#Why is UPenn hosting a festival of antisemites?

This weekend, amid the Jewish high holidays, the Palestine Writes Literature Festival is being hosted at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania. While this gathering was ostensibly formed to uplift Palestinian creatives and artists, it has faced backlash for its suspect speaker lineup of known antisemites.

Most notably, British musician and Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters is set to speak despite his recurring antisemitic rhetoric and actions. For instance, Waters has a history of comparing Israel to Nazi Germany and using antisemitic imagery during his concerts. It has become so abhorrent that after a May show in which Waters dressed in a Nazi-style uniform, the State Department released a statement alleging that his performance had “minimized the Holocaust,” also noting Waters’ “long track record of using antisemitic tropes.”

Another participant is Marc Lamont Hill, who gained notoriety for being fired from CNN after he gave a speech calling for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea” — an antisemitic chant used to call for the destruction of Israel. Neither Waters nor Hill is Palestinian, which raises the question of why either would appear at an event ostensibly dedicated to Palestinian writers.

The event also features researcher Salman Abusitta, who previously echoed the antisemitic falsehood that “Jews were hated in Europe because they played a role in the destruction of the economy in some of the countries.” The festival’s primary organizer herself, Susan Abulhawa, also has a track record of antisemitism. For example, she tweeted that Israel is “worse than Nazis,” and that she “takes comfort in knowing” that the Jewish state will eventually be “wiped off the map.”

Questions have furthermore been raised about the funders for the conference. For instance, one of the sponsors is Islamic Relief USA, which operates under Islamic Relief Worldwide, an organization that the State Department has formally condemned for its “well-documented record of antisemitic attitudes and remarks made by the senior leadership.” This has included praise for Hamas, a U.S. designated terrorist organization. The organization has also been suspected of funding Hamas terrorist activities. 

Unsurprisingly, the festival has received backlash from the Jewish community, UPenn students, and alumni. Notably, Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) penned a letter urging his alma mater to disinvite the antisemites.

In response, UPenn President Elizabeth Magill released a statement condemning antisemitism while simultaneously acknowledging that several of the festival speakers “have a documented and troubling history of engaging in antisemitism.” Even further, Magill privately emailed a trustee that some of the speakers are “misaligned with the festival’s stated purpose.” Yet, despite these known concerns, the private university has done nothing to have the antisemitic speakers disinvited from campus.

An event truly designed to celebrate the cultural impact of Palestinian writers and artists would be valuable, just as it is important for a university to be a vehicle for the free exchange of even controversial ideas. But there is a distinction between that and a festival intended to spew antisemitism and hatred under the false guise of a cultural exchange.

To allow antisemitism to fester thus on a campus is to create a space not conducive for learning, particularly for Jewish students. Education requires students to feel the discomfort of being challenged intellectually, but students should not be paying thousands of dollars a semester to have their protected identity persecuted.

Moreover, beyond a moral obligation, universities also have a legal responsibility to protect Jewish students under a still-standing executive order by President Trump that expanded Title VI to include the most egregious forms of anti-Israel-based antisemitism.

Regardless of the law, though, it should trouble taxpayers to know that UPenn is allowing this antisemitic hate-fest to go on while simultaneously receiving nearly $800 million a year in public funds. Private institutions that engage in programming so antithetical to American values should rightly live in fear of losing public funds.

The truth is, this conference is not just incompatible with U.S. principles but also UPenn’s own nondiscrimination policy. Like many American universities today, UPenn pride itself on its diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives its strict stance against intolerance. Perhaps it should start living up to these ideals instead of treating its Jewish students as second-class citizens, less worthy than others of protection.

Alex Blecker is a freelance writer in Atlanta.

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