College cites academic freedom, allowing event to proceed despite speakers’ vile antisemitism

Meirav Abramovitz, a Penn alumna who has posted concerns about the event on Instagram, told JNS that Waters’s and Hill’s inclusion is her biggest concern.

By Faygie Holt, JNS

Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters has drawn widespread criticism for his anti-Israel views and content at his concerts, including wearing a Nazi-style uniform while performing in Germany. Now, he is slated to take part in the “Palestine Writes Literature Festival” at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia from Sept. 22-24.

The event is “the only North American literature festival dedicated to celebrating and promoting cultural productions of Palestinian writers and artists,” according to the festival’s website, and it was “born from the pervasive exclusion from or tokenization of Palestinian voices in mainstream literary institutions.”

The event has drawn widespread criticism, in part for the participation of Marc Lamont Hill, fired by CNN for calling for Israel’s destruction and recently hired by the City University of New York, and Waters. Democratic candidate for president Robert F. Kennedy Jr. initially supported the latter in May, before stating he was unaware of Waters’s anti-Israel statements.

“This public event is not organized by the university,” Penn’s president, provost and dean of arts and sciences stated jointly on Sept. 12. “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.”

The school leaders noted that many have raised “deep concerns” about some of the 100 speakers at the event “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,” the three stated. “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.”

More than 16% of the undergraduate student body at Penn is Jewish, according to the Hillel International website, which lists the school’s Jewish student body as the 12th largest among private universities.

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‘Positive first step but not enough’

StopAntisemitism reported on Sept. 14 that Refaat Alareer, who “often shares antisemitic content and incites the murder of Jews, claiming ‘most Jews are evil,’” has been removed from the festival docket.

“This is a positive first step but not enough,” the group posted on social media. “Remove the rest of the antisemites or move the event off campus, Penn.”

StopAntisemitism added that participant Wisam Rafeedie is a “Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine member who praises the murder of Jewish children,” and Salman Abu Sitta has stated that “Zionism’s investment in Nazi crimes aims to justify its crimes in Palestine before and after Nazism.”

On Sept. 8, Gabe Greenberg, a rabbi and executive director of the Penn Hillel, sent out an email to the Hillel’s mailing list about the upcoming event. “We appreciate and respect the idea of a festival celebrating Palestinian culture,” he wrote. “However, we have specific concerns regarding some speakers that are being featured at this event given their previous statements regarding Jews, Israel and Zionism.”

Greenberg stated that Hillel “immediately went to work” with the “most central responsibility” of ensuring the safety and security of Jewish students on campus. He said that Hillel has worked “closely” with Penn administrators and that the latter has been “highly receptive and responsive to the concerns we have raised.”

In his email to the Hillel community, he shared a letter that student leaders sent to the president, provost and dean of arts and sciences at the university.

“We greatly appreciate and respect this event, and any group’s right to share their culture, and by no means do we want this event to be canceled,” the students wrote. “However, we have specific concerns regarding some speakers and works that are being promoted at this event—most specifically, Roger Waters and Marc Lamont Hill—given their previous statements regarding Jews, Israel and Zionism.”

‘We know what antisemitism looks like’

The students noted that the event will take place right before Yom Kippur “at a particularly sensitive time for our community.”

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“On this day, Jewish students will be walking to services in Houston Hall, observing the holiday, and be noticeably Jewish and vulnerable on campus,” they wrote.

They added that Jewish students “feel less welcome, safe and accepted,” given the involvement of four Penn departments. The Kelly Writers House, cinema department and media-studies department are listed as sponsors; and the Middle East Center, and Near Eastern language and cultures department, are listed as partners.

“Students taking Arabic courses in the NELC department are required to attend this event in which Jewish students are enrolled,” the students wrote. “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.”

Noah Rubin, a junior at Penn who signed the letter, is studying electrical engineering and economics, serves as co-president of the Penn Israel Public Affairs Committee and holds a student leadership role at the campus Chabad House.

“We are being gaslighted that there will be no antisemitism at the upcoming Palestine Writes Literature Festival,” he told JNS. “We know what antisemitism looks like—speakers who dress up as Nazis, chant Hamas slogans, praise and put up portraits of terrorists or call for intifadas are Jew-haters. Full stop.”

“Antisemites from around the country are gathering here on our campus,” he added. “Is that enough for us as a Jewish community to stand up?”

Meirav Abramovitz, a Penn alumna who has posted concerns about the event on Instagram, told JNS that Waters’s and Hill’s inclusion is her biggest concern. “Given their participation, the university should make a clear statement separating themselves from the festival, rather than allowing departments to sign on as co-sponsors,” she said.

‘Spaces for difficult conversations’

The American Jewish Committee commended the Penn administration for its handling of the event and “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 AJC stated. “The courageous Jewish students who spoke up to administrators about antisemitic speakers deserve praise.”

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“Universities are spaces for difficult conversations like these,” it added. “We are proud to have supported these students in engaging university leaders and the wider Penn community.”

Canary Mission, a watchdog, posted: “Roger Waters, with his long record of employing antisemitic tropes and as a leader in the BDS movement against Israel, will fit in perfectly with the other antisemites at Penn’s Palestine Writes festival’s lineup. Waters calls Zionism ‘an ugly stain’ that needs to be ‘removed.’”

StopAntisemitism encouraged Penn alumni to stop donating until the antisemitic speakers are removed or the event is moved off campus.

Although much of the discussion has centered on antisemitic and anti-Israel speakers at the event, the itinerary also includes sessions that spout Jew-hatred.

“Whether it be against the Crusaders or Napoleon, the British Empire or Israel, Palestinians have continued to assert our will to determine our own outcomes and have sacrificed heavily to deliver a steadfast tradition in the face of colonialism, that seeks to subdue it and replace it,” reads the description of a panel on Palestinian youth.

A panel on “culinary appropriation” accuses the “Zionist occupation” of claiming “Arab indigenous cuisine from Palestine and the region as their own—hummus, falafel, couscous,” and “it has exploited the labor of Palestinian cuisine, stolen it and denied such actions.” Another panel description refers to “the daily struggles of Palestinians living under Israel’s brutal military occupation,” while three others reference Israeli “apartheid.”

“Penn’s inaction here speaks volumes, which makes their statement meaningless,” said Liora Rez, CEO of Stop Antisemitism, in a statement provided to JNS.

“Their position not only fosters an environment that’s conducive to increased antisemitism and bigotry but also highlights a troubling double standard,” she added. “If this conference was targeting any other marginalized group, it would likely be canceled.”

The watchdog group CAMERA stated that it “unequivocally supports free speech,” but “institutions of higher learning are also expected to provide intellectual rigor and a certain level of cultural sophistication. By providing a platform for antisemites, Palestine Writes is failing to fulfill the school’s academic mission.”