OpinionSchools & Higher Education

Confronting the challenge of antisemitism and anti-Zionism on campus

A literary event at the University of Pennsylvania is featuring speakers that include known anti-Israel, antisemitic and pro-terror individuals.

Roger Waters at a concert in Manchester, England, on June 10, 2023. Source: Twitter.
Roger Waters at a concert in Manchester, England, on June 10, 2023. Source: Twitter.
Caren Leven. Credit: Courtesy.
Caren Leven
Caren Leven is the executive director of the Baltimore Zionist District.

This weekend, the University of Pennsylvania finds itself at the epicenter of a contentious and critical debate that resonates far beyond its campus borders. The controversy surrounds the “Palestine Writes” literary festival scheduled to take place from Sept. 22-24, which has raised deep concerns within the Jewish community, particularly regarding the rise of antisemitism and Antizionism on college campuses.

As its name suggests, the festival “gathers authors, intellectuals and activists focused on Palestinian-related issues.” While advocating for any cause is a fundamental part of free expression, serious questions should be asked when that advocacy veers into promoting hatred, racism and calls for the destruction of Israel.

As the executive director of the Baltimore Zionist District, I have been deeply involved in addressing antisemitism and anti-Zionism on college campuses. “Palestine Writes” has not escaped my attention. What troubles me is not the presence of differing viewpoints but the inclusion of speakers who have expressed inflammatory, racist and antisemitic views or connections to U.S.-designated terror groups.

Some of the featured speakers at this event include known anti-Israel, antisemitic and pro-terror individuals such as Roger Waters, Marc Lamont Hill and Noura Erekat, as well as representatives from U.S.-designated Palestinian terror groups like the Popular Front for the Liberations of Palestine and their affiliates. Among the participants are PFLP militant Wisam Rafeedie; Salman Abusitta from the U.K. Hamas-affiliated organization Palestine Return Center; Hill, an American journalist who was fired from CNN for his antisemitic comments and has praised individuals like Louis Farrakhan; and Waters, who is well-known for his anti-Israel and antisemitic stunts.

One might argue that universities should serve as forums for diverse perspectives and robust debates, and I wholeheartedly agree. However, it is essential to distinguish between fostering a climate of open dialogue and providing a platform for unbridled hate and bigotry. Therein lies the heart of the issue we face at UPenn.

Our concerns go beyond the mere presence of this festival. What exacerbates the situation is that it coincides with Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. This, regrettably, adds another layer of insensitivity and insult to the Jewish community.

I had the opportunity to observe the university’s response to these concerns, including a statement from UPenn leadership acknowledging the troubling history of some of the event’s speakers regarding antisemitism. While such acknowledgments are appreciated, they must be accompanied by substantive actions to address the issue effectively.

The fact that the event is not organized directly by the university but is partly sponsored by Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences does not absolve the institution of responsibility. A university is not obligated to host or sponsor events that promote hatred, racism or antisemitism, especially when such content would be deemed unacceptable against any other minority group.

What deeply disappoints me is the lack of strong support for Jewish students when antisemitism and anti-Zionism are at an all-time high. Universities and administrators should be at the forefront of safeguarding the rights and well-being of all students, including those of Jewish heritage. Witnessing Jewish students feeling marginalized and unsupported when faced with blatant expressions of hatred is disheartening.

The rise of antisemitism and anti-Zionism on college campuses is a matter of grave concern for the students directly affected and the broader Jewish community nationwide. Antisemitic incidents have surged in recent years, and it is incumbent upon our higher education institutions to actively combat this trend.

To address this issue effectively, colleges should adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, which provides a clear framework for identifying and addressing instances of antisemitism and harassment of Jewish students. This step, combined with a genuine commitment to combating anti-Jewish hatred and discrimination, would send a powerful message of support to Jewish students.

We live in a time when antisemitism is thriving in various forms, both subtle and overt. Our duty is to stand up against it and ensure that college campuses, which should be bastions of learning, tolerance and diversity, do not become breeding grounds for hatred of any kind.

As we grapple with the situation at UPenn, we must remember that our fight against antisemitism and anti-Zionism is not limited to one event or university. It is a collective effort to protect the values of inclusivity, respect and diversity that define our nation.

I hope the “Palestine Writes” controversy serves as a wake-up call, prompting UPenn and universities nationwide to take a stand against antisemitism and anti-Zionism. Jewish students deserve no less.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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