Despite massive protests by hundreds of students, community members, and Jewish organizations, to stop the spread of antisemitism on campuses, the University of Pennsylvania went on with its plans to conduct a weekend Jew-hating conference right before the eve of Yom Kippur.
September 22-24, 2023, marked an event that was conducted to deliberately spread an anti-Jewish agenda, hosted by the “Palestine Writes” 2023 literature festival.
Before the event began, a comprehensive report, compiled by members of the Jewish community in America, documented the antisemitic rhetoric of the speakers, including their association with recognized terrorist groups.
CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting & Analysis, called upon the heads of the University of Pennsylvania, to reconsider allowing a platform to individuals who openly profess hatred of Jews and Israel. CAMERA questioned whether this type of behavior aligned with the values and academic mission of the university.
A statement from the University of Pennsylvania said that this event was “not organized by the university.” However, the event was held in Irvine Auditorium, Penn Commons, and in other university spaces, with the full acknowledgement of its faculty.
The speakers involved were those who, in the past, have defended terror attacks that have taken place against Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora.
Douglas Sandoval, Managing Editor for ‘CAMERA on Campus,’ spoke to this writer. “What I witnessed at this conference was the denial of Jewish history; the denial of a Jewish connection to the land; and antagonism directed at the state of Israel and also the Jewish People.”
He was surprised by the agenda of the speakers: “They flat out deny that Jews are indigenous to the land. In fact, they claim to be all the people from all religions. They claim that the Palestinians are the Jews, the Muslims, and the Christians of the Holy Land. They opened the conference with this absurd claim – that the Jews of today have no connection to the land at all!”
Sandoval explains that the conference proved the severity of antisemitism on campuses. He acknowledged that the University of Pennsylvania did nothing to stop it. “I think we have to let people know; we have to make the community aware of what the university is sponsoring.”
What that means to Sandoval is that the student community on campus; and the communities surrounding the university; are influential in respect to funding university programs. They are the ones to take tangible measures. “If they so choose to disassociate themselves, or defund, that is their decision to do that. All we can do is bring the information to their attention and allow them to act.”
CAMERA is training students and has a coalition program where the organization supports their efforts. “We help them grow on campus. I think having a strong Zionist pro-Israel community makes a tremendous difference in stopping something like this event from taking place. At the very least ensuring that if it does, they are able to speak out and condemn it, or at least address it.”
CAMERA helps students to speak out — to have a heightened awareness for these kinds of detractors that contribute to antisemitism on campus; and to expose biased gatherings before they have a chance to gain wide-spread support and acceptance.
“By the time something like this is manifesting, I think the battle is already lost. It has to start with preparing the students beforehand, and educating the community, so that antisemitism is not normalized, and not allowed to manifest in this manner at all,” says Sandoval.
CAMERA continues to combat the spread of antisemitism on U.S. campuses. It equips students with the materials they need to fight off Jewish hatred. Sandoval’s staff also trains groups and individuals how to deal with the threats they encounter.
According to Sandoval, “The anti-Zionist camp obfuscates the nature of the discussions, and they make it difficult to discern who the person coming to speak really is, and who they represent.”
CAMERA looks at the representatives that are sanctioned by the university, and what kind of relationship has been established with certain students who could threaten the lives of other students… particularly, Jewish students.
Sandoval is careful to state that because of the strict freedom of speech laws in America, CAMERA does not call for silence and shutting down events. The CAMERA staff, however, does bring to the attention of student watch groups, the potential for hostile rhetoric, including the danger of possible extreme acts of hatred against Jewish students on various campuses. “When free speech crosses over; crosses the line that puts people at risk; we take issue with it.”
Aaron Goren, a CAMERA campus advisor for the American Midwest and West Coast divisions says he encourages students to write op-eds and post them on social media in response to negative gatherings happening on their campuses that students deem antisemitic. He also arranges cultural activities to get prominent pro-Israel speakers to come on to their campuses, as a response to those events that have been related to terror against Jews. Students can find protection in certain group activities with Hillel, Chabad, and a new Mizrachi group that is starting student campaigns against antisemitism.
“Not every campus is problematic. Some are very pro-Israel. ‘CAMERA on Campus’ does its best to bring real awareness to these events. We don’t lobby and are not political, inherently. We bring these events to the surface,” Goren claims.
He helps students to confront the lies and learn how to disarm the liars, especially those spreading the kind of information that is not based on facts. CAMERA is research-based and false claims can be refuted by accurate information coming from a CAMERA primary source. “We need to retain credibility with pure factual knowledge,” claims Goren. He adds that students are given the tools by CAMERA to deal with the lies. He encourages students to track what certain biased organizations are doing. “The students can write their own article in response to claims, with valid sources.”
Goren brings his expertise to the table as an IDF veteran. He has contributed information about Israeli society so that campus students hear alternatives to bias media reports. He explains: “When there is a military operation, and there is a conflict; and, then a rise in the conflict that is more intensified; that is when we need to reach students the most; and give them the facts of what is happening — before all the biased information gets them to hate Israel.”
While antisemitic rhetoric on student campuses has not evolved to the point of physical harm, Jewish students are worried that if left unchecked, it could become problematic, leading to violence. CAMERA claims that antisemitic BDS bills are trying to pass in state legislatures, under the guise of a social justice movement in America. And, there is concern that what could follow, in the future, is Nazi style antisemitism. Jewish community organizations have said the same, with studies showing attacks on Jewish identity on American campuses creating a toxic environment for Jewish students.
Sandoval acknowledges this: “Students go to Chabad and Hillel because they know there are other students that share their views. Also, ‘Jewish on Campus’ is an on-line community of Jewish students across the U.S. and in other countries.”
Sandoval says there is a war being waged against Jewish students. “We empower the students. The change-makers on campuses are the students. We work with the students on the ground in the trenches confronting these issues. We adapt our strategies and tactics to the situations.”
CAMERA also provides information on self-defense seminars. It identifies with ideological motivations of antisemites. Yet, there still remains a relentless academic bias that ebbs and flows, as students graduate, and new students come on to those campuses to study.
“Anti-Zionism is gaining legitimacy in academia,” says Sandoval. “The problem with antisemitism is that it runs deeper than people know. Antisemitism is anywhere and everywhere and not easily apparent. It can manifest in several different ways.”
CAMERA continues to empower students and gives them the tools to protect themselves in the Diaspora, and to support Israel’s efforts to provide a safe environment for the Jewish People.
While there is hope that this academic year will become quieter, the recent event at the University of Pennsylvania has intensified the battle in fighting for Jewish rights and freedoms on school campuses in America and throughout the world.