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Palestinian and Arab student affinity groups on campus responded to the University's statement about the Palestine Writes Literature Festival scheduled to take place from Sept. 22 to Sept. 24. Credit: Abhiram Juvvadi

Palestinian and Arab student affinity groups, along with event organizers, pushed back against Penn's response to the upcoming Palestinian literature festival taking place on campus later this week.

The Palestine Writes Literature Festival is scheduled to take place from Sept. 22 to Sept. 24 with events at Irvine Auditorium, Penn Commons, and other University spaces. The festival has received pushback from some students and national Jewish organizations for inviting speakers who have allegedly made antisemitic comments in the past. 

In response to the criticism, Penn President Liz Magill, Provost John Jackson, and School of Arts and Sciences Dean Steven Fluharty published a statement on Sept. 12, where they acknowledged concerns about several speakers who "have a documented and troubling history of engaging in antisemitism by speaking and acting in ways that denigrate Jewish people."

Penn Arab Students Society, Penn Against the Occupation, and Almaydan — the Forum of Penn Arab Graduate Students — published a joint statement on Sunday, writing that Palestinian and Arab students were required to invest "a significant amount of time and energy to create opportunities for their communities to be celebrated," and the upcoming festival is "a long-awaited affirmation of their belonging and worth."

The student groups also wrote that the University's statement was "unprecedented," given Penn's alleged silence "when hateful and concerning views have been espoused by campus visitors and even faculty in the past."

"The statement is a stinging reminder that when the university fails to provide accurate representation and impartial advocacy, it is up to us, the students, to take charge of our own narrative, ensuring no student feels unheard, invisible, or grossly misrepresented," the affinity groups wrote. 

Other students previously told The Daily Pennsylvanian that they appreciated Penn's response and expect the University to continue showing its support for Jewish students. In response to the festival, Penn Hillel will host a "Shabbat Together' event on Sept. 22 — aiming to celebrate Jewish identity in light of the controversy.

The affinity groups echoed criticism by Palestine Writes organizers, who on Saturday were prompted by "escalating racist attacks" to release a letter they sent to Penn President Liz Magill on Sept. 2 — after the Jewish Federation and Anti-Defamation League first reached out to Penn regarding the festival.

In the letter, Palestine Writes Executive Director Susan Abulhawa painted the criticism as exemplifying a power disparity between "highly funded, connected and organized Zionist organizations" and "our small cultural institution" run by volunteers, including Penn students. 

"Situating those individual Palestinians and our allies in league with actual anti-semites is wholly irresponsible and dangerous," Abulhawa wrote to Magill. "It is also an insult to the intelligence of your university community."

Abulhawa did not respond to a request for comment by publication. According to the correspondence published by Palestine Writes online, School of Arts and Sciences Dean Steven Fluharty responded to the letter, writing that administrators shared the Jewish Federation and ADL's "unease with the past statements" made by festival speakers and were committed to fighting antisemitism.

"The resources you shared in your letter will further assist us in achieving our shared goals as we work to implement these ideas," Fluharty wrote. 

At the same time, departments and centers at Penn have the academic freedom to hold events consistent with their mission, Fluharty added. 

Abulhawa wrote that Fluharty's response did not adequately address Penn's Palestinian population.

"The Palestine Writes Literature Festival is a long-awaited and much-anticipated cultural event meant to empower our community, including Palestinian students at Penn for whom Dean Fluharty could not spare a single word of support or care in his response on behalf of the university," she wrote.

On Sunday, Penn Chavurah — which describes itself as "an independent student-run space for progressive Jews at Penn" — issued a statement of support for Palestine Writes, accusing Penn Hillel and others of a campaign to "discredit and racialize" the festival.

"The fear-mongering messages recently sent to administration and alumni are the latest of Penn Hillel's attempts to silence Palestinian voices on campus, especially outspoken critics of Israel," Penn Chavurah wrote.