Jewish leaders are asking the University of Pennsylvania to distance itself from a campus festival scheduled to overlap with Yom Kippur featuring speakers who espouse anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric.
With antisemitic incidents rising and Jewish students reporting bullying and discrimination on college campuses, Jewish students and organizations are raising concerns about the Palestine Writes Literature Festival.
In a statement, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia said it has joined with the Anti-Defamation League’s Philadelphia chapter in “privately urging University of Pennsylvania officials to publicly condemn the Palestine Writes festival since the middle of August.
“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,” it added.
Among the scheduled speakers is Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame, an outspoken supporter of the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” movement who has compared Israel to the Nazi Germany. Earlier this year, the U.S. State Department said Waters has “a long track record of using antisemitic tropes.” And it said a concert he gave recently in Germany “contained imagery that is deeply offensive to Jewish people and minimized the Holocaust.”
Also among the speakers is Noura Erakat, a Rutgers University professor who called Zionism a “bedfellow” to Nazism.
The news site Jewish Insider, which first reported on the controversy, said the festival would also include Marc Lamont Hill, who was fired from CNN after using the phrase “free Palestine from the river to the sea,” often viewed as a call for the destruction of Israel and the Jews who live there.
A group of Jewish students wrote a letter to Penn administrators about the festival, claiming the “co-sponsorship and partnership by four Penn departments make us, as students who take classes in those departments and are Jewish, feel less welcome, safe, and accepted, given the inclusion of these speakers.”
They added, “This event is at a particularly sensitive time for our community as it takes place right as Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism, begins. On this day, Jewish students will be walking to services in Houston Hall, observing the holiday, and be noticeably Jewish and vulnerable on campus.”
Penn sent DVJournal a statement from President M. Elizabeth Magill, Provost John J. Jackson Jr., and Steven J. Fluharty, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences: “The Palestine Writes Literature Festival, a multi-day event featuring Palestinian writers, filmmakers, and artists, will take place on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus later this month. This public event 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. 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,” he said.
Rav Shai Cherry, the chief rabbi at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, said Susan Abulhawa, the executive director of Palestine Writes Literature Festival, “is using the old playbook. She does her cause no service by promoting speakers who seek the elimination of the one Jewish state in the world.”
“The Palestinians need to trade in their old playbook and stop condemning their own people to a life filled with indignities. Palestinians deserve better leadership. Alas, they are not getting it from those who seek to deny Jewish Israelis of what they seek for themselves—dignity, security, and peace,” Cherry said.
Rabbi Lance Sussman, author of the new book, “Portrait of an American Rabbi,” called it “a classic scenario where an outside group uses a university as a venue to give itself legitimacy and then have the university provide a defense in the name of freedom of inquiry.”
“However, a truly literary festival does belong on campus. I think Penn erred by scheduling the event on Yom Kippur and having the festival so physically close to Jewish worship services. Jewish pro-Israel students are thereby effectively blocked from protesting because of the holiday. It’s hard to reconcile the school’s claim of nobility of purpose with its (hopefully) logistical naivete.”
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