A public call for UPenn president Magill to resign for failing to ban the Palestine Writes festival, one of the several propaganda billboard vans driving through the streets of Philadelphia in the lead up to the festival. [photo from internet, credit “macher52”]
By Tom Suárez
The deafening blowback against the Palestine Writes Literature Festival, held at the University of Pennsylvania campus 22-24 of September, is emblematic of an escalation in censorship, intolerance, and indeed willful ignorance spreading across the US political spectrum. The festival is over — a success despite the enormous obstacles thrown at it — but not forgotten, as its detractors continue calls for UPenn President Elizabeth Magill to step down for not having acted more aggressively to cancel what they libel as an antisemitic event.
I write as a historical researcher honored to have been among the festival’s speakers. I write as being among those smeared as “antisemitic” in the attempts to block it. And I write as someone with a personal interest in the University, the proud parent of a UPenn graduate.
The charge of Festival antisemitism continues to be repeated by the major media with scant concern for its truth, nor indeed for what those wielding it mean by the word. Had the media actually looked behind the slander rather than parrot it, the onus for explanation would have fallen instead to our detractors.
My own case is typical: the Zionist advocacy organization masquerading under the name Canadian Antisemitism Education Foundation, warned of “antisemitic author Tom Suarez” in its plea to Magill to “cancel the Terror-Inciting ‘Palestine Writes’ Hate-Fest”. As if it were an offense, the CAEF accused me of “comparing Zionism to Nazism” — omitting that the comparisons I had cited were not mine, but those of German Jews fleeing Nazism in the early 1940s, voices long silenced by the Zionist political movement of which the CAEF is part. My having given voice to these Jewish victims of fascism is, for Israel’s purposes, “antisemitic”. (Separately, both US and British intelligence made the same assessment of Zionism in the 1940s.)
All this begs the question: What do the Festival’s detractors mean by “antisemitism”? A straight-forward definition would be something like Antisemitism is discrimination, prejudice, or hostility against Jews, as Jews — the same as any bigotry. But Israel’s propagandists push a politically-engineered definition known as IHRA, whose very purpose is to weaponize the smear of antisemitism to insulate Israel — and accuse those who resist this “definition” of, yes, antisemitism.
Briefly described, IHRA begins with a core definition so vague as to justify almost any accusation, and is followed by examples that have nothing to do with antisemitism but everything to do with Israeli impunity. The document renders it antisemitic to cite Israel’s actual crimes — such as “that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor”. It was embraced by the U.S. State Department under the Trump Administration, and became official US policy under Biden.
Thus, those claiming that according to the US government, Palestine Writes was antisemitic, are correct. They are correct because every true anti-racist, anyone advocating for human rights and equality, indeed anyone opposing true anti-Jewish bigotry, is “antisemitic” according to this ignorance-is-strength pseudo-definition.
IHRA in turn enables skewed antisemitism statistics that give perceived life to the racist lie that advocacy for Palestine corresponds to increased antisemitism. It does this by making Jews as Jews synonymous with the Israeli state in order to exploit Jewish identity as a human shield — but instead of condemning this cynical abuse of ethnicity to empower the crimes of the state, we embrace it or run in fear from it. So pernicious is this weaponization of antisemitism that even my pointing this out is deemed antisemitic.
IHRA in turn feeds a much older fraud at play that operates invisibly and is thus even more insidious: the mindset that there is some intrinsic link between Palestinian advocacy + antisemitism. No: this silent manipulation must be exposed and condemned. We who advocate for Palestine fight against anti-Jewish bigotry because we oppose all bigotry, not because bigotry against Jews has something special to do with us. These libels not only block any honest reckoning of the 75-year so-called “conflict” in Israel-Palestine, but also make a mockery of the fight against racism.
It is thus the Festival’s very antiracism that is the cause of the attempts to silence it. Opponents of racism are, obviously, opponents of apartheid — and thus are critics of the Israeli state, whose apartheid system is on open display for the world to see and has been meticulously documented by all major human rights organizations, including Israel’s own.
And that is the problem: Human rights and equality in Israel-Palestine would mean the end of the Israeli status quo, river-to-sea. Put bluntly, the phony charge of antisemitism — racism — is flung about to safeguard actual racism. Yet this morphing of “antisemitism” with criticism of Israel is so ingrained in us that its advocates barely need a fig leaf to hide the deceit.
All this leads back to what, really, is behind the continuing calls for UPenn President Magill to resign. She is not the actual target — she is the means to a far larger goal. She is being hung up as a high-visibility warning to administrators everywhere of what awaits them if any activity critical of the Israeli state, or any activity humanizing Palestinians, occurs under their watch. The outrage against Palestine Writes was far more a ritual to assure that no other institution dare allow anything with the “P” word, than it was about shutting down this particular event or this particular university president.
Tom Suárez is a London-based historical researcher as well as a professional Juilliard-trained violinist and composer.
9 November 2023