Why is UPenn hosting a festival of antisemites?


While this gathering was ostensibly formed to uplift Palestinian creatives and artists, it has faced backlash for its suspect speaker lineup of known antisemites. 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. Waters, for example, has a long history of using antisemitic images and comparing Israel with Nazi Germany. 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. Waters and Hill are not Palestinians, so it is unclear why they would attend an event that was ostensibly devoted to Palestinian writers.

Salman Abusitta is also a speaker at the event, and he has an antisemitic past. The primary organizer of the festival, Susan Abulhawa also has antisemitic tendencies. 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. One of the conference sponsors, Islamic Relief USA (which is part of Islamic Relief Worldwide), has been condemned by the State Department for its antisemitic remarks and attitudes. It has been suspected that the organization is funding Hamas terrorist activity.

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. There is a difference between a festival that spreads antisemitism under the guise a cultural event and one that is intended to incite hatred and antisemitism. This is especially true 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. Public funds should be withheld from private institutions who engage in anti-American programming. UPenn, like many American universities, is proud of its diversity, inclusion, and equity initiatives, as well as its strict stance on 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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