Discover more from Friday Forward
An Open Letter to the University of Pennsylvania Community
It's necessary to have a conversation about how we react to antisemitism in our society
Recent events at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, are a painful reminder that we haven’t made enough progress in combating a specific form of hateful rhetoric: antisemitism.
This weekend, Penn is hosting a cultural event called the Palestine Writes Literary Festival. The event, which is a cultural celebration of Palestinian writers and artists, features several speakers with a history of antisemitic and hate-filled remarks.
Author Randa Abdel-Fattah previously said, “Israel is a demonic, sick project and I can’t wait for the day we commemorate its end.”
Author Susan Abulhawa once declared that Israel is “worse than Nazis,” and after a shooting at a synagogue in Jerusalem, tweeted, “Every Israeli, whether in a synagogue, a checkpoint, settlement, or shopping mall is a colonizer.”
The most galling example is Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, who compared the state of Israel to the Third Reich and wore a Nazi-inspired uniform in a 2023 concert in Berlin. Dressing in Nazi regalia, it should be noted, is considered a federal crime in Germany.
It has become common for controversial speakers on college campuses to generate widespread condemnation and debate. Some of this outrage is warranted, while some simply attempts to shut down narratives that those groups do not prefer.
What’s been notable in this instance is the lack of a response from Penn campus groups outside of the Jewish community to the news of the inclusion of these speakers. This makes it clear that we need to have a wider discussion about the state of antisemitism today.
There are three considerations that stick out to me in particular with respect to the discussion around this event.
1. The festival’s purpose is undermined
Palestine Writes presents itself as a conference intended to bring Palestinian writers together with other marginalized groups in the United States.
Given the festival’s mission to elevate Palestinian voices and unite marginalized groups, it is both peculiar and concerning that the organizers would choose to include Waters. Waters is not Palestinian, he is not, by any definition, part of a marginalized group, and he is not known for his celebration of Palestinian art, literature, or culture.
However, Waters is known widely for using his platform as the leader of a legendary rock band to become one of the world’s most broadly famous critics of Israel. It is hard to understand why an event intended to elevate Palestinian art, literature and culture chose to give a platform to someone with a history of hateful comments who is not even Palestinian. Doing so transforms the event from a cultural celebration into a political battleground.
While there is a geopolitical debate to be had over the conflict between Israel and Palestine and the related policies, it is possible to have that conversation without disparaging Jews in general. But Waters has not effectively walked that line.
For example, Waters once claimed critics of Israel in the music industry were often silenced by the “extraordinarily powerful Jewish lobby” in America, suggesting that the enemy of Palestine is not Israel, but all Jewish people.
In other instances, Waters showed videos at his concerts depicting the Jewish Star of David next to dollar signs, amplifying antisemitic stereotypes of Jewish greed. These stereotypes have been used extensively throughout history to justify the oppression and murder of Jews, including during the Holocaust.
This is where it is crucial to understand the role Zionism plays in the conversation about antisemitism. Zionism is the movement for the establishment, development and protection of a Jewish state in what is now known as Israel. There is a difference between being politically opposed to the state of Israel’s current territorial sovereignty and policies, and antisemitism. Antisemitism is a much broader class of hate that targets all Jews around the world. It often involves gross generalizations of an entire group of people based on their religion, insinuating that all Jews act and think in one way.
Unfortunately, opinions about Zionism and Israel’s policies—especially its conflict with Palestine—and opinions about Jews are often conflated, with bloody results.
This is why it feels counterproductive for a festival celebrating the merits of one culture to feature speakers who have a history of disparaging another. Similarly, I'd be disheartened to see an event highlighting Israeli culture providing a platform for speakers to express hostility toward the entire Palestinian community.
2. Antisemitism is treated differently
We need to have an honest discussion about antisemitism and the attention that is paid to it today in the United States and elsewhere. While the Jewish community has often been supportive of broader social justice movements, both historically and more recently, many Jewish people are becoming increasingly disappointed that they cannot depend on reciprocal support.
While several of the planned speakers at the Palestine Writes festival will likely direct their rhetoric at Israel as a state, they are nonetheless fomenting violence against a group of people that has faced ongoing discrimination and persecution for centuries.
Antisemitism is not a insignificant issue. It is one of the oldest forms of hate, having existed for over 1,000 years, and while it was most horrifically displayed during the Holocaust, it has led to violence against Jews across that entire millennium. It’s also making a comeback; for example, 2021 saw the highest number of antisemitic hate crimes in America since tracking such began in 1979.
Even if they don’t say it directly—or even if they don’t consciously realize it—speakers who “can’t wait for the day we commemorate Israel’s end,” or say, “every Israeli…is a colonizer,” desire an outcome that involves the death of massive numbers of Jews. Does anyone honestly believe a speaker at a campus festival could offer similarly violent rhetoric against Black Americans, or the LGBTQ+ community, without provoking an outpouring of outrage and solidarity? Likewise, how might you expect a college to react to a speaker who had just performed a concert dressed as a Klansman?
The only explanation I can find for the comparatively muted response is that antisemitism is somehow viewed as a lesser form of hate, unworthy of the same level of attention and allyship. In an era where people are expected to understand the nuances of systemic racism, gender identity, intersectionality and microaggressions, it’s time that we view antisemitism through that same intersectional lens.
It would seem one of the roadblocks to more support from the progressive community is that intersectionality has led to growing support for Palestine among groups who are most committed to allyship. However, I suspect many of those people have only a surface-level understanding of the very nuanced and complicated history of this conflict, the present state of it, and the varying viewpoints of Jews on the issue.
First, it’s vital to make this clear: there is not a single global Jewish viewpoint on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Many Jewish people are saddened by the suffering of innocent people in Palestinian territories and are also in favor of a two-state solution.
Just as an American may disagree with certain policies of America’s current or past administrations, while still believing in the country’s right to exist, a Jew, even an Israeli Jew, can support Israel’s sovereignty without supporting all its government’s actions. For example, many American Jews are critical of the current government of Israel, and only 12 percent believe the current regime is sincerely interested in making peace with the Palestinians—which is an outcome many Jews desire.
Unfortunately, many pro-Palestine perspectives on Israel are shaped by social media, which often simplifies a complex issue into brief snippets, video clips, and quotes. These platforms commonly feature terms like "apartheid," "genocide," and "colonialism." These narratives leave out the fact that control of the land in question has been disputed for centuries. In many cases, pro-Palestine messaging also glosses over the fact that much of Palestinian territory is governed by Hamas, a group that refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist and calls for the destruction of Israel in its original charter. Hamas has also been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.
And the sad truth that many people fail to recognize is that criticism of Israel—and of Zionism globally—is often used to provide cover for antisemitism. While not every critic of Israel is antisemitic, many of those critics are. And when the Palestine Writes festival gives a platform to people who trade in antisemitic tropes, such as Waters, and others who hope for the destruction of Israel—the only country on earth where the Jewish people are able to self-govern after centuries of persecution and forced relocation—that feels threatening to Jewish people everywhere.
Meanwhile, the community’s silence on the issue has left many Jewish students and alumni in the Penn community to wonder why they are always left to fend for themselves.
This brings us to the final consideration.
Penn must be consistent in its precedent
I believe strongly in freedom of speech and am not even sure that dropping the most inflammatory speakers is the right choice at this point. However, I was curious to see how Penn would handle the controversy after Jewish students and alumni made their voices heard.
Eventually, the school did respond. Penn’s President and Provost released a statement on the issue which included this paragraph:
“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.”
While I recognize the value of these words, I have to question whether the same sentiment would be extended to a different marginalized group, especially given that a recent ranking placed Penn second to last for free speech on college campuses. It's also crucial to discern between challenging perspectives and outright hate speech; they aren't equivalent.
If Penn faces future instances where speakers provoke similar debates or when opposition to a preferred narrative is labeled as hate to justify its suppression, it is imperative that the university remains consistent with this viewpoint. Failing to do so would imply that the commitment to the "free exchange of ideas" is conditional, further perpetuating the notion that antisemitism is regarded differently from other expressions of prejudice and intolerance.