The University of Pennsylvania will host internationally condemned antisemite Roger Waters during the Jewish High Holidays. Waters, a former member of the rock group Pink Floyd, is scheduled to speak at Penn’s “Palestine Writes Literature Festival.” Celebrations of literature and culture, especially those of marginalized groups, are an important initiative on college campuses across the country. But let’s be clear — supporting one community cannot take place while employing violent language against another.
In May, Waters was witnessed wearing Nazi-style attire during a performance in Berlin. Waters has engaged in other antisemitic acts, including putting Jewish symbols, such as the Star of David, on a pig-shaped balloon at his concerts. In addition, he openly remarked on similarities between Nazi Germany and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in a clear case of Holocaust inversion, which is the antisemitic idea that Jews are doing to others what the Nazis did to them. In addition to Waters, Penn also invited Marc Lamont Hill, a scholar whose use of the Hamas-associated phrase “from the river to the sea” resulted in his termination from CNN. For context, this phrase calls for the destruction of the entire state of Israel, which would be an ethnic cleansing of Jews from Israel-Palestine. More speakers with similar histories of antisemitic rhetoric were also invited. In response to this shocking decision by the school, Penn Hillel released a heartbreaking statement on Instagram, saying in part that “the inclusion of hateful and antisemitic speakers like Waters on our campus … is deeply upsetting, unsettling, and unsafe to many students and members of the Penn community.” The burden of Penn’s hurtful decision has fallen on students, yet there is nothing they can do to address it. Even though Penn condemned the event, they are still letting it happen, ultimately fostering a hostile environment for Jewish students on campus.
This is the latest incident of antisemitism happening on a prominent university campus. In the aggregate, antisemitism is a very real issue that requires relentless attention from administrators. The Jewish on Campus-Ipsos joint report, “Antisemitism on College Campuses,” clearly illustrates this. For example, the report found that one in six U.S. students found the historical reality or death toll of the Holocaust ‘not very believable,’ ‘not at all believable’ or were unsure. Additionally, one in three U.S. Jewish students surveyed said that they perceive antisemitism to be prevalent within their student body.
Holocaust denial and other antisemitic acts are rampant. However, rather than outright condemning heinous incidents, administrators tend towards inaction when dealing with them. We never get any closure or resolution. Thus, antisemitism and its many forms persist, unwavering in the absence of administrative vilification.
Penn is not the only Ivy League school going down this dangerous path. Princeton is offering a course whose syllabus features “The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability.” The book actively promotes blood libels against Jewish people, accuses the Israeli military of maiming and harvesting organs from Palestinians. This book engages in blood libel, an age-old antisemitic trope accusing Jewish people of having blood on their hands. Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, after further unpacking the data from the Jewish on Campus-Ipsos report in an article on the Princeton issue, concluded that “our universities have become complicit in the spreading and normalization of anti-Jewish bigotry.” Princeton did not offer an official response, but at a faculty meeting in September, University President Christopher Eisgruber highlighted the importance of free speech, ultimately perpetuating antisemitism and a culture of administrative inaction.
Jewish students should not have to fight against antisemitism alone. To turn a blind eye when students are suffering is shameful. I salute organizations like Jewish on Campus for tackling these issues head on and not backing down in the face of administrative inaction and other forms of backlash. I further want to salute the Biden administration for openly acknowledging that antisemitism on college campuses is widespread, stating in May that, “Jewish students and educators are targeted for derision and exclusion on college campuses … When Jews are targeted because of their beliefs or their identity, when Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred, that is antisemitism. And that is unacceptable.”
The hard work Jewish on Campus put in to complete and publish “Antisemitism on College Campuses” demonstrates their commitment to not only eliminating antisemitism on college campuses but also waking up school leaders who seem to be asleep at the wheel. Hate speech should never be tolerated or endorsed. Penn’s actions have been deeply hurtful to the school’s Jewish population. And to whose benefit? Holocaust deniers?
If Ivy League schools like Penn and Princeton are going to continue perpetuating antisemitism, then, in the words of Pink Floyd, I guess “we don’t need no education.”