I have personally witnessed the antisemitism that has emerged on our campus and have seen the pain it has caused Jewish students. Following the Oct. 7 massacre of Israelis by Hamas terrorists, Susan Abulhawa, the executive director of the Palestine Writes Literary Festival, responded with a tirade against the victims and their supporters: “those who are still prattling about 'innocent Israelis at a music concert,' keep in mind that these people were literally dancing and partying just outside of a concentration camp where 2.3 million Palestinians have been trapped for 17 years in dire circumstances, terrorized year after year by Israeli bombs. There is nothing innocent about such moral depravity, not to mention the fact that 100% of those folks are current soldiers or reservists serving a terrorist settler colonial 'state.'”
You should care about what Abulhawa thinks because the Palestine Writes Literary Festival took place on Penn’s campus in September. Abulhawa’s views are not unique to her. Her views have not been condemned by any of the speakers who came to the Palestine Writes conference, the professors who invited them and sponsored the conference, or any of the students who have marched on campus in the weeks after the Oct. 7 massacre.
What can Penn do? The administration was initially hesitant, and its first email spoke about “members of our community [who] are hurting” and “those [who are] grieving” without mentioning Jews. While Penn did distance itself from the Palestine Writes festival, it did not always explicitly and specifically call out the aspects of the conference that were antisemitic. That’s a hard call for academics who sometimes cannot decide where the boundary is between the merely anti-Israel and the definitely anti-Jewish.
To make that distinction possible and clear in the future, Penn should adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, immediately and without equivocation. The definition has been adopted by dozens of European countries, the U.S. federal government, and many state governments.
In addition to many examples of hatred against Jews, the IHRA definition clarifies that it is antisemitic to deny “the Jewish people their right to self-determination," to apply "double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation," and to compare "contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” In Abulhawa’s repulsive outburst, I identify at least three falsehoods that are hateful and also antisemitic under the IHRA working definition. First, Gaza is not a concentration camp, and it is not a prison. While it is crowded, Palestinians also receive more international aid per capita than just about anywhere else in the world. Importantly, the extreme duress is caused by Hamas, a terrorist group of Islamic supremacists determined since its inception in the 1980s to savagely murder Jews. When Hamas took control of Gaza in 2006, Israel was attacked with barrages of missiles. In response, both Israel and Egypt blockaded Gaza’s borders. This has limited the flow of people at the border crossings, which were originally constructed to enable more than a million passages per month.
It takes a large amount of immorality, an even larger amount of misguided ideology, and a considerable dose of postcolonial word salad to invert the responsibility for Gaza’s ills from Hamas to Israel. But it is the comparison to concentration camps that is most heinous. I know the difference, because my mother and her parents and sister were deported from Holland and imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen for nearly 16 months. There, the women and children were starved to death and stricken with disease with the intent to kill them because they were Jewish. There, my grandfather was enslaved, working as a stone cutter and beaten by his slave-master, an especially cruel and sadistic SS guard. Eventually, the Germans forced my family and other Jews into cattle cars where, in that open sewer of disease and excrement, hundreds died on a 14-day journey to nowhere. It takes extreme bias and willful blindness to compare the plight of Palestinians in Gaza with the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis.
Abulhawa’s second hateful falsehood is the explicit justification of the murder of innocent civilians. I will not bother to refute this here because people who agree with this sentiment are too immoral and too far gone to be persuaded otherwise. Their beliefs are not grounded in reason, so I cannot hope to use reason to persuade them to let go of these beliefs. Anyone who has a functioning moral compass should instinctively understand that mercilessly and gleefully murdering children in front of their parents and parents in front of their children, gouging eyes, carving fetuses out of pregnant women, binding families together with wire and burning them to death, hunting down, raping and slaughtering teenagers at a dance party, beheading babies, and carrying off hundreds into captivity are absolutely and unmistakably evil. Abulhawa’s justification is antisemitic and not merely anti-Israel because it excuses actions against Israeli civilians that would be crimes against humanity if leveled against any other country. This is a “double standard” and is antisemitic under the IHRA definition.
The third and most blatantly untrue, antisemitic, and hateful falsehood is also the most common on our campuses: the denial of the ancient Jewish connection to the land of Israel. In addition to being just plain wrong, it is antisemitic under the IHRA definition, since it is the basis for the denial of Jewish people’s right to self-determination.
The labeling of Israel as a “settler-colonial” state, girded by Soviet propaganda, postcolonial theory, and contemporary critical theories, depends on the erasure of Jewish history. The most extreme form is mostly expressed by Palestinians in Arabic but has gained ground recently, denying that there ever was a Jewish presence in Israel; some go so far as to claim that the Temple never existed in Jerusalem. Another common way to erase the Jews is to label “problematic” the connection the Jewish people of today have to the land of Israel. Worse, there are some academics, including Joseph Massad of Columbia, who reference the theory that it is the Palestinians of today who are the actual descendants of the ancient Hebrews.
The truth is, according to historian Benny Morris, that the Jews “are one of the few people from ancient times who have managed to more or less survive and endure into the 21st century.” The Jewish people’s connection to the land of Israel is genetic, linguistic, cultural, and religious. It is ancient and unbroken. Those who disclaim the connection between the Jews of today and the Jews of old are engaging in pure Palestinian propaganda in defiance of historical truth. Jews are not colonialists. They are indigenous inhabitants of the land of Israel, returning after years of dispersion. Indeed, most Israelis are descended from families that lost their property and homes, not only in Europe but also in many Arab countries. They do not mourn their losses because they have rebuilt their shattered lives in their ancient homeland.
By adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism, the school would have an easier time identifying violations against the school’s codes of conduct. In the long run, this would enable Penn to reclaim its long and treasured position as a university that is safe and appealing to Jewish students.
ABRAHAM WYNER is a professor and director of the undergraduate program in statistics and data science. He is the faculty co-director of the Wharton Sports Analytics and Business Initiative and a co-host of "Wharton Moneyball" on Sirius XM. His daughter, son-in-law, and nephew are all current students; his wife is an alumna of both Wharton and the College.