Palestine Writes fights censorship calls

A sign with the name of the university affixed to a low stone wall.

The University of Pennsylvania is distancing itself from the Palestine Writes Literature Festival. Organizers and civil rights groups are demanding that the UPenn administration not accede to anti-Palestinian demands. (University of Pennsylvania)

Civil rights activists and organizers of a Palestinian festival held this year at the University of Pennsylvania are calling on the university to ensure that the event moves forward despite relentless attacks against it.

This week, the Palestine Writes Literature Festival will host writers, artists and cultural figures from Palestine and around the world including historian Salman Abu Sitta, author Suad Amiry, rock star Roger Waters, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Than Nguyen, CUNY professor Marc Lamont Hill and many others.

Major anti-Palestinian lobby groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Federation, StandWithUs and the Zionist Organization of America, have launched defamatory attacks on the festival and its speakers, asserting that Jewish students on campus will be endangered by the event.

It is a standard trope promoted by Israel lobby organizations to claim that supporting Palestinian rights is tantamount to anti-Jewish bigotry. The claim is solely aimed at silencing activism and disrupting discussion about Israel’s human rights record.

“While we are not surprised by such a campaign to discredit and denigrate us, we are compelled to respond,” novelist Susan Abulhawa, the director of the festival, stated in an open letter.
Abulhawa, writing on behalf of the festival organizers, said that “it is particularly galling and insulting – if not outright libelous – to suggest that we pose a threat to Jewish students on campus.”

On 12 September, top UPenn administrators issued a statement distancing the administration from the Palestine Writes festival.

“While the festival will feature more than 100 speakers, many have raised deep concerns about several speakers who have a documented and troubling history of engaging in anti-Semitism by speaking and acting in ways that denigrate Jewish people,” the administrators wrote.

“We unequivocally – and emphatically – condemn anti-Semitism as antithetical to our institutional values.”

In response, the civil rights group Palestine Legal urged the administration to “publicly reject efforts to malign the conference and participants and instead uplift the rights of Palestinians to engage in such an artistically and intellectually rigorous cultural celebration on campus.”

“By repeating the conclusions of conference opponents who are falsely maligning as anti-Semites conference participants because they support Palestinian freedom and equality, Penn is guilty of perpetuating the anti-Palestinian racism that is at the heart of these detractors’ claims,” Palestine Legal stated.

“The conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish sentiment is a tired old tactic that should be rejected. Moreover, suggestions that Jewish students are at risk of any kind of physical harm plays into harmful stereotypes about Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students.”

The civil rights group said that the university should not only allow the event to take place, but to also refrain “from imposing extra burdens on the event, including security fees, bureaucratic hurdles and surveillance.”

Palestine Legal warned UPenn that acceding to demands for increased scrutiny and surveillance would not only violate academic freedom and free speech, but could open the university up to federal complaints.

“Penn can’t discriminate against Palestinians and supporters of Palestinian rights just because Israel apologists don’t want them on campus,” stated Palestine Legal attorney Radhika Sainath.

“They’re trying to do here what Israel is doing to Palestinians on the ground, and the law simply does not allow for it.”

This is not the first time that anti-Palestinian organizations have attempted to shut down an event at UPenn.

In the lead-up to a student-organized conference on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign for Palestinian rights in 2012, the Israel Action Network, spearheaded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and with endorsement by the Israeli consulate, claimed that the event would promote “intolerance on campus.”

The on-campus Israel advocacy group Hillel accused the conference of “delegitimizing” Israel and major donors to the university were threatened to withdraw their support if the conference proceeded.

UPenn’s president at the time, Amy Gutmann, refused to defend her students who were under attack by these well-funded censorship efforts.

Targeting universities with bogus claims

Lawmakers have also joined in the harassment campaign against the literature festival.

New Jersey representative Josh Gottheimer, who has a history of smearing students and faculty with false claims of anti-Jewish bigotry, called on UPenn to cancel the festival’s speakers.

“If the university’s goal is to promote mutual understanding and bring students together, it will fail so long as anti-Semites and anti-Israel advocates are given a platform to spew hatred,” claimed the lawmaker.

Gottheimer’s other target is Princeton University, where a course on “decolonizing trauma studies” includes Jasbir Puar’s book, The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability, on the syllabus.

Puar’s book documents how Israel is intentionally causing serious injuries to Palestinians.

Over the summer, Israel lobby groups clamored to have the book dropped from the class reading list.

An Israeli minister wrote to Princeton’s president, Christopher Eisgruber, accusing the university of “blood libel.”

To his credit, Eisgruber last week rebuffed Gottheimer’s demands and those made by lobby groups and Israeli politicians to ban the book.

Eisgruber stated that Puar’s book would not be pulled from the class syllabus – even though he felt a need to assert that his “last scholarly publication before accepting the presidency was a defense of [Israel’s state ideology] Zionism.”


Meanwhile, the organizers of the Palestine Writes festival say that the Israel lobby groups’ attempts to smear the featured speakers as anti-Jewish bigots are not only false but dangerous.

“Unsurprisingly, the original [ADL and Jewish Federation] letter speaks of ‘anti-Israel bias and anti-Semitism’ as if these are interchangeable concepts,” the novelist Susan Abulhawa writes in her open letter.

“The latter is a form of religion-based bigotry with a legacy of violence and profound harm, while the former is a wholly legitimate and necessary criticism of a settler-colonial state with one of the worst human rights records in the world, which has, and continues to be credibly accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the crime of apartheid,” Abulhawa adds.

“Situating those individual Palestinians and our allies in league with actual anti-Semites is wholly irresponsible and dangerous. It is also an insult to the intelligence of your university community.”

“We categorically reject this cynical, sinister, and ahistorical conflation of bigotry with the moral repudiation of a foreign state’s criminality, particularly as most of us are victims of that state,” the letter adds. “It is distressing that the university blindly accepted this conflation without question or comment.”


Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).