UPenn Anti-Israel Hatefest Could Violate Federal Law, Group Warns

Ivy League ‘complicit in fostering a hostile environment for Jewish and Israeli students’

A Jewish solidarity march in March 2020 / Getty Images
September 26, 2023

The University of Pennsylvania’s decision to host an event featuring a slew of anti-Semites could violate federal laws meant to protect minority students, like Jews, from hostility on campus, according to a legal watchdog group.

The Ivy League school located in downtown Philadelphia over the weekend hosted the Palestine Writes Literature Festival, a three-day event that featured speakers who have praised terrorism against Israel and slurred the country’s supporters as "scum" and "filth." The event drew criticism from Jewish and pro-Israel advocacy groups who accused the university of fostering a hostile environment on campus. Just a day before the festival took place, Penn’s Jewish center was vandalized by an assailant who screamed anti-Semitic obscenities, escalating tensions on campus and exacerbating fears among Jewish students.

Now, one legal watchdog group has informed the university that its decision to endorse the event could violate Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination based on ethnicity or national origin.

"The university’s refusal to distance itself from the event by defunding or condemning the specific anti-Semitic rhetoric peddled by many of the event’s scheduled speakers, renders the university complicit in fostering a hostile environment for Jewish and Israeli students on its campus," the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under the Law wrote in a letter sent last week to the school.

"By tacitly condoning the inflammatory and false narratives about Israel and the denial of the Jews’ ancestral connection to the land of Israel—themes that speakers at this weekend’s Festival repeatedly espouse—Penn is allowing the festival to create a hostile environment for Jewish students on its campus at a time when, even the university has acknowledged, anti-Semitic harassment, vandalism, and assault are rising on college campuses," the group wrote to Penn president Elizabeth Magill.

Speakers at the event included anti-Israel Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, former Palestinian political prisoner Wisam Rafeedie who writes favorably about terror attacks on Israel, and Salman Abu Sitta, who sits on the advisory board of an Israeli-designated terror group.

Marc Lamont Hill also conducted a panel during the event. Hill, who was fired from a gig at CNN for advocating Israel’s destruction, has praised Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan as "my brother" and refused to distance himself from the prolific anti-Semite.

Another scheduled attendee, Refatt Alareer, is a professor at the Islamic University of Gaza. He often shares anti-Semitic materials on social media and lashes at out Zionists, who he has dubbed "the ugliest, unfunniest, and most untalented people on the globe," according to Camera, a pro-Israel watchdog group.

While Penn issued a public statement acknowledging that many of the festival’s featured speakers "have a documented and troubling history of engaging in antisemitism by speaking and acting in ways that denigrate Jewish people," it declined to cancel the event, citing a policy of "support[ing] the free exchange of ideas."

In private communications with Jewish groups on campus and the Anti-Defamation League, a watchdog group that also opposed the event, the school issued similar justifications.

"Penn has made minimal efforts to address the concerns of students, alumni, trustees, Jewish leaders, and local Jewish groups," according to the Brandeis Center. "In conversations with Hillel student leadership, administrators acknowledged that the conference speakers were ‘problematic,’ but instead of addressing the Festival, they promised only to do  better ‘in the future.’"

This, the legal group said, "does nothing to address the immediate problem. It fails to protect Jewish students from the hostile campus environment the Festival is already generating."

Alyza Lewin, the Brandeis Center’s president, told the Washington Free Beacon that Penn is "legally obligated" to take immediate steps that will stymie an atmosphere of hostility towards Jews on campus.

"A festival billed as a celebration of Palestinian culture featured an overwhelming number of speakers who routinely deny the Jews' ancestral connection to Israel and who demonize, shun, and treat as pariahs those Jews who see this ancestral heritage as an integral component of their Jewish identity," Lewin said. "The university is legally obligated to take prompt and effective steps to address the hostile environment for Jews created by this festival and to ensure that no Jewish students are targeted, marginalized, harassed or excluded as a result."

Meanwhile, the Palestine Writes Literature Festival is also facing legal threats from the Pennsylvania governor for claiming it is supported by the state’s Council on the Arts.

The festival’s official website features the arts council’s logo on its website under a list of sponsors, though it is not one. The governor’s office is threatening to take legal action against the organization if it does not drop the false endorsement from its materials.