Penn Hillel plans ‘Shabbat Together’ event as controversy grows over Palestinian literature festival

In response to an upcoming Palestinian literature festival, Penn Hillel is planning a Shabbat Together event on Friday at 7:30 p.m.
Credit: Hannah Lazar

Penn Hillel announced a campus-wide show of support for Jewish students and demanded further University action amid growing controversy over a Palestinian literature festival.

The Palestine Writes Literature Festival, which is scheduled to begin Friday, Sept. 22, has drawn outrage from Jewish groups on campus and nationwide — who say that previous statements by the festival’s speakers threaten the safety and belonging of Jewish students at Penn. Various organizations and event organizers have continued to spar after University administrators addressed criticism of the event in a statement on Tuesday.

As part of its ongoing response to the festival, Penn Hillel is planning a “massive” Shabbat Together event on Friday at 7:30 p.m. aimed at promoting unity on campus, Penn Hillel Executive Director and Rabbi Gabe Greenberg wrote in a letter to the organization’s mailing list on Sept. 14. 

“Prominent politicians and Penn alumni will be coming to celebrate along with hundreds of students, to show — contrary to what antisemites like Roger Waters would have us believe — that Jewish Penn students will NEVER stop showing their pride in Israel, their Jewish identity, heritage, and beliefs,” Greenberg wrote. 

Waters, the co-founder of the band Pink Floyd, has an extensive history of denigrating Jewish people, the U.S. State Department said after a concert he gave in Germany that included imagery that “minimized the Holocaust.” Another speaker, Professor Marc Lamont Hill, apologized in 2018 after he faced criticism for saying he supported “a free Palestine from the river to the sea,” – described by some as a call to destroy Israel. 

Greenberg did not respond to a request for comment Sunday. An automatic response from his email address said he was out of the office through Sunday for Rosh Hashanah. 

In addition to hosting the Shabbat Together event, Greenberg said Penn Hillel would join other campus groups in hosting a food giveaway on Sept. 24 prior to Yom Kippur. He also promised additional actions to come, including “bringing in big-name speakers on the issues of fighting antisemitism, Jewish pride, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Greenberg called on the event’s Penn-affiliated sponsors and partners to remove their logos from the festival website and condemn antisemitic remarks made by individual speakers. 

The Palestine Writes Literature Festival — which celebrates itself as the “only North American literature festival dedicated to celebrating and promoting cultural productions of Palestinian writers and artists” — was funded in part by Penn’s Sachs Program for Arts Innovation through a Community Partnerships Grant. 

The Sachs Program said on Thursday that the grant went towards a “panel of mural and graffiti artists” and an art and photography exhibit. 

“We acknowledge the concerns that have been raised over some of the festival speakers. As we did not fund this programming, we will not comment directly on it,” the Sachs Program’s statement read. “The Sachs Program supports projects that reflect our Priorities for Grantmaking and align with our Mission. We condemn all forms of discrimination.”

As of Sunday evening, the Sachs Program logo was still present on the Palestine Writes website. The festival has partnered with several additional Penn programs and departments, including Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Cinema and Media Studies, and the Kelly Writers House

Penn Hillel student leaders have also pointed out that the festival takes place as the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur is beginning. In his letter, Greenberg asked that Penn ensure that no Jewish or pro-Israel student is required to attend the festival and that the University does not host antisemitic speakers. 

At least one of the speakers — Islamic University of Gaza professor Refaat Alareer — was no longer scheduled as a speaker at the event as of Thursday, according to some reports

Greenberg’s letter was accompanied by a statement posted on Penn Hillel’s Instagram, where the organization wrote that it would continue to meet with administrators to increase support for Jewish life. 

“Penn Hillel students and staff have met, and will continue to meet with high-level University administrators to ensure that Penn takes seriously its legal and ethical responsibility to address and call out antisemitism whenever and wherever it occurs,” the organization wrote. 

A request for comment about whether Magill, Provost John Jackson, or Fluharty plan to attend the festival or Shabbat Together was left with a University spokesperson.

Other students, including Arab and Palestinian affinity groups on campus, have pushed back against Penn’s response to the upcoming festival, saying that the event is “a long-awaited affirmation of their belonging and worth.”

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