A letter signed by members of the Princeton community and delivered to the English department by Alexandra Orbuch ’25 calls on the department to condemn the Feb. 8 Edward W. Said ’57 Memorial Lecture with writer Mohammed El-Kurd. The letter cites several public actions by El-Kurd that it alleges are antisemitic. The letter does not call for the English department to cancel the event or end its sponsorship.
While Acting Chair of the English Department Jeff Dolven acknowledged the letter as an example of “reasonable dissent,” the English department did not accede to the request that they issue a statement opposing El-Kurd.
The lecture, titled “On ‘Perfect Victims’ and the Politics of Appeal,” is set to take place in McCosh Hall 10 at 4:30 p.m. as this year’s Edward Said ’57 Memorial Lecture, an annual event typically hosted by departments in the humanities to honor Said ’57. According to Dolven, the English department funds the event annually, alongside the Edward W. Said ’57 Memorial Lecture Fund and the Princeton Committee on Palestine (PCP), a student group that supports a Palestinian state.
Allegations of antisemitism
El-Kurd is a Palestinian journalist and poet who works as the Palestine correspondent for progressive magazine The Nation. He was named by Time as one of the most influential people of 2021, along with his twin sister, Muna El-Kurd, for their activism amidst conflict in their East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The Anti-Defamation League has accused El-Kurd of “unvarnished, vicious antisemitism.”
Orbuch’s letter states, “El-Kurd has a demonstrated history of repeated anti-Jewish bias and remarks, including comparisons between those who support the Jewish State of Israel and Nazism,” citing a 2021 tweet in which he described “Zionist settlers” as “sadistic barbaric neonazi pigs.” The letter also mentions a tweet in which El-Kurd characterizes Zionists as having an “unquenchable thirst for Palestinian blood” in reference to videos of violence against Palestinians. The letter cites another tweet in which El-Kurd condemned the University of Southern California’s Engineering School for removing a student as a paid mentor after she tweeted, “I want to kill every motherf**king Zionist,” saying that the move was based on “racist & inflated accusations made by Zionist smear-campaigns.”
The letter also notes a line in El-Kurd’s 2021 poetry collection, “Rifqa,” that reads, “They harvest organs of the martyred, feed their warriors our own.” A footnote clarifies that this line references a 2009 article, which — the footnote explains — discusses “the decades long Israeli practices of returning the bodies of young Palestinian men to their families with organs missing.” The letter states that El-Kurd’s comments “echo the execrable historical blood libels against Jews that characterized medieval times,” though El-Kurd has claimed there is no connection between the poem and the blood libel trope, stating that, “When I wrote this poem, I was like 14 or 15 years old.”
One member of Princeton’s Alliance of Jewish Progressives (AJP), Ben Gelman ’23, addressed the line in a comment to The Daily Princetonian, writing that instances of “Israel [harvesting] the organs of Palestinians” have “been documented by the Guardian, NBC, and CNN.”
Call to condemn, not cancel
Later in the letter, authors wrote, “I urge the Department of English to openly denounce a speaker committed to disseminating hatred, libel, and calls to violence against Jewish members of the University community.”
The letter also calls on the English department to “condemn the event and pledge to work with Jewish partners on campus — including Chabad and the Center for Jewish Life — and host another speaker event to bring healing to the Jewish community for the harm the department has caused.” The letter clarified, “In the name of free speech, we are not demanding that the Department of English retract its sponsorship.”
In an email to the ‘Prince,’ Orbuch clarified, “I am but one of the many students — both Jewish and non-Jewish, liberal and conservative — who worked on this letter and penned their names.”
The Princeton Tory, a campus conservative publication, reported that “over 40 students” signed the letter.
In a response to Orbuch and the other authors, Dolven wrote that the English Department has “always granted great autonomy to faculty in making invitations. Departmental sponsorship is not an endorsement of what a speaker has said or might say.”
“This openness also means that the Department as a whole does not issue statements. It is an important principle for us that neither I nor anyone else among us attempts to speak for a diverse collective,” Dolven added.
Dolven also wrote, “I can say of [all my] colleagues, with personal confidence, that we share a deep concern with the rise of antisemitic violence and speech locally, nationally, and globally.” He added that some of the cited examples of El-Kurd’s writing had “brought [him] up short.”
Dolven emphasized the importance of “open dialogue” in a “safe space,” writing that “the commitment of the English department is to making sure that [El-Kurd’s] voice can be heard, and that members of the University community are free to listen and respond within Princeton’s tradition of open and respectful dialogue.”
Campus groups respond
Some members of the Jewish community on campus have expressed concern that El-Kurd’s invitation is a statement in itself.
“His appearance under the sponsorship of the Department of English brings leaders of the Jewish community immense worry for the well-being of Jewish students on campus and makes students feel unwelcome and unheard at Princeton,” Nicole Klausner ’24, Chabad at Princeton’s student board president, wrote in a statement to the ‘Prince.’ “The invitation of speakers who made virulently antisemitic remarks sends a clear message of endorsement and validation for these harmful ideologies.”
Center for Jewish Life (CJL) Student President Julie Levey ’24 wrote to the ‘Prince,’ that the English department is “legitimizing these [antisemitic] comments by hosting and co-sponsoring” El-Kurd, and CJL Executive Director Rabbi Gil Steinlauf ’91 wrote, “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.”
Levey is a former associate Features editor for the ‘Prince.’
Other Jewish students and student groups have not condemned the event, placing the debate over El-Kurd’s appearance into a continuing campus conversation about political divisions among Princeton’s Jewish community.
In an email to the ‘Prince’ on behalf of the Alliance of Jewish Progressives (AJP), President Emanuelle Sippy ’25 wrote, “The Alliance of Jewish Progressives is disappointed that those claiming to speak for the entire Jewish community have once again failed to include and recognize progressive non-, anti-, and post-Zionist Jewish students on this campus, who are committed to justice for Palestinians.”
“Criticism of Mr. El-Kurd’s rhetoric does not address the violence of the occupation experienced by Palestinians every day. We believe it is important that we hear from Mr. El-Kurd and have much to learn from Palestinians on the ground,” she wrote, “and we do not have to agree with every conclusion he draws to be outraged by human rights abuses and support Palestinian resistance.”
Gelman wrote to the ‘Prince,’ “Left-wing Jews are especially hurt by Rabbi Steinlauf once again conflating criticism of Israeli human rights abuses and antisemitism. Steinlauf has now repeatedly chosen to exclude left-wing and anti-Zionist Jews from the CJL community in favor of appeasing the far right of Israeli politics.”
Controversy in other contexts
El-Kurd has sparked controversy at other universities in the past.
In Oct. 2022, pro-Israel students protested at a Harvard event where El-Kurd spoke. He has also faced criticism at Georgetown Law School, American University, Duke University, among other colleges.
This is not the first time an Edward Said Memorial Lecture has generated campus controversy. According to a report in the ‘Prince,” during the 2005 lecture with Azmi Beshara, a former member of the Israeli Knesset — the Israeli legislature — “the question-and-answer session following the speech degenerated into a shouting match across the room several times, pitting the apparent minority siding with Israel against the pro-Palestinian majority.”
In more recent years, the lecture series has featured mainly writers and professors whose work has touched on the Middle East. The lecture’s namesake, Edward Said, was a professor at Columbia University, and, at one point, an elected representative in the Palestine National Council.
Past iterations of the lecture have been co-hosted with a wide variety of departments, including the Humanities Council, Lewis Center for the Arts, and the Department of Near Eastern Studies, though PCP is the only student group to co-host the event.
PCP has remained steadfast in its support for the event.
On the subject of this year’s lecture, PCP treasurer Celine Pham ’23 sent to the ‘Prince’ a statement from PCP that stated, “We know that there are members of the Princeton community who portray Palestinians telling their stories and expressing anger at settler colonial violence as illegitimate. We urge them to listen to El-Kurd’s words.”
The statement concludes, “We hope to see many people there and want to thank the English department for valuing Palestinian writers, especially during a time of increased settler colonial violence.”
Concluding his response to the letter signatories, Dolven noted, “We welcome you and everyone on Wednesday.”
Annie Rupertus is an associate News editor for the ‘Prince.’
Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.