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Cancel or condemn? Jewish groups decrying UPenn’s ‘Palestine Writes’ festival are split on ideal response.

(JTA) –  A number of Jewish organizations have condemned an upcoming conference on Palestinian culture, taking place at the University of Pennsylvania, that includes speakers accused of antisemitism. But the groups decrying the conference disagree about what the school should do about it.

The biggest name speaking at the “Palestine Writes” festival taking place next weekend, from Friday, Sept. 22 to the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 24, is that of Roger Waters, the former Pink Floyd frontman who uses Holocaust imagery to bash Israel during his concerts. Other speakers at the conference, the Jewish organizations say, have used language that condones or encourages Israel’s destruction.

Jewish organizational responses have ranged from a call on the university to condemn the conference — which it did last week, albeit in terms that critics called inadequate — to a demand that the university shut the conference down or face legal consequences.

The disparate response point to a divide within the pro-Israel ecosystem over how universities should handle anti-Israel and arguably antisemitic speech on campus. While both sides of the discussion abhor such statements, one cohort of activists believes that federal law requires the university to quash the offensive speech, while the other says the dictates of academic freedom demand that even repugnant speech be allowed, though they say it should be condemned.  

Miriam Elman, executive director of the Academic Engagement Network, which works to counter antisemitic and anti-Israel activity on campus, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that her group would not demand the conference be canceled “unless there is a case of imminent threat, or bodily harm.” She added, “Our system of academic freedom and campus free expression is that: Offensive speech? Meet it with better speech.”

That approach contrasts with the demand issued by the Zionist Organization of America, which has urged its activists to tell the university to cancel the conference. If the university fails to do so, a recent ZOA action alert said, the right-wing pro-Israel group “may have a moral obligation to file a complaint under Title VI if this conference takes place.” Title VI refers to a section of the Civil Rights Act that bars discrimination in any institution that receives federal funds. Although the University of Pennsylvania is a private university, it receives federal research grants.

Palestine Writes has organized the annual festival since 2020, saying on its website that its founding was born from the pervasive exclusion from or tokenization of Palestinian voices in mainstream literary institutions.”

Susan Abulhawa, the executive director of “Palestine Writes,” said in an email that most of the festival was about Palestinians, and not Israel, but that naturally there would be expressions of criticism of the country.

“We have a glorious and rich heritage that is either being erased or appropriated by a 20th-century colonial enterprise that has worked overtime to denigrate us where they cannot fully erase us,” she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “It’s disappointing, though unsurprising, that the university could not muster the courage to defend an indigenous people’s moral and necessary struggle against Israeli colonial fascism.”

A festival spokesperson clarified that the event ends several hours before the beginning of the Jewish High Holiday of Yom Kippur, which starts on the evening of Sept. 24. The conference ends at 1 p.m.

Josh Gottheimer, a Jewish New Jersey Democratic congressman and Penn graduate, said in a letter to the university leadership that the university should at least disinvite Waters as well as Marc Lamont Hill, a Temple University professor and commentator fired from CNN in 2018 for calling for a free Palestine ”from the river to the sea” — a phrase many interpret as calling for the elimination of Israel. Hill said at the time that he was unaware of the phrase’s origins and that he was calling for a single binational Israeli-Palestinian state.

Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s former national director, told JTA that the event should trigger an inquiry by the Biden administration as part of its new plan to combat antisemitism. He also said Jewish alumni should organize to stop donating to the university. “The time has come for alumni to be more active,” he said, not just at Penn but on other campuses that have accommodated vehement critics of Israel.

After complaints from Jewish groups, the university made a statement acknowledging that the conference includes “several speakers who have a documented and troubling history of engaging in antisemitism by speaking and acting in ways that denigrate Jewish people. We unequivocally — and emphatically — condemn antisemitism as antithetical to our institutional values.”

Elman’s group and the Anti-Defamation League each told JTA that they hoped the university’s condemnation would be more robust. 

For Jewish and pro-Israel groups criticizing the conference, the most objectionable speaker is Waters, who is scheduled to speak on a Friday evening panel about the costs incurred by those who speak out on behalf of Palestinians. Rogers has used Holocaust imagery to criticize Israel, a practice watchdogs have called antisemitic because it trivializes the Holocaust and implies that Jews are now perpetrating its horrors on another people.

A number of other speakers have also been singled out by pro-Israel groups for their praise for members of designated terrorist groups or because they have used incendiary language to implicate all Israelis, not just their government’s policies. 

The university’s statement, which was signed by Penn President Elizabeth Magill and two other senior officials, noted that the festival is not organized by the university, although a number of university-affiliated entities — such as the Wolf Humanities Center — are cosponsors.  

“As a university, we also fiercely support the free exchange of ideas as central to our educational mission,” the statement said. “This includes the expression of views that are controversial and even those that are incompatible with our institutional values.”

Some critics said that Penn’s leadership had a duty to condemn university-affiliated cosponsors of the conference. 

“Universities can definitely express disappointment, chagrin, dismay in faculty choices,” Elman said. “They can say ‘this is terrible judgment.’”

Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said in an email to JTA, “Supporting academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas on campus, which ADL joins Penn in supporting, does not abdicate Penn leadership from taking a position.” 

According to Jewish Insider, the ADL, along with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, led a weeks-long effort to get the university to make a statement. The ADL recently released an analysis showing a sharp uptick in what it called “anti-Israel events” on college campuses.

“If Penn truly wants to show real support for the Jewish community, it must stop equivocating and start speaking out and taking action to stand with the Jewish community in an unequivocal, unambiguous manner,” Greenblatt said. The Jewish federation did not return a request for comment.

Elman and ZOA both noted a difference in the treatment the university has accorded the festival and a Jewish law professor, Amy Wax, who has made incendiary comments about Black and Asian students on the campus. Wax is embroiled in disciplinary hearings, which has spurred criticism of Penn by free speech advocates.

The university’s caution with “Palestine Speaks” may stem in part from a reluctance to wade into another battle over academic freedom. The controversy comes as Wax has invited a white supremacist, Jared Taylor, to campus for a second time. His presence at a 2021 event at Penn stirred protests. The Philadelphia Inquirer quoted students who believe Wax invited Taylor in order to portray the university as an institution that represses free expression.

Michal Cotler-Wunsch, who this week was named as Israel’s envoy to combat antisemitism, told JTA that the university’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion demanded a tougher response.

“Held in a DEI campus reality proclaiming commitment to provide and ensure equal access, safety and security to all students and faculty members, [the conference] must be measured with the same yardstick as any other group, recognizing that double standards in the application of any principle or rule undermines it,” she said.


The post Cancel or condemn? Jewish groups decrying UPenn’s ‘Palestine Writes’ festival are split on ideal response. appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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How Ramban Can Offer Hope in Dark Times for Israel’s Future

A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org.

report in January revealed that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) was experiencing significant mental health issues with some of their members as a result of the October 7th massacre and war in Gaza, with some requiring in-patient treatment. Most of the affected soldiers had been exposed to the gruesome aftermath of the Hamas attack in southern Israel, seeing tortured and mutilated bodies, as well as witnessing their friends dying or wounded in the effort to clear the area of Hamas operatives.

According to the January report, 90 soldiers were deemed unable to continue their service and had been discharged from duty. The IDF’s mental health experts also expressed concerns about the broader psychological repercussions of the massacre and war over time, particularly for reservists who needed to transition back to civilian life. They warned of the potential for “functioning difficulties” and a pervasive sense of meaninglessness in daily life after active service in urban warfare situations, and voiced concerns for the long-term welfare of those who were serving and continued to serve.

Three months later, the grisly six-month anniversary since October 7th has come and gone. Sadly, the situation has not improved, and indeed, it may have worsened. Moreover, with many of the reservists now back in civilian life, the predicted malaise has filtered its way into Israel’s population. Add to that those affected by the massacre and war through displacement and bereavement, plus the uncertainty of a war that isn’t over and a very uncertain political situation, and clearly Israel is not in a good place.

The bitter taste left by the audacious terrorism of the massacre itself, which exposed a vulnerability that most Israelis had convinced themselves had been mitigated by impenetrable defenses, has been compounded by months of war, IDF personnel killed, growing dissatisfaction with Israel’s leadership, and an acute awareness that the world-at-large is not on the same page as Israel regarding the threats it faces.

Early last month, it was announced that the official state ceremony for Israel’s 76th Independence Day in May will not feature the customary fireworks display due to the ongoing conflict. Miri Regev, the government minister overseeing the celebrations, explained that the adjustments to the ceremony’s format were in response to the October 7th massacre and the ongoing war. She also called on municipal leaders across Israel to omit fireworks from their local celebrations.

This week, Regev revealed that the official state-sponsored Independence Day ceremony will take place without a live audience, and will be pre-recorded. This set-piece event, usually held at Mount Herzl as the country transitions from Memorial Day to Independence Day, will be held in advance and then broadcast as Independence Day begins — the first time this has ever happened since Israel’s establishment in 1948, marking a significant departure from tradition.

Against this backdrop of strife and difficulty, we must reflect on the deeper spiritual and historical essence of Eretz Yisrael, the land of Jewish heritage that has been at the center of Jewish faith and identity for millennia, and at the same time, a place of immense sacrifice and suffering. To this end, Ramban (Nahmanides) offers a profound insight in his commentary on tzara’at, the malady described in detail in Tazria and Metzora.

Tzara’at can only occur in the Land of Israel — which means, says Ramban, that it is not a natural disease, but rather a miraculous manifestation of Divine providence, highlighting the unique spiritual stature of Eretz Yisrael, where Divine presence is most acutely felt. Ramban also mentions that tzara’at on houses only came into effect in Eretz Yisrael after the Israelites, led by Joshua, had completed the full fourteen years of conquest and division of the land after crossing the Jordan River following Moses’ death.

If you paused at that point in Ramban’s commentary, you might think that this rule is connected to his previous point — namely that tzara’at is a manifestation of the Divine status of Eretz Yisrael. Given that the full sanctity of the land wasn’t achieved until after 14 years had passed—a period after which regulations like tithes and offerings began to apply –you might assume that the laws regarding tzara’at on houses followed a similar pattern, appearing only when the land’s full sanctity had been established.

However, Ramban offers a far more meaningful insight to explain this phenomenon: the reason why afflictions on houses did not occur during the period of conquest was not due to a lack of sanctity, but because a heightened state of God-consciousness is essential for witnessing a divine intervention like tzara’at.

But in times of war, when survival dominates thought and action, achieving such a level of spiritual awareness is nearly impossible. The fog of war not only obscures the ordinary course of events in day-to-day life, it also puts up a barrier between us and God — and in that state we are incapable of being sensitive to the sanctity that is so obvious in times of peace.

Over the past few months, as the fog of war has descended upon us and clouded our minds, I have worried that the incredible miracle of Israel will recede from our consciousness. We are all in survival mode, even those who live in the Diaspora — all of us fielding unbridled hatred, and wondering how it will all end. In moments of doubt, we wonder what lies ahead for Israel in the long term, now that the existential threat has been revealed as ever-present and far more vigorous than we had ever previously imagined.

It is in exactly times like these that we must remember the resilient spirit and sacred essence of Eretz Yisrael. As we reflect upon our current hardships, we must draw strength from the profound wisdom of Ramban. His teaching regarding those 14 foundational years must remind us that even when the fog of war obscures the holiness of the land, that holiness remains, waiting to reemerge once peace is restored. Just as Joshua and the Israelites persisted through years of conquest so that they could bask in the land’s holiness and glory, we too must persevere, maintaining faith that the trials we face today are but temporary shadows over the enduring light of our nation.

Israel’s story is one of overcoming great adversities, the unbreakable spirit of its people, and the deep, abiding connection to Eretz Yisrael. The challenges of war and social discord cannot and will not diminish the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael, nor can they permanently cloud the divine providence that has guided our history. The current conflict, as harrowing as it is, presents an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to this sacred land, recognizing it as a source of strength and hope for us all.

As we approach the period in our Jewish calendar celebrating redemption and the formation of our nation, both in ancient history and in modern times, and while we endure the greatest challenges we have faced for generations, let this be a time of reflection and renewal.

We must hold fast to the belief that peace will return, and with it, the full expression of our land’s holiness and elevation. In the spirit of those who came before us, let us bear these trials with dignity and strength, looking forward to a future where Israel can once again shine as a light unto the nations, its sanctity fully rekindled.

The author is a rabbi in Beverly Hills, California.

The post How Ramban Can Offer Hope in Dark Times for Israel’s Future first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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How Anti-Zionist Faculty Captured a University of California Campus and What It Means for the Future of Jews in America

McHenry Library at University of California, Santa Cruz. Photo: Jay Miller/Wikimedia Commons

“Let’s make it clear – zionism is not welcome on our campus” read a recent Instagram message, which was followed by raised fist and Palestinian flag emojis.

At first blush, this posting appeared to be one more bullet in the barrage of vitriolic hatred and harassment aimed by anti-Zionist students groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Israel’s supporters on campus, especially Jewish students, in the aftermath of Hamas’ genocidal attack on Israel last fall.

But that’s not the case. The above message shunning the campus presence of Zionism — and by obvious extension, Zionists, which the vast majority of Jews identify as — wasn’t authored by students at all.

Rather, it came from their professors — more than 100 of them — founders of a Faculty for Justice in Palestine chapter at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC).

Let that sink in. A large group of faculty at one of the finest public university systems in the world is using a popular social media platform to proclaim the modern-day equivalent of the ubiquitous Nazi-era slogan “Juden sind hier unerwünscht” (“Jews are not wanted here”).

Even more chilling is the fact that the faculty group’s message was part of a larger post urging their colleagues and students to attend an on-campus “March Against Zionism” organized by an allied anti-Zionist student group, whose goal was “to make it clear that the racist settler-colonial ideology of zionism is not welcome on this campus!”

Like the student brownshirts in the early 1930s, who vilified and bullied Jewish students and professors until they were completely purged from German universities, the student organizers of the faculty-supported “March Against Zionism” threatened to — and actually did — disrupt a Jewish student gathering and harass its participants.

Much ink has been spilled discussing the explosion of antisemitic harassment on college campuses nationwide since October 7, with a lot of it describing the outsized role played by anti-Zionist student groups like SJP. However, a recent study conducted by my organization of the anti-Zionist activism of faculty at the University of California found that they play a crucial role in fomenting campus antisemitism, and nowhere is that more obvious than at UC Santa Cruz.

In fact, if one wants to understand how antisemitism could engulf US campuses at warp speed after the Hamas attack, one need look no further than UCSC and the faculty group that has committed itself to purging Zionism and Zionists from campus and collaborates with anti-Zionist student groups to get the job done.

Like its nine sister campuses and nearly 100 campuses across the country, UCSC became home to a chapter of Faculty for Justice in Palestine, or FJP, after the Hamas attack. Established in response to a call from the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI), FJP chapters are intended to provide support for student groups like SJP and to engage them and their fellow faculty in advancing the implementation of an academic boycott of Israel (the academic arm of the BDS movement) on their campuses.

USACBI’s overarching goal is combating “the normalization of Israel in the global academy.” To that end, the organization’s guidelines call for boycotting educational programs in or about Israel, and canceling or shutting down pro-Israel events and activities; encourage academic programming and campus events that portray Israel in a wholly negative light, as a pariah state unworthy of normalization; and condone the denigration, protest, and exclusion of pro-Israel individuals on campus. All of these academic BDS-associated activities have had a devastating impact on students and faculty who want to study in or about Israel, or who identify with the Jewish State.

FJP’s anti-Zionist impact and the resulting harms have played out in two distinct campus arenas.

First, in its collaboration with SJP and similar student groups, FJP has amplified the students’ anti-Zionist messaging and activity, and given them academic legitimacy. For instance, FJP at UCSC was co-sponsor of an SJP-authored BDS resolution that passed overwhelmingly at a student senate meeting, during which Jewish students who opposed the resolution were prevented from speaking, heckled, and harassed.

Afterwards, the faculty group celebrated the resolution’s passage by posting a message stating: “Major congrats to y’all, and to every other UC student body that has voted to divest in recent weeks. WE KEEP GOING UNTIL PALESTINE IS FREE!”. UCSC’s FJP has also used its clout to protect anti-Zionist students from being prosecuted for abusive behavior, as when it joined in a statement calling on the UC Regents to drop charges against students who had unlawfully disrupted a Regents meeting with demands for the University to boycott Israel.

Second, FJP’s mutually beneficial collaborations with academic departments have significantly strengthened the anti-Zionist reach and impact of both FJP and the individual departments with which the group collaborates. Consider, for example, that it was academic BDS-supporting leaders of UCSC’s Critical Race and Ethnic Studies (CRES) department who founded the campus FJP chapter, that more than 60% of CRES’ principal faculty are members of the faculty group, and that an invitation to join FJP and help “organize for Palestine” has been prominently displayed on CRES’ departmental homepage since November. It’s therefore not surprising that CRES has become a primary beneficiary of the group’s political muscle in its time of need.

As documented in a recent report by my organization, CRES’ extensive use of departmental resources for anti-Zionist activism — including helping to establish and support an institute whose mission is to dismantle Zionism, publishing statements and hosting educational events blaming Israel for Hamas’ October 7 massacre, shutting down the department as part of a “global strike” against Israel, and much more — has raised significant concern among the UC Regents. Although CRES’ use of departmental resources for political activism is in violation of university policy and state law, UCSC administrators have been unwilling or unable to stop them. As a way of addressing the problem, the Regents have been deliberating over a policy prohibiting departments like CRES from using their university website for making political statements. Although it only deals with one small part of the problem, the proposed policy is a step in the right direction. And yet, for CRES and other politically motivated and directed departments, it is a step too far.

In an effort to thwart any attempt to limit their anti-Zionist activism, CRES and other UCSC anti-Zionist faculty deputized FJP to help spearhead an academic senate resolution calling on the administration to defend the faculty’s “right” to continue engaging in political advocacy (which they euphemistically call “public scholarship”), and to resist any attempt by the UC Regents to stop them. The UCSC faculty’s overwhelming support for the resolution now makes it virtually impossible for their administration to challenge CRES or other faculty whose anti-Zionist activism violates university policy or state law.

Think about it: Within a few short months, a faculty group that takes its marching orders from a nationally-coordinated campaign to rid US campuses of Zionism and Zionists has enabled the ideological capture of its institution by anti-Zionist faculty, and effectively neutralized administrative attempts to stop it.

The only hope of derailing this out-of-control train lies with the UC President and Regents, who have the authority to hold campus administrators accountable for not enforcing university regulations and the law. If UC leaders are unwilling or unable to exercise their authority, it won’t be long before the University of California, and in short order universities across the country, become wholly inhospitable and unsafe for their Jewish members, echoing the darkest chapters of Jewish history.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin is the director of AMCHA Initiative, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to combating antisemitism at colleges and universities in the United States. She was a faculty member at the University of California Santa Cruz for 20 years.

The post How Anti-Zionist Faculty Captured a University of California Campus and What It Means for the Future of Jews in America first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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Why Bravery Is Required to Fight for Israel — and It Comes From the Soul

The Israeli flag at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Photo: Hynek Moravec via Wikimedia Commons.

We are living in a time that calls for an almost existential bravery. Lies need to be corrected; real history needs to be taught; our most fundamental principles — freedom, justice, equality — need to be relearned. So why is it, you may have asked yourself, that many of the most seemingly confident people — those who incessantly crave the spotlight — have been silent about these lies, or worse?

It’s a question I have grappled with in the 10 years that I have been writing about antisemitism. And I’ve finally come to a somewhat obvious conclusion: Bravery has very little to do with self-idolatry, whether in the form of boasting, selfies, or narcissism. Bravery stems from the quiet confidence of a well-nourished soul.

I recently attended a bat mitzvah that confirmed this point. Despite the crass world that surrounds her, both online and off, the young woman on the bimah was preternaturally poised. She seemed to be listening to an inner voice that gave her the strength to rise above, and to understand what it means to be part of an ancient people.

And then with quiet dignity, she gave one of the most powerful speeches about Israel. She spoke from her soul, and as a result, she was able to touch the souls of many — to inspire their bravery as well.

Could all of this be happening to the Jewish people right now — most especially, the antisemitic response to Oct. 7, — because so many people have given in to the idolization of self-idolatry? The question nagged at me the rest of the evening. But I was also heartened. Nourishing the soul is something tangible that can be done. I have been thinking about this since my son was bar mitzvahed at a very unsoulful synagogue — yes, many synagogues are part of the problem — and I now have to renourish his soul.

Some initial thoughts:

1. Surround yourself with souls of beauty. People who have no need to be the center of attention. They are the quiet ones, the ones who do mitzvahs both large and small with no desire to take credit. Their dignity and serenity inspire both in those around them. Ridding ourselves of the toxic and narcissistic also allows us the space to renourish our own souls.

2. Nourish your own soul with nature, creativity, and artistic beauty. It’s not a coincidence that these dark times have been accompanied by a dearth of artistic brilliance. Creativity also stems from the soul, and one literally can’t create if one is too busy thinking about how many “likes” it will get on social media.

3. Don’t get caught up in the toxicity of self-idolatry. This is a mistake that I have made in recent years. Rather than turning away from the ugliness, I have tried to understand it: Why would people post inappropriate content on social media? The explanations run from today’s amoral culture to someone’s insecurities.

What I can do is continually try to nourish the souls of those who want to be nourished. That’s what I did when I first started on social media — post soulful art, poetry, design, etc. But this time, it will be Israeli art and design, helping to “normalize” the country in a way that should never have been necessary. But that is the task that G-d is giving each of us, and we need to be up for that challenge.

It’s not a coincidence that our greatest heroes have also been the most soulful, from Abraham, Moses, and David to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. Great leaders are rarely narcissists. In many ways, they’re mutually exclusive.

But how can quiet confidence be heard in a world inundated with shock, pornography, and degradation? Many of us have been told that our lack of desire to compete with the loudest and ugliest on social media is a weakness. But as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it in discussing Moses’ lack of oratory skills: “What we think of as our greatest weakness can become, if we wrestle with it, our greatest strength.”

It is precisely the quiet, soulful ones who have the ability to tell the truth in a way that will be heard — who are able to “tell people what they do not want to hear, but what they must hear if they are to save themselves from catastrophe,” wrote Sacks. I believe many people left that bat mitzvah thinking about Israel — and the larger problem that Hamas and Hezbollah represent — in a different way. Perhaps they will now understand that today, silence is not an option.

And it will all be because the quiet dignity of a 13-year-old was able to touch their souls.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is editor in chief of White Rose Magazine. A version of this article was originally published by The Jewish Journal.

The post Why Bravery Is Required to Fight for Israel — and It Comes From the Soul first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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