited, including Waters and Hill.

The festival has now received national attention. Representative Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), an alumnus of UPenn, expressed concern in a September 13 letter to the university that the festival is hosting “known antisemites” such as Waters and Hill, noting that Waters is a staunch supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, has referred to Israel as an apartheid state and earlier in the year held a concert in Germany featuring “egregious anti-Israel sentiment and flaunted blatant antisemitic imagery.” “The singer dressed up in a uniform resembling the SS, the paramilitary arm that provided security to the Nazis, and compared the murder of Anne Frank to the killing of Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh,” Gottheimer wrote. “Images of pigs conducting shady business dealings were displayed on-screen — a clear antisemitic dog whistle. In previous shows, including others in Germany, Waters’ trademark inflatable pigs flew above concertgoers emblazoned with Stars of David and the logo for Elbit Systems, an Israeli company.”

As for Hill, Gottheimer noted that Hill was fired from CNN in 2018 after calling for a “free Palestine ‘from the river to the sea,’ words universally understood to signal destruction of the State of Israel. Hill never adequately apologized for these remarks, and has since endorsed the antisemitic BDS movement.” Hill pushed back against Gottheimer’s comments of him, writing in a thread on X, formerly known as Twitter: “You say ‘River to the Sea’ is ‘universally’ understood to mean the destruction of the Jewish State? On what basis do you make this claim? Did it signify destruction when it was the slogan of the Likud Party? Or when currently used by the Israeli Right? Or even liberal Zionists?” He added: “But let me be clear regarding my stances: I support Palestinian freedom and self-determination. I oppose antisemitism in all forms. These are not competing claims.”

Gottheimer concluded his letter to UPenn by urging the university to disinvite Waters and Hill. “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,” the New Jersey congressman wrote. “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.”

Waters and Hill may be the most well-known of the more than 100 speakers slated to speak at the festival, but some have expressed concerns about other speakers at the conference as well. CAMERA on Campus issued a statement noting that “a comprehensive report, meticulously compiled by members of the Jewish community, documents the antisemitic rhetoric and numerous ties to internationally recognized terror groups associated with” myriad festival speakers. One such speaker is Wisam Rafeedie, who the report says is “a self-admitted PFLP militant.” Another is Salman Abu Sitta; according to the report, Abu Sitta has stated that “Zionism’s investment in Nazi crimes aims to justify its crimes in Palestine before and after Nazism.” The report also states that the festival’s executive director, Susan Abulhawa, has accused Israel of perpetuating “a dozen Kristallnachts” and called Israel “a nation of colonizing terrorist, thugs, thieves, and murderers.” Additionally, a key sponsor of an Australian literary festival revoked their support for the festival in March due to concerns of “racist or anti-Semitic commentary” as a result of Abulhawa and Mohammed El-Kurd’s participation in the literary festival.

CAMERA on Campus urged, the university, Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro (D) and others to “thoroughly review and seriously consider whether providing a platform to individuals who openly profess hatred of Jews and the State of Israel—the world’s only Jewish state—aligns with their values and the academic mission of the University of Pennsylvania.”

Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement to Jewish Insider (JI), “In a moment when antisemitism has reached an indisputably historic level, it is mind-boggling to think that University of Pennsylvania is hosting this event. If this were a conference to explore and celebrate Palestinian literature, none of us would object. However, it is not. It is a gathering of anti-Israel and anti-Zionist activists, some of whom have a long history of antisemitic statements and comments.” He added: “That this is happening during the High Holidays, the holiest time of the Jewish calendar, makes this even more insulting. Shame on Penn.”

Magill, along with Provost John L. Jackson, Jr. and School of Arts and Sciences Dean Steven J. Flaherty, issued a statement on Tuesday explaining that the festival “is not organized by the University. As is routine in universities, individual faculty, departments and centers, and student organizations are engaged as sponsors, speakers and volunteers at this conference intended to highlight the importance and cultural impact of Palestinian writers and artists.” “While the Festival will feature more than 100 speakers, many have raised deep concerns about several speakers who have a documented and troubling history of engaging in antisemitism by speaking and acting in ways that denigrate Jewish people,” Magill, Jackson, Jr., and Flaherty said. “We unequivocally — and emphatically — condemn antisemitism as antithetical to our institutional values. As a university, we also fiercely support the free exchange of ideas as central to our educational mission. This includes the expression of views that are controversial and even those that are incompatible with our institutional values.”

Eitan Weinstein, co-president of Penn Hillel and a student at the university, told the DP that he thought the university’s statement was “really meaningful” because “there are certain elements of [the festival] that the University recognizes, that the Jewish community recognizes, are problematic, and I appreciate the University taking a stand on that.” He added that based on a meeting he had with university officials earlier in the week, he believes “that the University really is taking this seriously.”

The American Jewish Committee also lauded the university’s statement. “We commend President Magill for asserting that antisemitism contradicts the core values of @Penn. While we echo concerns about some of the speakers at the Palestine Writes Festival, we appreciate Penn’s commitment to listening to Jewish students. The courageous Jewish students who spoke up to administrators about antisemitic speakers deserve praise. Universities are spaces for difficult conversations like these. We are proud to have supported these students in engaging university leaders and the wider Penn community.”

Others were more critical of the university’s response. International Legal Forum CEO Arsen Ostrovsky wrote in a letter to the university obtained by the Journal that UPenn’s response was “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,” Ostrovsky wrote. “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.” Ostrovsky argued that because UPenn, a private institution, receives federal funds; therefore, holding the event on campus is “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.”

Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) National President Morton A. Klein and Director of Research and Special Projects Elizabeth Berney issued an open letter to the university on Thursday saying that the “ZOA may have a moral obligation to file a complaint under Title VI [of the Civil Rights Act] if this conference takes place.” Klein and Berney argued that the complaint could be necessary because “it is not conceivable that you can ensure the safety and security of Jewish and other students on this campus due to this conference.” Further, Klein and Berney wrote that the university’s Tuesday statement “grossly downplays” the concerns voiced by the Jewish community over the event, as “many of the Palestine Writes organizers and speakers spread anti-Jewish libels and hate; support, honor, incite and celebrate terrorists and the Intifada terror wars against Jews.” Klein and Berney also pointed out one of the sessions teaches attendees about “Palestinian styles… that emerged during The First Intifada”; another program teaches children to play “Palestine Monopoly,” where “Israeli sites, including Jerusalem’s Old City [Jewish Quarter] in the ‘State of Palestine,’ to send children a message that Israel should be erased,” Klein and Berney added.

“There is not even one session or speaker calling for peaceful coexistence with Israel,” they wrote. “Instead there is session after session lauding terrorists and terror-inciting topics. ”Klein and Berney concluded that the festival poses “a danger to the University of Pennsylvania, especially the Jewish community.”

Stop Antisemitism posted on X, “Penn comes out with a statement condemning antisemitism but allowing it to fester on their campus under the guise of ‘academic freedom’. This statement does one thing and one thing only – green light Jew hatred. Pathetic.”

When asked by the Journal to respond to criticisms of their statement, a spokesperson from UPenn simply reiterated the university’s statement from Tuesday.

Abulhawa said in a statement to the Journal, “Palestinians form an ancient and storied society that is deeply rooted in the land through documented continuous habitation of that patch of earth between the Mediterranean and Jordan waters. We have a glorious and rich heritage that is either being erased or appropriated by a 20th century colonial enterprise that has worked overtime to denigrate us where they cannot fully erase us.  Battered, colonized, exiled, dispossessed, humiliated, and thwarted at every turn, we remain unbroken, defiant, and steadfast in our resolve to liberate ourselves and redeem the history that our ancestors forged and bequeathed to us over millennia.  The weaponization of antisemitism to silence or marginalize us has been an effective tool by those who have taken everything from us, shattered our families and country, killed and maimed and traumatized and terrorized us, and carved out our hearts. It is galling that they harass us even here as we try to have a moment of togetherness and agency, putting forth a mind blowing narrative that we are victimizing our colonizers.” She added that the festival “is about us, about our stories and culture that predate Israel by a few millennia.  So Israel is not relevant for most of the content.  But part of our story is resistance to our colonizers, for which we make no apologies, and which will surely be represented at the festival.”

Abulhawa claimed that none of the festival speakers are antisemitic. “As a historically pluralistic society that endured for centuries as multi-religious, multi-ethnic, and multi-racial, we know well the difference between our ancestors (who belonged to all faiths and converted between religions), and those who are seeking to destroy or appropriate their memory,” she said. “We know the difference between Judaism and Zionism; Jews and Zionists. These are not synonymous terms, and suggestions otherwise are cynical ploys deployed by those who have no convincing argument against Israel’s systematic and ongoing destruction, theft, and colonization of Palestine and her people. This festival is a minimal recognition of the humanity of a deeply denigrated and marginalized people.  It’s disappointing, though unsurprising, that the university could not muster the courage to defend an indigenous people’s moral and necessary struggle against Israeli colonial fascism.”

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