columnSchools & Higher Education

Academic freedom isn’t an excuse for antisemitism

A Palestinian event featuring Jew-haters at the University of Pennsylvania shows that in the age of DEI loyalty pledges, some forms of prejudice are tolerated on campuses.

A Benjamin Franklin statue in front of College Hall on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Credit: Jay Yuan/Shutterstock.
A Benjamin Franklin statue in front of College Hall on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Credit: Jay Yuan/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

We’re living in a time when American academic institutions claim to be dedicated to eradicating prejudice. That’s supposedly the point of the pledges to support the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) mantra that has not merely been universally adopted by colleges and universities, but also the corporate world and the Biden administration. Or is it? As a controversy at the University of Pennsylvania illustrates, the support for that woke DEI catechism has nothing to do with making the country a place where ethnic, religious or racial bias is not merely marginalized but condemned.

The Ivy League institution has found itself enmeshed in a controversy caused by the holding of a “Palestine Writes Literature Festival” on its Philadelphia campus this week. In principle, there should be nothing controversial about a conference devoted to a particular group’s literature. But this event seems designed more to provoke outrage than it is to further scholarly sessions or papers about a literary niche.

The lengthy announced list of speakers who will appear on Penn’s campus for this gathering is replete with some of the most notorious antisemites in the world.

That label accurately describes the work of some of the Palestinian Arab writers who will be present. It’s hardly surprising since the Palestinian variety is unlike almost every other form of nationalism and national literary revival since the late 19th century.

Scholarly work is not focused primarily on celebrating a particular historic cultural or literary tradition that would make it distinct from those associated with the Arabs of the Middle East or even just the area the Ottoman Turkish occupiers of the region once referred to as “South Syria.” Instead, Palestinian literature has been a function of the nakba or “disaster” narrative—a never-ending recitation of alleged wrongs and suffering stemming from the return of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland and the creation of the modern-day State of Israel. Like Palestinian politics and national identity, Palestinian writing has been inextricably linked to a futile century-old war against Zionism, in which an effort is made to turn back the clock to 1948 or even 1917 when the British issued the Balfour Declaration.

That’s why so much of the content of the conference, including sessions about Jews “appropriating Palestinian cuisine” and the history of the area, are drenched in contempt for Jews and denial of Jewish history.

But the fact that “Palestine Writes” will also be featuring international antisemites like Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters (last seen in Berlin cavorting in a Nazi-like uniform at one of his concerts/propaganda sessions) and African-American commentator Marc Lamont Hill (best known for his declaration of support for a Palestine “from the river to the sea” and Israel’s eradication) speaks volumes about its actual purpose. They are not Palestinian writers, academics or literary experts tasked to explain why exponents of hatred for Israel are “marginalized,” even though those who support such a view are lionized in the academy while Zionists are the ones who have been driven out of educational institutions. They are there because the event is clearly aimed at promoting the antisemitic BDS narrative of hatred for Israel and Jews.

Let’s specify that there is nothing illegal about holding such an event. Those who subscribe to such hateful views have a First Amendment right to speak to those who are willing to hear them. The question here is why one of the nation’s most prestigious academic institutions is willing to host Waters, Hill and the lengthy list of Palestinians who specialize in inciting, fomenting, and supporting violence and terrorism against Israel and Jews?

The answer from Penn is twofold. On the one hand, they argue that the festival is not being hosted or specifically sponsored by the university. On the other hand, they claim that those university departments that are sponsoring it are doing so as a matter of exercising their academic freedom.

If one conceives of academic freedom as protecting virtually any form of speech or study undertaken by a scholar, teacher or student, then the latter argument would be definitive. But in practice, that is not what academic freedom means in 2023.

For example, could anyone possibly imagine a conference being sponsored at any institution of higher learning in which the subject matter was focused on hate for a specific group like African-Americans, Asians or Hispanics? Or if such an event would feature not just academics who support such prejudice but non-academic celebrities who embrace that agenda?

Of course not.

Not only is such a thing unimaginable, we live in a time when the appearance of those who question leftist orthodoxies about race or gender are subjected to cancellations, boycotts, and even harassment and violence. In today’s dominant “cancel culture” atmosphere, academic freedom goes out the window when it comes to conservative dissidents.

Even more to the point, academic freedom is a dead letter when it comes to the question of DEI. As The New York Times reported earlier this month, across the country, academics are being required to sign loyalty pledges to the woke DEI catechism. Far from an anodyne statement of support for equality, DEI—and its critical race theory and intersectional corollaries—are rooted in support for a perpetual race conflict in which everyone is defined by their racial or ethnic category and not as individuals. It’s a formula for quotas and endless racial dissension. And given that its advocates label Israel and Jews as “white,” and part of an oppressor nation, it is a permission slip for antisemitism.

Yet dissent from DEI is not tolerated, and those scholars who refuse to go along and don’t already have tenure find themselves looking for work elsewhere and applicants who won’t sign know they have no choice of being hired.

Far from irrelevant to the dustup at Penn, the antisemitic pro-BDS hatefest that is being held under the guise of a program promoting Palestinian literature is very much in sync with the intersectional DEI mindset. Those who support the destruction of the one Jewish state on the planet are considered part of a protected class, and those who oppose this vile creed are viewed as reactionaries and racists who deserve to be silenced.

Moreover, this mindset helps create an atmosphere in which Jewish students can be marginalized, shunned and silenced. Indeed, wherever the BDS movement raises its banners, intimidation and even violence against Jews soon follows.

So, the point here is not academic freedom. If “Palestine Writes” were considered to be contrary to the DEI orthodoxy, the university administration would not have hesitated to find a way to boot it off campus and punish the 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—for their involvement, let alone the fact that some students are being required to attend.

The university’s affirmation of its opposition to antisemitism is all well and good. But it is utterly inadequate. And it is shocking and equally unacceptable that a mainstream group like the American Jewish Committee that purports to speak for Jews and defend Jewish students would express satisfaction with their stand. Other Jewish groups, like the Zionist Organization of America, StopAntisemitism and Canary Mission, which are less interested in bowing to fashionable leftist opinion, rightly condemn the school and call for consequences against Penn to force it to act. Interestingly, even the Anti-Defamation League considered it “mind-boggling” that Penn would allow the event to be held there.

They’re right about that. And also, right that this outrage should not go unanswered. Penn alumni and others who donate to the school should make their displeasure known in the only way that such institutions understand: by withholding contributions.

The reaction to “Palestine Writes” is not a form of cancel culture. Allowing this forum for Jew-hatred is not upholding academic freedom. Those who wish to stop it want to hold schools accountable for a double standard in which the one form of prejudice they are prepared to tolerate is antisemitism.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at @jonathans_tobin.

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