The Palestine Writes Literature Festival—featuring well-known anti-Israeli activists like rocker Roger Waters and cable news personality Marc Lamont Hill — kicked off on Friday at the University of Pennsylvania.
On Thursday, someone vandalized the campus Hillel and yelled antisemitic “obscenities,” according to reports.
In a statement, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia said it has joined with the Anti-Defamation League’s Philadelphia chapter, which has been “privately urging University of Pennsylvania officials to publicly condemn the Palestine Writes festival since the middle of August.”
According to the Federation, “The conference includes multiple presenters with a history of spreading inflammatory rhetoric and antisemitism that go against the fundamental principles of academic integrity and respectful discourse. The impact of these narratives will create a hostile environment for Jewish students on campus, especially on the eve of the Yom Kippur holiday.”
Despite repeated requests from Jewish organizations and concerned students, however, Penn President Elizabeth Magill has declined to take any action regarding the festival.
As first reported by Jewish Insider, Penn President Elizabeth Magill cited “academic freedom” in her response to the Anti-Defamation League and declined to take any action. She also said the university is taking steps to support the Jewish community and combat antisemitism.
That did not satisfy critics, like a group of attorneys from the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law who wrote to Magill accusing her of a double standard on hate speech.
“It is apparent that the Festival has been ‘hijacked’ by controversial figures who espouse antisemitic rhetoric and call for the destruction of Israel,” they wrote. “Although Penn has faced mounting calls to take action against the antisemitism on full display at the Festival, your administration has refused to [act].”
They contrast that to UPenn’s willingness to “take action against speakers who traffic in hate against other minorities.”
Among the scheduled participants in the festival are Waters, who has compared Israel to the Third Reich and recently wore a Nazi-style uniform while performing onstage in Berlin; Randa Abdel-Fattah, an Australian writer who recently called Israel “a demonic, sick project,” and Marc Lamont Hill, a Temple University professor who was fired from CNN in 2018 for calling for a free Palestine “from the river to the sea” — a phrase many view as a call for the destruction of the Jewish state.
Jason Holtzman, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said the atmosphere on campus has inspired at least one act of violence.
“The Palestine Writes Festival has already emboldened antisemitism on Penn’s campus. Yesterday morning, a perpetrator ran into the Penn’s Hillel building, spewing antisemitic tropes and vandalizing the Hillel lobby,” Holtzman said. “The perpetrator has since been arrested. With student safety paramount, we encourage anyone on campus to report any incidents to the University of Pennsylvania police officials.”
ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt tweeted: “Yesterday the State of PA issued a Cease & Desist Letter to the organizers of the #PalestineWrites festival for their unauthorized use of a state logo, falsely claiming sponsorship. No surprise. Thanks to @GovernorShapiro for your swift action and courageous leadership.”
According to a report from Rabbi Gabe Greenberg, executive director of Penn Hillel, “At 6:55 a.m. (Thursday), before the building was formally opened, a member of the Penn Hillel community opened the door to come in for morning prayer services. As the door was opened, an unknown member of the Penn community ran into the building. He stayed for less than a minute, and while he was in the building, he knocked over several pieces of furniture while shouting antisemitic obscenities about Jewish people.
“Our staff chased him out of the building, where he was quickly apprehended by Penn Police. Penn Police had previously noted his presence as he had been knocking over trash cans on Walnut Street and acting erratically before entering our building,” Greenberg said.
No students saw the incident, and no one was hurt.
University spokesman Ron Ozio released a statement saying Penn Police “intercepted the individual at Steinhardt Hall (Hillel), where the individual was making offensive statements and overturning furniture.
“Penn Police determined the individual was experiencing a crisis and safely removed the individual and transported the individual for further evaluation.”
Officials noted another antisemitic incident had also occurred. At the Weitzman School of Design a group of students found a swastika painted on the wall of a painting spray booth. Penn administrators released this statement.
Greenberg said the incident was not a random attack.
“This person did not accidentally choose to enter our building. He did not accidentally choose to shout antisemitic slogans. He chose our building. He chose to do so just three days before Yom Kippur. He chose to do so one day before a number of speakers are coming to campus who have histories of making antisemitic and hate-filled statements against Jews. This was not a coincidence.”
But Penn Hillel will not stop serving Jewish students.
“This past year, 3,000 undergraduate students stepped through our doors to attend classes, celebrate holidays, eat together, attend one of our many different prayer services, learn about Israel and its people, and experience all the joys of Jewish life that our vibrant campus community has to offer,” he said.
Hillel plans to hold a large Shabbat Together gathering as the three-day Palestine Writes Festival begins.