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Penn president Liz Magill and other University administrators released a statement regarding the Palestine Writes Literature Festival. Credit: Abhiram Juvvadi

Penn administrators addressed widespread criticism about an upcoming Palestinian literature festival being held on campus.

The Palestine Writes Literature Festival is scheduled to take place later this month with events at Irvine Auditorium, Penn Commons, and other University spaces. It celebrates itself as the "only North American literature festival dedicated to celebrating and promoting cultural productions of Palestinian writers and artists." 

Some students and national Jewish groups, however, have pushed back against the event — saying that its speakers' previous statements threaten the safety and belonging of Jewish students on campus.

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 wrote that many people have raised 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."

"We unequivocally — and emphatically — condemn antisemitism as antithetical to our institutional values. As a university, we also fiercely support the free exchange of ideas as central to our educational mission," the administrators wrote. "This includes the expression of views that are controversial and even those that are incompatible with our institutional values."

The administrators' statement — which said the event was not organized by the University — was the first in recent memory to respond to criticism of a campus event.  

Palestine Writes organizers told The Daily Pennsylvanian that the goal of their festival is to offer community and support for Palestinians, Arabs, and people from other minority backgrounds. 

Penn Carey Law student and organizer Jenan Abu Shtaya wrote in a statement to the DP that she is grateful to be a part of planning this event, adding that it is "a rare opportunity to celebrate our [Palestinian] heritage through literature and the arts."

Penn administrators' statement came after a letter sent by 15 students representing Jewish groups across campus. The students specifically expressed concerns about some of the festival's scheduled speakers, including academic Marc Lamont Hill and Pink Floyd founder Roger Waters — whom the U.S. State Department has said has an extensive history of denigrating Jews.

"While we appreciate the learning opportunity that can come from Palestinian literature, we are concerned that the students will be exposed to anti-Jewish propaganda, harm Jewish students who take Arabic, and open the Jewish community at Penn to discrimination," the students wrote in a letter to administrators. 

In an email accompanying the students' letter sent to a Penn Hillel mailing list on Sept. 8, Executive Director Gabe Greenberg wrote that the organization had immediately engaged with administrators after learning of the event. 

"We appreciate and respect the idea of a festival celebrating Palestinian culture," Greenberg wrote. "However, we have specific concerns regarding some speakers that are being featured at this event given their previous statements regarding Jews, Israel, and Zionism."

The students' letter also discussed the festival's co-sponsorship and partnership with Penn programs and departments, including Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Cinema and Media Studies, and the Kelly Writers House. They cited how students taking some Arabic courses in the NELC department are allegedly required to attend the event and added that the festival takes place as the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur is beginning.

In response to a request for comment, Founder and Faculty Director of Kelly Writers House Al Filreis wrote that KWH will host a poetry reading featuring two poets as part of the conference. 

"We are looking forward to our poetry reading as an event featuring creative intercultural expression inside our house, which has always been devoted to open dialogue and the widest possible appreciation of literary writing," Filreis wrote. 

In the letter, students requested that Penn issue a statement condemning "articulations of antisemitism by some of the speakers." Students also requested that Penn take "proactive steps" to create open spaces for respectful dialogue and a "positive learning environment." 

College junior and Co-President of Penn Hillel Eitan Weinstein said that he did not expect a statement from administration, but described it as "really meaningful." 

"It doesn't condemn the whole event because it is not worth condemning," Weinstein said. "But that there are certain elements of it that the University recognizes, that the Jewish community recognizes, are problematic, and I appreciate the University taking a stand on that."

He also said that earlier this week, Weinstein and other Hillel leaders had a meeting with representatives of the administration, including Vice Provost for University Life Karu Kozuma, to discuss the event, which Weinstein described as an "incredible opportunity" with educational value. 

"My takeaway from that meeting was that the University really is taking this seriously," Weinstein said.

Organizers of the festival, including Arabic literature professor Huda Fakhreddine, said they were "deeply disappointed" with Penn's statement. 

Fakhreddine said that the concerns she has seen are a result of fear, xenophobia, and ignorance about Palestine's history and culture. She added that the festival's organizers "reject the suggestion that we would invite or engage anyone who is antisemitic or endorses antisemitism."

"I have been deeply saddened by all this, and now the statement just added to my disappointment because it recycles the conflation between criticism of Israel and antisemitism," she said. "The assumption that supporting Palestinians means antisemitic sentiment is ignorant and racist."

The festival's executive director, Susan Abulhawa agreed, saying that Penn "could not muster the courage to defend an indigenous people's moral and necessary struggle against Israeli colonial fascism."

"No one at our festival is an antisemite," Abulhawa wrote. "This festival is a minimal recognition of the humanity of a deeply denigrated and marginalized people."

Fakhreddine echoed this sentiment, saying Palestinians "deserve a moment of agency and a celebration of their artistic and literary traditions." In addition to being a celebration of Palestinian culture, history, and art, Fakhreddine said that the festival is an "open space for dialogue and a unique learning moment for all involved."

"We, as a university, should be a space where difficult, uncomfortable conversations are had and where responsible nuanced readings of history and the world can happen," Fakhreddine said. "I hope Penn takes advantage of this moment to live up to its responsibility toward all its students and its diverse community."

Even with Penn's recent statement, some students remain uncertain about Penn's commitment to its Jewish student population.

“We’re happy that they call out antisemitism directly," College junior and Penn Hillel Vice President of Israel Engagement Maya Harpaz said, "but we want to see a bigger commitment in the future to protecting Jewish life on campus."

Fakhreddine said that she invites anyone who has reservations about the festival to attend its events with an open mind. 

"This is an open, inclusive space," Fakhreddine said. "Come have a dialogue about things that you are afraid of because that is how we learn."

The event will be held from Sept. 22 to Sept. 24, and it will include 120 speakers, according to its website.