Worthy and Worthless Victims through the Lens of Palestine Writes
By anonymously submitted | Fall 2023
Arabic words filled the air and everywhere I turned I recognized the distinct black and white pattern of khuffeiyhs. Laying on the floor was a massive map of Palestine and those surrounding it pointed at cities describing their family history. Laughs, hugs, and great conversation surrounded me and for the first time on Penn’s Campus I felt at home.
The Palestine Writes Literature Festival, which was held at the University of Pennsylvania in late September, was truly the first of its kind. Speakers and performers such as Dana Dajani and Darin Sallam came to represent both the culture of Palestinians and other indigenous communities at large. “There were not just Arabs at the event; there were so many different communities: indigenous people from around the world, Hispanics, African-Americans, and Jewish people,” a second-year student who attended the festival told me.
But despite the unprecedented turnout and overwhelmingly positive commentary by those who attended the event, Palestine Writes had attracted a concerted effort by those eager to disperse any form of Palestinian gathering. The opposition campaign began at the university level. Two weeks prior to the festival, Penn officials, including President Elizabeth Magill, released a statement which struck a patronizing tone: “We unequivocally—and emphatically—condemn antisemitism as antithetical to our institutional values. As a university, we also fiercely support the free exchange of ideas as central to our educational mission. This includes the expression of views that are controversial and even those that are incompatible with our institutional values.” Implicit in their message was a vicious insinuation: that the celebration of Palestinian culture is something that Penn must grudgingly accommodate—or even a necessary evil that Penn must allow—to defend the higher value of free speech, rather than something that deserves institutional support as any other cultural activities on campus do.
Even worse, by calling activists denouncing the Israeli government “antisemitic” and viewing the mere existence of Palestinian culture as a threat to the Jewish people, Penn officials dangerously conflated antizionism with antisemitism and absolved the Israeli government of its responsibility for 75 years of settler-colonialism. Zionism—the modern political movement that advocated for a Jewish state to be established in Palestine—popularized the infamous slogan, “A land without a people for a people without a land”, which dismissed the Arab natives who have inhabited Palestinians for centuries as politically illegitimate., Zionism was responsible for the Nakba (“catastrophe”), which expelled over half of Palestinians from their homelands in 1948. Zionism is what has caused more than five million Palestinian refugees to be scattered across the Middle East.
By contrast, Judaism is a religion that transcends governments and ideologies and counts among its adherers many who are critical of the Israeli state. Jack Starobin, a fourth-year student involved in Penn Chavurah, a progressive Jewish group, worries that the conflation of criticism of the Israeli state with racism against the Jewish people is self-defeating. “When you claim that anything that is critical of Israel is antisemitic, it makes it very hard to talk about the real threats to Jewish safety with the gravity they deserve,” Starobin explained. He noted that practicing Judaism is a way for him to stay connected with the people who have passed this faith down generations, including his great-grandmother who fled from anti-semitism in Eastern Europe.
Lamentably, the Israeli government has taken advantage of Jewish people’s past sufferings to justify the Israeli state’s present abuses. Specifically, the Israeli government has weaponized the Holocaust to justify violence against Palestianians, whom it called the “new Nazis.” This is a sinister rhetorical trick, as it reduced hapless Palestinians into an inhuman force of evil and legitimized the Israeli army’s extrajudicial killing. Consequently, the Israeli government has been acting freely without accountability. It got away from committing war crimes, including but not limited to collective punishment in Gaza, which has led to the death of 10,000 Palestinians and counting. It has been denying Palestinians’ right to return, which is against international law. Even when an Israeli parliament member stated the intention of “erasing the Gaza Strip from the face of the earth,” people shrugged it off because they likened Israel’s war on civilians to “fighting Nazis.” This ridiculous rationale for collective punishment, which violates the Geneva Convention, is no different from Russia’s claim that its war on Ukrainian civilians is a “denazification” campaign.
A better approach is to recognize that even the formerly oppressed can turn into oppressors themselves, and that lessons learned about oppression in one place have been conveniently forgotten in another. From within the Palestinian border to college campuses in the US, people who associate themselves with the Palestinian cause are confronting a powerful and coercive establishment. For example, after several law firms rescinded offers from students who signed open letters that criticized the Israeli government, students fear that their career would be jeopardized if they were to reveal their sympathy for the Palestinians. A second-year student involved in pro-Palestinian activism told me that she had to suspend her LinkedIn account and set her other social media profiles as private. “When you look up my name, the page is one of the first things that pops up, which I know employers are going to be taking note of,” she said, adding that the website that doxxed her “implies a false correlation between believing in Palestine’s right to exist and being antisemitic.” Since then she has been fearful for her family’s safety and her own.
The unequal power dynamic also manifests in the university’s selective sympathy for Jewish victims of harassment while marginalizing the safety concerns of Arab students and their sympathizers. When several university professors received death threats for attending a rally that protested the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, the university turned a blind eye to their safety and did not issue any official statement of solidarity. But when Jewish faculties received hateful messages, President Magill immediately rushed to their defense, calling these acts “intolerable” and vowed to “personally [condemn] these vicious and hateful antisemitic acts and words.” Intentional or not, President Magill conveniently elided the reality of antisemitism, namely that both Jews and Arabs are semites and deserve equal sympathy when they are victims of antisemitism. The president never bothered to explain why only one group of victims deserves her support but the other does not.
The Jewish struggle is real and the oppression the Jewish people have faced throughout history is unfathomable. However, by using the history of Jewish dispossession to justify current injustices inflicted on the Palestinians, the Israeli government and its accomplices deny Palestinians the liberation and freedom that the Jews themselves have aspired to. They enable statements demonizing Palestinians to be protected by the freedom of speech but legitimate criticism of the Israeli government to be denounced as hate speech. They obliterate academic freedom by privileging the voices of one group while silencing those of another. This must end, for the freedom of one should be universally offered to all or risk compromising freedom for everyone.