Since the Palestine Writes Festival and vandalism of Hillel took place last month, Penn students have been increasingly engaged in discourse regarding Palestine and Israel. Discourse surrounding a political topic as polarizing as Israel and Palestine is — or at least should be — welcomed in a university, especially one that offers courses dedicated to the region and to the conflict itself.
This discourse, however, should never come at the expense of the safety of Jewish, Muslim, and Arab individuals. In the days leading up to the Palestine Writes Festival, antisemitic, Islamophobic, and anti-Arab sentiments surged surrounding campus, and the vandalism of Hillel left a horrific impact on everyone and especially the Jewish community.
Language used was unfortunately heavily charged with stereotypical depictions of Jews, Muslims, and Arabs. For example, in response to the backlash, the Palestine Writes Festival organizers issued an official statement stating that “unlike [their] detractors, [they] do not operate in the shadows nor among elite decision makers," which many felt echoed the harmful stereotype of Jewish individuals “manipulating” the world and the elite. Further, comments alluding to the attack on Hillel being conducted by an “unknown violent member of campus” that was influenced by the festival were made on the Instagram post of the article covering the attack; and now-deleted comments proclaimed the individual as barbaric.
I fail to see how condemning a deeply saddening and tragic attack on a religious and cultural center, or a festival that hosted five allegedly antisemitic speakers amongst their 119 speakers, requires the use of such stereotypical and thus harmful language. The use of such language turns discourse into nothing more than an action to smear, disvalue, and delegitimize other individuals. This weaponizes discourse into a tribalist and hateful tool meant not to educate, but rather to prove the perceived other side of a wide spectrum as more hateful than the side one defends.
This should not be allowed nor displayed at an educational institution. One should be allowed to voice their opinions without risking being stuck with labels; a surveyed student claimed that terms such as “terrorist,” “colonizer,” and “sympathizer of ethnic cleansing” are increasingly used on social media. We need not lose sight of our humanity and that we are labeling our own peers, no matter how we feel about the conflict at hand.
I feel compelled and obligated to point out the disparity in the support that the Jewish community has received from Penn as an institution, while the Muslim and Arab communities sit idly by and receive hateful comments all around their campus. These comments came from peers and with neither of Magill’s statements addressing the loss and hatred Arabs have endured. Moreover, it did not garner coverage from most non-Arab related student agencies.
Just the other day in class, I was asked by my professor if I was planning on going to the vigil hosted by Penn Arab Student Society for the victims of current events. When I answered yes, a classmate openly stated that he was surprised PASS even put up a vigil for victims and not to “counter Israel or hate on Jews.”
This was an utterly hateful statement, and not the only one I have received as an international student from Kuwait. I have been asked about my opinions on jihad (despite me being areligious). I have been asked to publicly condemn terrorists when my Jewish classmates were not, and I have had to sit in silence as one of my classmates claims that “the Arab world wants to kill all Jews.” This is insanely inappropriate, especially since these questions are often called out when directed towards other communities, but Muslim and Arab students are expected to answer with a smile on their faces.
Another side of this same problem, Penn does not even provide any centers for Arab student organizations. I reached out to a prominent Arab student organization and asked if they ever attempted to secure a cultural center. They responded that they were met with stalling for a while, and gave this official statement: “Arab students deserve a place to simply exist in, a place where they can turn to and feel genuinely welcome at Penn. They need a space to celebrate their identity and feel supported rather than constantly seeing being Arab represented as a problem.”
Additionally, I surveyed 22 Arab individuals around campus — personally and through a Google form sent out with the aid of PASS — asking them if they felt that Penn has helped Arab students integrate into the University and if they feel safe and supported right now. 90.9 percent of them said that they noticed an uptick in anti-Arab sentiment around campus and 72.7 percent of them shared that they were directly and/or indirectly asked to comment on the current state of affairs.
The comments proved that a majority of these Arab students did not feel that Penn helped them with integration and resources, and half of them mentioned a perceived rise in anti-Arab and Islamaphobic rhetoric within the last month and especially within the last week.
The specific comments left by these students were devastating to read. An individual, who chose to remain anonymous, claims, “it took me a long time to be more comfortable with being more active with the Penn Arab/Muslim community, and now I don’t think I am as comfortable anymore being so open with my identity because of the level of hate we’re getting." Another student said that some of their closest friends have been afraid of the proclaimed “day of Jihad” and “post[ed] about the day of jihad, asking everyone to be scared of all Muslims.”
In light of recent events, another anonymous individual said, “We’ve been painted as terrorists or terrorist sympathizers and after the murder of the Palestinian child in the U.S. I feel utterly hopeless in the world acknowledging our suffering.” Another anonymous surveyed student said, “we get weird stares that don't feel friendly. Seeing that [Magill] is completely inconsiderate about this makes it even harder to feel safe since hostility against us isn't getting any recognition or indication.” Multiple students said that individuals have directly negatively and harmfully commented on or stared at their hijab, and approached them with questions regarding the conflict because of it.
At the peak of all of this hatred, while Arab and Muslim students continue to suffer while being silenced and feeling at risk of getting doxxed from avenues such as the Canary Mission or even being blacklisted from employment — regardless of how mild or non-existent their involvement with the conflict may be — Liz Magill and the Penn community have focused on how the Jewish community feels.
This is evident in Magil’s failure to mention Arab, Muslim, or Palestinian students in any capacity in either of her official statements as well as the lack of recognition of Arab suffering and struggle from the majority of the non-Arab student groups. This one-sided stance also risks jeopardizing Penn’s connection with Arab donors and governments that have ties with Penn.
I am not here to say that the Jewish community is not oppressed. I am not here to say that the Jewish community is not allowed to grieve. That would be obscenely ignorant and antisemitic. The Jewish community deserved more protection after the vandalism of Hillel, and they deserved a near-immediate response from Magill regarding the vandalism of a cultural religious center on campus. I am not wishing for the under-represented Jewish community to be overlooked. Yet I cannot help but find it appalling that the president of the University can issue a statement in which the Arab victims are never mentioned and Palestinians are only allowed to exist within the context of a controversial festival.
Liz Magill’s recent statement is devoid of any explicit mention of Muslim, Arab, or Palestinian students, insinuating that we are only allowed to exist in between the lines of context as general members of the Penn community. She focuses on Hamas and terrorism while ignoring the feelings of Muslim and Arab students on her very own campus, and does so through multiple separate statements that all excluded Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim individuals. This risks echoing the rhetoric that many Muslims and Arabs are familiar with: the “war on terror” post-Iraq invasion rhetoric that Arabs are barbaric, savage, and terrorists.
If Liz Magill does not issue a formal statement condemning the conflation of Arabs with terrorism on Penn’s campus, then she and the rest of the administration risk carrying the blame for all the hatred that Penn’s Arab community is being subjected to and forced to endure with silent constitution. And in the absence of administrative action, I implore my fellow Penn students to be kinder to your Arab, Jewish, and Muslim peers during these polarizing times.
FARESI ALFARESI is a College junior studying political science and modern Middle Eastern studies from Kuwait. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.