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Ivy League school under fire for hosting 'antisemitic' writers festival

The University of Pennsylvania is coming under fire for hosting the Palestine Writes Literature Festival that some say will feature antisemitic speakers.

A Palestinian literature festival that will be hosted at the University of Pennsylvania this week is coming under fire for featuring speakers who have made "antisemitic" comments, including "Death to Israel," and someone who has worn a Nazi-style uniform.

Penn will host the Palestine Writes Literature Festival from Friday through Sunday at various locations on campus. It's sponsored by school groups that include the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, the Department of Cinema and Media Studies, Kelly Writers House and the Middle East Center, according to an event page on Penn’s website.

The event is billed as showcasing "dozens of writers, artists, publishers, performers, and scholars to explore the richness and diversity of Palestinian culture."

Weeks before the event was set to kick off, students and Jewish groups sounded off that many of the planned speakers have a history of making antisemitic comments and that Jewish students could be vulnerable to discrimination from "anti-Jewish propaganda" at the event.

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"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," a group of 15 students wrote to school administrators, according to the Daily Pennsylvanian student newspaper.

The event has drawn harsh criticism from others across the country, including Republican Florida Rep. Carlos Giménez, who told Fox News Digital the literature festival "fuels hatred."

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"Antisemitism has no place anywhere," Giménez said. "I strongly condemn an event like the Palestine Writes Literature Festival that fuels hatred and perpetuates despicable antisemitic canards."

The Florida Republican represents Miami-Dade County, home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the U.S. and the world, and has used his office to introduce legislation intended to bolster U.S.-Israeli relations.

"I stand resolutely with our Jewish-American community and with students combating antisemitism on campuses across the nation. In Congress, I remain committed to fighting antisemitism and to reinforcing America’s unbreakable bond with the democratic, Jewish state of Israel," he continued.

Planned speakers such as Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, Palestinian-American author Susan Abulhawa, Australian author Randa Abdel-Fattah and illustrator and Palestinian author Aya Ghanameh have drawn criticism for previous remarks or actions.

Waters, for example, wore a Nazi-style uniform during a concert in Berlin in May and was accused by Israel of "desecrating the memory of Anne Frank" by projecting the girl’s name during the concert. The U.S. State Department subsequently said in a statement in June that Waters has "a long track record of using antisemitic tropes" and that his Berlin concert "contained imagery that is deeply offensive to Jewish people and minimized the Holocaust."

Waters said after the concert that he wore the uniform to oppose "fascism, injustice and bigotry."

Ghanameh has tweeted "Death to Israel" on various occasions. Abdel-Fattah has called Israel a "demonic, sick project" and added that she "can’t wait for the day we commemorate its end."

Abulhawa has called for the dismantling of Israel, which she called "a colonial nation of degenerates" on her now-suspended account on X, formerly Twitter. She also said Israel is "one big, militarized tumor" just days after seven Jews were killed in a shooting outside a synagogue.

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"Every Israeli, whether in a synagogue, a checkpoint, a settlement, or shopping mall is a colonizer who came from foreign lands and kicked out the native inhabitants. They all serve in the racist colonial military. The whole country is one big, militarized tumor," Abulhawa said on X in January, according to the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.

A truck that has been blaring statements made by the event's scheduled speakers has been traveling around the city and campus this week, urging people to tell Penn's president "racists are not welcome at UPenn."

Israeli actress and activist Noa Tishby slammed organizers of the writers festival.

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"The intention of the organizers is very transparent. This conference is being held for one reason only: To demonize, vilify and obsessively target the world’s only Jewish state and put a target on the backs of Jewish students at the University of Pennsylvania," she said. 

Tishby served as co-executive producer of the HBO show "In Treatment" and has appeared on TV shows such as "Nip/Tuck" and "Big Love." She previously served as special envoy for combating antisemitism and the delegitimization of Israel and authored the book "Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth." 

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"UPenn's commitment to academic freedom must also come with a responsibility to counteract hate speech," Tishby added. "The UPenn's administration statement is insufficient in addressing the deeply rooted antisemitic sentiments of some of the festival's speakers. They must take a stronger stance by ensuring university departments pull their co-sponsorship of the event and implement mandatory antisemitism training for all students, faculty and administrators before the end of the fall semester."

Penn’s president, Elizabeth Magill, responded to outrage over the event this month in a letter co-authored by Provost John L. Jackson Jr. and Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences Steven J. Fluharty. The trio said the school did not organize the event, that student groups and school departments are sponsors for the 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 antisemitism by speaking and acting in ways that denigrate Jewish people. We unequivocally — and emphatically — condemn antisemitism as antithetical to our institutional values," the school leaders wrote.

Despite the concerns, the school leaders said they support "the free exchange of ideas," including "the expression of views that are controversial and even those that are incompatible with our institutional values."

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Penn was recently ranked as the second-worst school in the nation for free speech, behind Harvard, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. The school earned a "very poor" ranking by the nonprofit, saying "79% of students say shouting down a speaker to prevent them from speaking on campus is at least rarely acceptable" and "51% of students say they have self-censored on campus at least once or twice a month."

Abulhawa, who serves as the festival's executive director, told the Pennsylvanian Daily that "no one at our festival is an antisemite" and slammed the letter authored by Magill and other school leaders for not mustering "the courage to defend an indigenous people's moral and necessary struggle against Israeli colonial fascism."

"This festival is a minimal recognition of the humanity of a deeply denigrated and marginalized people," she said.

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The event will feature panel discussions, children’s programming, music, cooking and other gatherings across the Philadelphia campus, according to descriptions of the festival.

"Crossing multiple borders — geographic, linguistic, and cultural boundaries — writers, artists, publishers, booksellers, scholars, musicians, and thinkers hold conversations about art, literature, and the intersections between culture and power, struggle, politics, climate change, sexuality, human rights, animal rights, food sovereignty, and more," Penn's Wolf Humanities Center says of the event on its website.

Penn’s media team and Magill’s office did not immediately respond to Fox News Digital’s request for comment on the event and subsequent condemnation. Palestine Writes planned speakers Abulhawa, Abdel-Fattah and Ghanameh and representatives for Waters did not respond to Fox News Digital's request for comment.

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