The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
The "Palestine Writes Literary Festival" is being held at the University of Pennsylvania later this week. This has attracted severe criticism from Jewish groups and individuals within and without Penn because some of the speakers have a history of engaging in antisemitic rhetoric.
The Penn administration acknowledges that people have raised concerns about several speakers who "have a documented and troubling history of engaging in antisemitism 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.
OK, but one may wonder why several academic departments are "sponsors" of the festival, meaning that they are providing funding. It's not an academic conference, as such; some of the speakers are neither Palestinians, academics, nor poets; and it's hard to imagine these departments funding a conference featuring speakers with a similar history of denigrating other minority groups.
Be that as it may, the organizers of Palestine Writes want you to know that the charges of antisemitism leveled against their conference are false. Hmm.
Well, if you want to know how NOT to start a letter defending yourself from accusations of antisemitism, you can use this letter as a model. After noting that the festival has been harshly criticized by "the Jewish Federation and the ADL," the organizers have this to say:
unlike our detractors, we do not operate in the shadows nor among elite decision makers and funders. Rather, we value transparency and public access, accountability, and scrutiny. We are also acutely aware of the power disparity between these highly funded, connected and organized Zionist organizations versus our small cultural institution run by volunteers and student organizations, most of them Penn students.
Talk about self-owns… The organizers are so clueless about antisemitism that they engage in classic anti-Jewish tropes while defending themselves from charges of antisemitism. Which kinda undermines anything else they have said or will say in their defense.
UPDATE: I should note that even if PW's detractors really did operate "in the shadows" and so on, it would be at best impolitic to phrase things they way its leaders did. But in fact, ADL and the local Jewish Federation criticized PW openly, and say what you will about the ADL–and it's not exactly my favorite organization, personally–it's basic modus operandi is getting as much publicity and attention for its views as it can. Nor are local Jewish federations (the main communal fundraising arm) exactly known for hiding either their existence or their policy positions.