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What Jewish Students at Penn Want You to Know About Antisemitism and the Palestine Writes Event

What Jewish Students at Penn Want You to Know About Antisemitism and the Palestine Writes Event

Update: 2023-09-28
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All eyes have been on the University of Pennsylvania and the Palestine Writes event, a gathering meant to give voice to Palestinian art, poetry, and literature on campus. However, a number of the speakers, including Roger Waters and Marc Lamont Hill, have well-documented histories of antisemitic statements. 

Maya Harpaz, Vice President of Israel Engagement at Penn Hillel, and Jonah Miller, a reporter for The Daily Pennsylvanian, take you through what unfolded, growing campus antisemitism, defining free speech on campus, and the responsibility of university administrators to protect Jewish students. 

*The views and opinions expressed by guests do not necessarily reflect the views or position of AJC. 

Episode Lineup: 

  • (0:40 ) Maya Harpaz, Jonah Miller

Show Notes:

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Transcript of Interview with Maya Harpaz and Jonah Miller:

Manya Brachear Pashman:

Meggie Wyschogrod Fredman, AJC's Senior Director of the Alexander Young Leadership Department, guest hosts this week’s conversation with two Jewish college students about a situation on their campus and how they responded. Meggie, take it away. 

Meggie Wyschogrod Fredman:  

Thanks, Manya. This past week, it seemed like all eyes were on the University of Pennsylvania in the lead up to the Palestine Writes event. The event was meant to give voice to Palestinian art, poetry, and literature- all of which are quite appropriate and indeed valuable to have on a university campus. However, a number of the announced speakers strayed from the event’s purpose and instead have well-documented histories of antisemitic statements.

These include Roger Waters, who was recently described by the U.S. State Department as having a long track record of using antisemitic tropes, after he desecrated the memory of Holocaust victim Anne Frank, compared Israel to the Third Reich, and recently paraded around a stage wearing an SS Nazi uniform during a concert in Berlin.

It also included Marc Lamont Hill, whose public remarks as a CNN commentator called for Israel’s eradication. At play were questions around growing campus antisemitism, free speech on campus, and the role of university administrators in preventing such bigotry–particularly with the release in May of the U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism, and its outsized focus on how antisemitism affects Jewish students on campus. 

To help us break down these events and what unfolded are two Jewish students who experienced this all firsthand and helped drive the course of events. 

Joining me are Maya Harpaz, a junior at Penn, and Vice President of Israel Engagement at Penn Hillel, and Jonah Miller, a junior at Penn, and a reporter for The Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn’s student newspaper.

Maya and Jonah, thanks for joining us on People of the Pod. 

Jonah Miller:  

Thank you so much for having me. I'm really looking forward to our discussion.

Maya Harpaz:  

Yeah, thank you for having us.

Meggie Wyschogrod Fredman: 

Great. So with that, let's jump in. So there are many chapters to what happened at Penn, and I think a great deal of misinformation. So let's go back to the beginning. When did Jewish students first hear about the Palestine Writes event, and particularly its speaker lineup? And upon initially learning about it, what were the specific concerns that Jewish students had?

Jonah Miller:  

I think that when I learned about the Palestine Writes event, I learned about it simultaneously with who some of these speakers are. Penn is a large university and institution that has countless events each day, hosted and co-sponsored by numerous different departments and facets of the university. If I had learned about this festival, solely, just about the festival, I would say, you know, great, it's great that this culture, and these literary items are being amplified on campus. Everyone and every culture should have a space on this campus. 

But to learn about at the same time as concerns of antisemitic speakers, that's when I as a Jewish student, started to get a little nervous. Nervous, because how could Penn allow antisemitic speakers to come speak on a campus that is close to 20% Jewish? And even without that high percentage, how could they be invited to speak at all?

Maya Harpaz:  

Yeah, I can touch on that as well. In my role as VP Israel, a big part of that is seeing what events are going on, whether it be related to the Middle East at large, Israel, Palestinians, all of that combined. So I learned about this event A while ago, late July, early August. So before it was really even being spoken about on campus. I was having conversations as the speakers were still being finalized, as marketing materials were still being put out and discussed with a lot of the other student leaders and Hillel staff, about what our approach was going to be to handle this event. 

And how we were going to relay that to the Jewish community at large. So similar to what Jonah said, Jewish students definitely learned about the event and the problematic speakers hand in hand after Hillel started sending out emails about it. And after we sent our letter to the administration and after the DP coverage.

Meggie Wyschogrod Fredman: 

So Maya, I want to dive into that approach in the letter that you just raised. At least from the outside, one of the first steps seemed to be a letter drafted by Penn's Jewish student leadership to President Magill, of which you were a signatory, outlining specific steps the community wanted the university to take on. So can you give us some background of how that letter came into being and can you share for our listeners what it outlined for the administration?

Maya Harpaz:  

Yes, so this letter came to be sort of as we were having these conversations over the summer. And then once we got to campus, we all sat down with the presidents of PIPAC, SSI, Tamid, presidents of Chabad. And we sort of sat down and we were like, we know why these speakers and why this event could be problematic for our community. How do we outline that to the administration in a way that is logical and not also attacking of another group's culture. Because that's not what we wanted to do. It wasn't our goal to get this event canceled, it wasn't to blow it up in their faces. It was really just, we have specific concerns, and how do we articulate that? 

So we wrote this letter addressed to the president, the provost, and the dean, and sent it to high-level members of the President's administration, specifically referencing Roger Waters and Marc Lamont Hill. And we asked them to have a meeting with us so we could really sit down and have a conversation, and to make a statement about this event. 

And from my perspective, it was definitely a productive meeting, we voiced our concerns about the speakers, we asked them a lot of questions about what was the process of this event being welcomed on our campus, and they explained how they rented out the space and the head of the NELC department explained the process of co-sponsoring, and we really had an open dialogue about what really happened and how we can improve on that in the future. And then shortly after that, the President released her statement about the event.

Meggie Wyschogrod Fredman: 

So Maya, I want to dive into a number of things that you just got at. So one is, and you alluded to this, the letter specifically did not call for the canceling of the event. And from my understanding, that's not something that Hillel was asking for. Can you talk about why that is?

Maya Harpaz:  

Yes. So as Jonah also said, when you learn about just the event as the Palestine Writes Literature Festival, it sounds perfectly normal. Sounds like it's just a group wanting to celebrate their culture and their literature. And our goal was not to cancel that. There was over I think, 120 speakers. And our goal was to call ou

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What Jewish Students at Penn Want You to Know About Antisemitism and the Palestine Writes Event

What Jewish Students at Penn Want You to Know About Antisemitism and the Palestine Writes Event