Later this week, the “Palestine Writes Literary Festival” will be held at the University of Pennsylvania. This has drawn severe criticism from Jewish groups and individuals inside and outside Penn, as some speakers have a history of anti-Semitic rhetoric.
The Penn administration acknowledges that people have raised concerns about several speakers who “have a documented and troubling history of anti-Semitism by speaking and acting in ways that denigrate Jewish people.” Penn nevertheless defends hosting the conference on academic freedom grounds, but adds that the conference was not organized by the university.
Okay, but you might wonder why several academic departments are ‘sponsors’ of the festival, meaning they provide funding. It is not an academic conference as such; some speakers are not Palestinians, academics or poets; and it is difficult to imagine these departments funding a conference featuring speakers with a similar history of denigrating other minority groups.
Whatever the case, the organizers of Palestine Writes want you to know that the accusations of anti-Semitism against their conference are false. Hmm.
Well, if you want to know how NOT to start a letter defending yourself against accusations of anti-Semitism, you can use this letter as a model. After noting that the festival has received harsh criticism from “the Jewish Federation and the ADL,” organizers say the following:
Unlike our adversaries, we do not operate in the shadows, nor among elite decision makers and financiers. Instead, we value transparency and public access, accountability and control. We are also well aware of the power imbalance between these highly funded, connected and organized Zionist organizations versus our small cultural institution run by volunteers and student organizations, most of which are Penn students.
Speaking of self-possession… The organizers are so clueless about anti-Semitism that they engage in classic anti-Jewish tropes while defending themselves against accusations of anti-Semitism. Which kind of undermines everything they’ve said or will say in their defense.
UPDATE: I should note that even if PW’s opponents were truly operating “in the shadows,” it would be impolitic at best to frame things the way the leaders did. But in fact, ADL and the local Jewish Federation have openly criticized PW and said whatever you want about the ADL – and it’s not exactly my favorite organization, personally – its basic modus operandi is to get as much publicity and attention for its views as possible. . Also, local Jewish federations (the main communal fundraising arm) are not exactly known for hiding their existence or their policy positions.