Jewish leaders slam UPenn for hosting anti-Israel activists in High Holiday period

This week’s Palestine Writes Literature Festival features lineup including Roger Waters, speakers who have called for Israel’s destruction and compared Jewish state to Nazi Germany

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: Pro-Palestinian demonstrators in New York City, March 30, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Illustrative: Pro-Palestinian demonstrators in New York City, March 30, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Jewish groups have slammed the University of Pennsylvania for hosting a festival featuring speakers who have been harshly critical of Israel, drawing accusations of antisemitism, during the Jewish High Holiday period.

The Palestine Writes Literature Festival will take place on the university campus, starting on September 22 and ending two days later on the eve of Yom Kippur. The event is being sponsored and hosted by UPenn’s Wolf Humanities Center.

The festival says it is “dedicated to celebrating and promoting cultural productions of Palestinian writers and artists.”

One of its most prominent speakers is Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters, a well-known pro-Palestinian activist who has been repeatedly accused of antisemitism.

Commentator Marc Lamont Hill, another participant, was fired by CNN in 2018 for using the term “from the river to the sea,” a call used by the Hamas terror group to advocate for Israel’s destruction.

Also appearing is Rutgers professor Noura Erakat, who opposes Israel’s existence and has compared Zionism to Nazism; author Randa Abdel-Fattah, who called Israel a “demonic, sick project” and supports its destruction; writer Wisam Rafeedie, who earlier this year praised the 1972 Lod airport massacre, which killed 26 people; and Susan Abulhawa, who has called Israel a “Nazi state” that will “someday be demolished.”

Its sponsors include the New York group Al-Awda, which calls for Israel’s destruction, has expressed support for terrorists, calls the Jewish state a “genocidal settler-colonial” entity and urges the expulsion of “Zionists” from New York colleges.

The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, May 15, 2019. (AP/Matt Rourke)

ADL chief Jonathan Greenblatt on Thursday decried UPenn for hosting the festival.

“In a moment when antisemitism has reached an indisputably historic level, it’s mind-boggling to think that [UPenn] is hosting this gathering of anti-Israel and anti-Zionist activists, some of whom have a long history of antisemitic statements and comments,” Greenblatt said in a statement.

US House Representative Josh Gottheimer, a New Jersey democrat and UPenn alum, sent a letter to the university protesting the event.

“If the university’s goal is to promote mutual understanding and bring students together, it will fail so long as antisemites and anti-Israel advocates are given a platform to spew hatred,” the letter said.

Israel’s antisemitism envoy Michal Cotler-Wunsh said the event will promote “avid antisemitism.”

The advocacy groups Jewish on Campus, StopAntisemitism and End Jew Hatred also condemned the festival.

UPenn sought to distance itself from the event, saying in a statement that it was “not organized by the university.”

“We unequivocally — and emphatically — condemn antisemitism as antithetical to our institutional values,” said a statement from the university’s president, provost, and dean of the school of arts and sciences.

Roger Waters performs at Barclays Arena in Hamburg, Germany, on May 7, 2023, to kick off his “This Is Not A Drill” tour of Germany. (Daniel Bockwoldt/dpa via AP)

Waters has been repeatedly accused of antisemitism by Jewish groups and authorities in the US, Europe and Israel.

He has floated an inflatable pig emblazoned with the Star of David at his concerts, berated performers who included the Jewish state in their tours, accused the “Jewish lobby” of holding sway over the music industry, compared Israel to Nazi Germany, and appeared onstage in a costume resembling Nazi attire.

The US State Department in June accused Waters of “Holocaust distortion” and having “a long track record of using antisemitic tropes.” The Anti-Defamation League has also said Waters employs antisemitic rhetoric.

Hill, a BDS supporter, has complained that Israel’s Iron Dome defense system hampers Hamas’s “military leverage” over Israel, lauded Palestinian terrorists, suggested mainstream media outlets are “Zionist organizations,” placed sole blame for Gaza violence on Israel, and defended his ties to the antisemitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

Hill’s hiring last month by the City University of New York as it grapples with allegations of widespread antisemitism on its campuses was heavily criticized by Jewish groups and their supporters.

The ADL said in a report last week that anti-Israel activities on US college campuses nearly doubled to 665 incidents in the 2022-2023 school year, including many instances in which Israel was condemned or students who support Israel were harassed.

UPenn is a private ivy league university in Philadelphia with around 23,000 students.

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