Penn students in some Arabic classes can now waive the requirement to attend the Palestine Writes Literature Festival as part of their course requirements.
Executive Director and Rabbi Gabe Greenberg announced the update in an email to a Penn Hillel mailing list on Tuesday. Previously, several Arabic courses, including ARAB 0100: "Elementary Arabic I" and ARAB 0300: "Intermediate Arabic III," had required that students attend, according to students taking the courses and copies of the course syllabi obtained by The Daily Pennsylvanian.
Both courses fall under the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department, a School of Arts and Sciences department that is listed as a sponsor of the Palestine Writes festival.
"This term at UPENN, during the month of September Palestine Writes will take place… [A]ttending will be mandatory as activities in class will be structured around the events," the ARAB 0100 syllabus reads.
One student taking ARAB 0100 this fall, who was granted anonymity by the DP, said that it seemed as though the syllabus language wanted students to attend but that it would not be a key part of the course curriculum. She said that she learned that students would be exempted from attending if they requested it.
The student said she did not plan on attending the event but felt that it had been communicated as an expected requirement until Greenberg's email. Lecturers for ARAB 0100 and ARAB 0300, the Office of the Provost, and SAS did not respond to requests for comment.
College sophomore Morris Hakim, who is attending the event, said it was a "shame" that the event had not become an opportunity for positive discourse and a mix of cultures between Jewish and Arab students.
"It's definitely a shame, the way that this has happened, because there is a space and a want on both sides for intermingling of cultures, and people are interested in it," Hakim said, citing an event last year that brought an Arabic Jewish calligrapher to campus with "great discourse."
Greenberg had previously written in an email to a Hillel mailing list on Sept. 15 that securing an exemption for students previously required to attend the Palestine Writes festival was one of Penn Hillel's "initial short-term goals" in its response to the event. The Palestine Writes festival, intended to celebrate Palestinian art, culture, and literature, has escalated into a campus-wide controversy, centered around criticism of so-called antisemitic remarks previously made by some speakers and the University's subsequent response.
"I have not been requested to or encouraged to attend the festival by any member of faculty," College first year Ashwin Laksumanage said, describing a debate that had been "oversimplified" by numerous groups.
College first year Dunya Afshar — who is currently taking the NELC department course PERS 0390: "Persian for Heritage Speakers I" — said she had not encountered much discussion of the festival in class. She said that the festival was a central topic of debate in another NELC department course that her friend is taking.
Afshar, who plans to attend the festival, said that she was disappointed by the "oppressive" discourse surrounding the festival among some Jewish national groups.
“With the reactions, it deeply aches my heart to see these,” she said. “It’s just a really sensitive subject, especially when it’s right in front of you.”