After contentious campus discussion leading up to the event, Palestinian writer and poet Mohammed El-Kurd addressed University community members on Feb. 8, engaging with themes of Palestinian activism. The lecture, sponsored by the Department of English, the Princeton Committee on Palestine (PCP), and the Edward Said ’57 Memorial Lecture Fund, faced criticism from some in the campus community due to allegations that El-Kurd had made antisemitic statements. The event was moderated by Zahid Chaudhary, an associate professor in the Department of English.
El-Kurd nodded to the controversy as he opened the speech, saying, “I’m really happy to be here causing chaos at Ivy Leagues.” El-Kurd alluded to concerns for his safety, saying that he was “saddened that [his] presence here causes this much ruckus.”
According to El-Kurd, events he has spoken at in the past have received bomb and shooting threats. Princeton Public Safety officers were present at the event.
Several of El-Kurd’s comments sparked controversy among attendees, for instance referring to the Anti-Defamation League as the Apartheid Defense League and comparing the military occupation of Palestine to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Abigail Rabieh ’25, who serves as the co-education director for the Center for Jewish Life’s (CJL) student board responded to these claims in particular.
“By equating Israel’s existence as a nation which counts Jerusalem in its borders to Russia invading Ukraine, calling Jewish organizations agents of apartheid, and twisting the words of Zionist leaders, he actively misled and lied to the audience, proving himself to be not an activist but a falsifier, and someone who had no business lecturing to Princeton students, who should care about the truth,” she told The Daily Princetonian.
“I’m glad that I heard el-Kurd speak, because he revealed to everyone the extent of his propaganda and dishonesty,” Rabieh added.
Rabieh serves as head Opinion editor for The Daily Princetonian.
Moving into the main focus of the lecture, which was titled “On ‘Perfect Victims’ and the Politics of Appeal,” El-Kurd discussed the portrayal of Palestinians in the media, stating that Palestinians killed by Israeli forces seem to be portrayed in two ways: terrorist or victim.
“Palestinians who can speak are victims, and are often women, children, and the elderly. They must be docile,” he said, adding that presence in media must be “centered around their human tragedy and incentivized by humanitarian events, never political issues.”
El-Kurd characterized this as “defanging,” saying that it creates “a false dichotomy between terrorists and victims” that often “shrinks the scope of humanity for the rest of us.”
El-Kurd recalled a recent visit to Harvard University, sharing that one student at that event asked “the million-dollar question … ‘Do I support or am I willing to condemn violence done by Palestinian activists?’’’
El-Kurd responded by invoking an October 2022 raid undertaken by Israeli groups against a militant group in the occupied West Bank that left six Palestinians dead.
“At the moment that I heard the news that the six men had been killed, there were two worlds. The world of the brutal military occupation in which these men lived and the world as imagined by the student who asked me the question,” he said.
“That Harvard student and diplomats and observers everywhere alike are unconcerned with the root cause of our rebellious violence,” he added. “Those who are stricken will strike back. They do not need the approval of Ivy League students, professors. So do I believe in violence? Well, I don’t believe in violation.”
El-Kurd finished the lecture by explaining why he tends to “joke a lot” in his speeches.
“There’s an expectation of Palestinians in the public eye to act a certain way,” he said. “I am supposed to be polite in my suffering, and I completely refuse this. I completely refuse this politics of appeal.”
“We are human because we feel rage. We feel disdain,” he said. “I am grateful for my rage because it reminds me that I am able to have a natural human reaction to injustice.”
He invited listeners to “interrogate [their] biases” as they left the lecture.
The floor then opened to questions. One audience member asked El-Kurd how he maintains hope.
“I feel like we are living in an unprecedented moment,” he shared. “The amount of police officers in this room gives me hope. The amount of op-eds written against this event gives me hope. When there is so much backlash and this much repercussion and this attempt to criminalize us and ban us and prevent us from speaking, when there are people trying to make us criminals of thought, tells me that what we are doing is working and we should be braver and seize the moment.”
In response to a question from one audience member stating, “How do we teach people to see us as we really are?” El-Kurd replied, “What else would you do if an occupying power is in your backyard, beating the shit out of your family? Of course you’re gonna throw stones.” He then added, “I can just see that as a headline: ‘Of course you’re gonna throw stones.’”
When a student asked, “What do you propose as the solution to the conflict? How do you think the conflict should end? And what should happen to the seven million Jews who currently live in the area?” El-Kurd replied, “What should happen to the seven million Palestinian refugees who are rotting in refugee camps?”
Approximately 1.9 million Palestinians live in recognized refugee camps in surrounding countries. The United Nations estimated there are about 5.9 million Palestinian refugees total, counted as all those who were displaced by the 1948 conflict and their descendants.
At one point during the Q&A, Chabad Rabbi Eitan Webb got up and shouted, “I would like to thank you very much for giving a masterclass on how to be an antisemite.”
Following this exchange, “Free Palestine!” was briefly chanted by some attendees.
Eric Periman ’23, a former president of the PCP, a student group which stands in solidarity with Palestinians, responded to the lecture: “As the Nakba gets further and further away, it’s so important to continue to give attention and validation to those who have grown up under occupation and continue to struggle,” Periman said. “[T]hat is exactly the story of Mohammed El-Kurd.”
Emanuelle Sippy ’25, speaking on behalf of the Alliance of Jewish Progressives, told the ‘Prince’ that the group was “disappointed by the disruptive conduct of some members of the Jewish community, who do not speak for all Jews on this campus.”
“Critics who focus on Mr. El-Kurd’s rhetoric are proof of his point that we are prioritizing ‘rhetoric over reality’ and only willing to platform ‘perfect victims,’” she wrote. “Moreover, we believe these accusations are distracting from well-documented evidence about the substantive and material violence of Israeli apartheid experienced by Palestinians every day.”
In an interview with the ‘Prince’ conducted before the event took place, CJL Executive Director Rabbi Gil Steinlauf ’91 wrote that “there are many speakers who advocate for the Palestinian cause without using the incendiary and hateful language about Jewish people that Mr. El-Kurd uses.”
The event was held in McCosh Hall 10 at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 8.
News contributor Abby Leibowitz contributed reporting.
Olivia Sanchez is a news contributor for the ‘Prince.’
Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.