poison pens

UPenn to host festival featuring speakers calling for the destruction of Israel

University administrators attempted to distance themselves from the event, saying they have 'deep concerns about several speakers who have a documented and troubling history of engaging in antisemitism'

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Roger Waters performs on stage at The O2 Arena during the 'This is Not A Drill' tour, on June 06, 2023 in London, England.

The University of Pennsylvania is facing backlash from a growing number of Jewish leaders, trustees and alumni for hosting a Palestinian cultural festival next week featuring several controversial figures who have espoused antisemitic rhetoric and called for the destruction of Israel.

The Palestine Writes Literature Festival, which is scheduled to take place Sept. 22-24 on UPenn’s campus in Philadelphia, describes itself as “the only North American literature festival dedicated to celebrating and promoting cultural productions of Palestinian writers and artists,” according to its website

But the event has drawn mounting scrutiny in recent weeks as university officials resisted multiple private letters from local Jewish groups exhorting UPenn to publicly distance itself from the festival and take additional steps to ensure that Jewish students can seek support during the three-day conference, which overlaps with Yom Kippur. 

Among the most prominent speakers is Roger Waters, the Pink Floyd co-founder and outspoken anti-Israel activist who has compared the Jewish state to the Third Reich and recently wore a Nazi-style uniform while performing onstage in Berlin. In response to the May concert, the State Department said Waters’ performance had “minimized the Holocaust” and accused him of “a long track record of using antisemitic tropes to denigrate Jewish people.”

The festival will also include Marc Lamont Hill, a former CNN commentator who was dismissed from the network in 2018 after he advocated for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea,” a formulation that is widely interpreted as a call for Israel’s elimination as a Jewish state; Noura Erakat, a Rutgers University professor who has suggested that Zionism is a “bedfellow” to Nazism; and Randa Abdel-Fattah, an Australian writer who recently called Israel “a demonic, sick project” and said she “can’t wait for the day we commemorate its end.”

“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,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a sharply worded statement to Jewish Insider on Tuesday. “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.”

Greenblatt said it was “unfathomable why” some university departments had agreed to sponsor the event and “unthinkable that Penn would sponsor a similar gathering featuring speakers spewing hate against other minority groups,” adding: “That this is happening during the High Holidays, the holiest time of the Jewish calendar, makes this even more insulting. Shame on Penn.”

With just over a week until the festival begins, the university is now seeking to quell the uproar as administration officials have continued to field private correspondence from Jewish groups and trustees expressing unease over some of the event’s more problematic participants.

In a joint statement on Tuesday led by university president Elizabeth Magill, the administration emphasized that the festival “is not organized by the university,” while acknowledging “deep concerns about several speakers who have a documented and troubling history of engaging in antisemitism.”

“We unequivocally — and emphatically — condemn antisemitism as antithetical to our institutional values,” Magill wrote with Provost Jonathan L. Jackson, Jr. and Steven J. Fluharty, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. The officials declined to interfere in the event, stressing that “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.”

In a private email to a prominent UPenn trustee sent on Tuesday and obtained by JI, Magill said she had first been informed of the event and its participants in late August when she received a joint letter from the ADL’s Philadelphia chapter and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

“In recent days, we have taken a series of actions,” she wrote, noting that Fluharty had replied to the letter on Aug. 30 and “reaffirmed Penn’s longstanding commitment to standing up to antisemitism.” Moreover, Magill said the administration had “coordinated a meeting between” student representatives from Penn Hillel and university leadership, adding that the school’s department of public safety “is also engaged to ensure we are taking any necessary safety precautions.”

Speaking to the trustee, Magill assessed some of the event’s speakers as “deeply offensive” and “misaligned with the festival’s stated purpose.” But she reiterated that UPenn “has a responsibility to foster open dialogue and cultural diversity on campus,” even as the university has taken more forceful steps in responding to other controversial figures in recent years. 

The ADL’s Philadelphia chapter and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia had been privately urging administration officials to publicly condemn the Palestine Writes festival for nearly a month before the university issued its statement this week, according to Jason Holtzman, who leads the federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council.

The nonprofit advocacy groups sent three letters to the university beginning in mid-August, at first alerting administration officials to the event and requesting a public response, Holtzman said. After two weeks without hearing from the administration, the groups sent another letter on Aug. 28, pressuring the university to take further steps such as formally endorsing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism and creating a task force to combat anti-Jewish prejudice on campus, according to the letter, which was shared with JI. 

Following Fluharty’s outreach, Holtzman said, the groups sent a final letter exhorting the administration to issue a public statement addressing the festival, which was finally released on Tuesday.

Despite the delay, Holtzman said he was “pleased” the university had “recognized that there are several very problematic speakers.” Still, he expressed frustration that the administration had ignored the other requests and said he would continue to advocate for the university to embrace additional protocols for countering anti-Jewish bigotry on campus.

“Moving forward, I’m hoping that Penn will be proactive in addressing antisemitism, specifically around this conference,” Holtzman told JI. “Not many Jewish students will be able to go to the conference and engage with it with any level of human dignity.”

The university did not immediately respond to a request for comment from JI on Wednesday evening. 

Other critics remain dissatisfied with the university’s response. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), a UPenn alumnus, has continued to call on Magill to disinvite some speakers after sending a private letter to the university president on Sunday. In his note, the congressman cited two figures in particular, Waters and Hill, who was recently hired as a professor of urban education at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. The public university system has also drawn criticism for its handling of antisemitic incidents in recent months.

“As we begin the fall semester,” Gottheimer wrote in his letter, which he posted on social media on Wednesday, “I hope your administration will consider disinviting these two speakers from campus, and instead welcome speakers who better reflect the university’s values. Doing so will help ensure students of all backgrounds, including Jewish and pro-Israel students, are comfortable engaging in programming designed to enhance the college experience.”

The ADL tallied what it characterized as 665 anti-Israel incidents on U.S. college campuses between June 2022 and May 2023, many of which the organization classified as antisemitic, according to a new annual report published on Wednesday. The total number of incidents nearly doubled over the previous academic year, the report said, though physical assaults and vandalism declined.

Among the most high-profile incidents cited in the report was a widely criticized May commencement speech from a student-selected CUNY Law School graduate who accused Israel of “indiscriminate” killings and called for a “fight against capitalism, racism, imperialism and Zionism around the world.” 

In response to growing criticism of the festival at UPenn next week, Susan Abulhawa, the executive director of Palestine Writes, accused the event’s detractors of engaging in what she called “Zionist hysteria.”

“The language they’re using to denounce us is frankly typical of the colonial mentality that fears the ‘dark, irrational, and savage native’ and we’re unphased by this tiresome mantra,” Abulhawa claimed in an email to JI on Tuesday. “We have a glorious and ancient heritage that precedes Israel by millennia. We’re keen to honor our ancestors, and part of our story is resistance to the colonizers who are destroying their memory and appropriating all they created of life and material culture over centuries. We’re right and our struggle is moral and just. Critics are of no consequence, regardless of what harm they inflict here or at home.”

But Brett Goldman, a Jewish community activist in Philadelphia, said he questioned the festival’s motivations, as well as the university’s handling of the event. “It’s concerning to see a list of speakers who have made openly hostile and antisemitic statements towards Israel and the Jewish community,” he told JI, voicing discomfort with the event’s “proximity to Penn Hillel” and its conclusion on the Jewish Day of Atonement. 

“It feels like the organizers knew they’d be playing with fire,” Goldman said. “The university should have exercised better judgement allowing it to be held on Yom Kippur.”

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