Penn alumni on the Palestine Writes festival: The path forward is through education

To Jewish students who feel threatened, here’s our message: know your history, embrace its highs and reflect on its lows, and share your understanding passionately.
Locust Walk on Penn's campus (Photo: Getty Image)

In the wake of the Palestine Writes festival featuring speakers who have a history of making antisemitic statements, it’s crucial we reflect on the balance between free speech and the values we hold dear as a community.

In navigating the balance between free speech and upholding our cherished values, the call is not just to “cancel” or “condemn,” but to “educate.” As Penn alumni, our experiences and the recent events on campus remind us of the pressing need for informed dialogue.

Now, as leaders at a Jewish media and education company, we are deeply disappointed that the university allowed such speakers on campus. A university that is committed to free speech and diverse viewpoints must also draw its red lines when it comes to hate speech.

The university’s decision to allow several departments to go forward with speakers espousing such views is inconsistent with the values of the school we know and love.

That is why we feel compelled to share our perspectives. During our time at Penn, we both experienced firsthand the vibrancy of Jewish life, from Hillel and Chabad to Greek life and Shabbat dinners all over campus.

Penn has been one of the best schools to be Jewish for decades. At a time of rising antisemitic incidents on U.S. college campuses, it is essential that Penn takes the lead and upholds its values.

History has shown that hate speech has consequences, and we are deeply troubled to learn that Penn Hillel was vandalized last Thursday ahead of a morning prayer service.

We do not take the timing of this incident as a coincidence. Whether at Hillel, Locust Walk, or anywhere on campus, Jewish students deserve to feel safe and thrive at Penn. The school’s decision not to intervene has tangible consequences for Penn’s Jewish community.

It’s crucial to contextualize the university’s role in this situation. There is a spectrum of involvement, from a speaker formally invited by the university to one brought by a student group. While the latter might be offensive, it doesn’t necessarily signify university endorsement.

This festival lies somewhere in between; while not directly organized by Penn, it was sponsored by or supported by several programs and departments, such as the Kelly Writers House, Cinema & Media Studies, Wolf Humanities Center, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and the Middle East Center. (Some have since reconsidered or qualified their endorsements.)

Given that this event happened on Penn’s grounds and received substantial departmental support, it’s reasonable to expect the university to bear some responsibility.

To clarify, Penn has previously seen the presence of speakers with anti-Israel and antisemitic views at events, primarily organized by student groups. During our tenure as students about a dozen years ago, there were multiple occasions when such speakers were invited under the banner of pro-Palestinian events, which would often veer into anti-Israel narratives.

During our time on campus, one of us would actively respond to these speakers, distributing material to educate attendees about the context and troubling nature of the speakers, and attending events to engage in dialogue and push back where necessary.

Universities like Penn, with their commitment to freedom of expression and diverse narratives, often find themselves grappling with such challenges. Yet, Penn’s current stance seems at odds with its rich traditions.

Penn’s tradition of intellectual rigor has always been its hallmark, emphasizing the importance of discovery and informed debate. We recall a campus where diversity and inclusion were celebrated, believing that varied perspectives enhance the learning experience. The university’s commitment to social responsibility and the constructive pursuit of knowledge was clear.

The recent decision not to intervene when faced with speakers who have repeatedly voiced discriminatory views is perplexing and seems misaligned with these values. By giving a platform to such divisive rhetoric, the university risks undermining the sense of belonging every Penn student should feel, and it strays from its core principle of fostering evidence-based arguments and social unity.

There’s a fundamental difference between celebrating Palestinian culture and advocating for their rights — which includes voicing opposition to specific Israeli policies — and taking a stance that denies Israel’s right to exist or promotes hate speech.

While constructive criticism of policies can foster dialogue and understanding, negating a nation’s right to exist and spreading hate only deepens divisions and animosity.

At Unpacked, our primary response to hate speech is through education. We’re fortunate to be part of an organization dedicated to telling the story of Israel and the Jewish people — which includes and is inextricably connected to the Palestinian people — in all its complexity. We believe that Penn’s Jewish community and its broader audience could benefit from a similar approach.

What steps, then, could Penn’s Jewish community and its allies take in this situation? In true Penn fashion, we’re pragmatic: the likelihood of convincing Roger Waters to recant his views is slim. And writing a statement can only achieve so much in reassuring worried students or shifting a campus culture.

We recently came across a piece discussing the Jewish community’s divided reactions to the festival, titled, “Cancel or condemn? Jewish groups […] are split on the ideal response.” We’d like to introduce a third option: “Educate — both yourself and the broader community.”

This idea is particularly resonant at an academic institution like Penn, where education stands at the core of its mission. To Jewish students, both at Penn and globally who feel threatened, here’s our message: know your history, embrace its highs and reflect on its lows, and share your understanding passionately.

Equipped with this knowledge, when confronted with challenging questions like, “Didn’t Israel steal Palestinians’ land?” or “Isn’t Zionism a colonialist project?” you’ll be empowered with informed and more complete answers. For those interested in learning the history, check out our podcasts, YouTube videos, and articles.

To the broader community: whether you’re intrigued by the narratives of Palestinian writers, or if you find yourself among the many who feel indifferent to this discourse, we encourage you to explore our content, where you can delve deeper into the story of Israel in all of its complexity.

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