In September, the Palestine Writes Literature Festival took place on the University of Pennsylvania campus. The university administration issued a public statement condemning antisemitism—but not Islamophobia or anti-Arab racism—after right-wing donors demanded that the school
“forcefully condemn” the only Palestinian literature festival in the United States in advance. In October, university president Liz Magill denounced antisemitism and “terrorism” while saying nothing about Islamophobia or the thousands of Palestinian civilians killed by the U.S.-supported Israeli military. These one-sided pro-Israel statements didn’t go far enough for wealthy donors, who are now withdrawing funding on the basis that the university protects antisemitism. To learn more about the dispute and the intersectional fight against oppression, The ARD spoke with Ray Coyne (they/them), Operations Coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania’s Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. Their comments do not represent the views of the Katz Center or the University of Pennsylvania.
• Support Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, the Palestinian Youth Movement, and If Not Now.
• Contact Congress to demand a ceasefire.
• Attend a protest to stop the Gaza genocide.
• Share resources to combat antisemitism without falsely equating it to principled anti-Zionism.
Please introduce yourself.
I’m a writer, artist, and activist living in Philadelphia, currently working at the Katz Center at the University of Pennsylvania. My ancestors were persecuted for being Jews in Eastern Europe, and my grandparents chose not to pass the faith onto my mom. Reconnecting to Judaism and Jewish practice has been a huge part of my life for the past few years. In the Judaism I practice, we are responsible for making the world a better, more just place through our words and actions.
Is the University of Pennsylvania hostile to Jewish students?
Conservative donors said that pro-Palestinian protesters on campus supported Hamas and called for genocide of Jews. These things are not true. There absolutely has been a troubling rise in antisemitic attacks nationwide, as well as an increase in attacks driven by Islamophobia. The way the university has prioritized giving voice to opinions of pro-Israel board members and donors has exacerbated the fear and anxiety of Jewish students while deprioritizing the safety and well-being of Palestinian and Middle Eastern students.
What did you think about September’s Palestine Writes Literary Festival?
Palestine Writes is the only festival of its kind that exists in North America to celebrate the life and culture of the Palestinian people. We should be celebrating that event! The portrayal of the entire event as antisemitic has a chilling effect, and it is unfair to characterize the whole multi-day event by one or two problematic speakers.
How has coverage of the current conflict affected you?
A one-sided narrative exists about who is allowed to have an emotional response to the conflict. A lot of people say that we need to hold space for Israelis whose family and friends are missing or were killed and that they deserve space to mourn, which they do. But they won’t say the same about Palestinians who are grieving. Don’t they deserve the same?
How does the conflict relate to the ideology of Zionism?
The Zionist idea is that a state is necessary to keep Jewish people safe. But if that Jewish state requires the displacement of people from their homes and a system of second-class citizenship for Palestinians denied the rights given to Israelis, there’s something fundamentally wrong with that. I’m a third-generation American, and I was told from childhood that it is my birthright to go to Israel. But Palestinians displaced from their homes in this generation do not have the right to return home. The portrayal of this conflict as starting with violence against Israelis on October 7 is disingenuous. It stems from long standing tension in the region and violence committed against the people of Palestine for the last 75 years.
Do anti-Zionist Jews hate Jewish people?
There’s this antisemitic idea of dual loyalty: that because someone is a Jew, they support Israel. Zionist, conservative Jews invoke that same principle: if you don’t support Israel, you must be a self-hating Jew. But many Jews question the State of Israel and whether it truly keeps us safe.
Something fundamental in Judaism is that there has always been room for discussion. Judaism is one long conversation with the Torah and other Jews, and disagreements are part of being in community with other people. To write off anti-Zionist Jewish thought as inherently antisemitic weakens our conversations and diminishes the paths forward to peace and liberation for Jews, Palestinians, and all oppressed people.
The broad Palestinian resistance movement has made three clear demands: an immediate ceasefire, an end to the blockade, and the release of Palestinian political prisoners. Do you support them?
Yes. That’s the bare minimum. This is why I find it so challenging that people say that the violence was impossible to anticipate and that peace would mean going back to life before the attacks: Palestinians treated as second-class citizens, settlers enacting vigilante violence to take their homes and land.
What would you say to people who want to support Palestinian liberation and take action against the genocide but are afraid of being labelled antisemitic?
I want to validate that fear. I’ve felt afraid to speak up. But if people want to characterize you as antisemitic if you criticize Israel, they’re going to do so no matter how defensible your position is. You can stand in your beliefs and know what is just and what is right. Read about what’s going on and learn the history behind what’s going on. Call your congresspeople and demand an end to military aid to Israel funded by our tax dollars. There are rallies and actions in every city in support of Palestine. Show up, listen, and be open to learning.