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Event sparks controversy over featured speaker and Palestinian activist Mohammed El-Kurd

A petition called on student organizations to stop sponsoring the event

An event held by Students for Justice in Palestine March 17 was the subject of controversy among students who took issue with its speaker, Palestinian activist Mohammed El-Kurd. 

El-Kurd is a Palestinian activist, journalist and poet who has achieved international attention for his work advocating for the Palestinian community. Born in the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah, East Jerusalem, he is the first-ever Palestine correspondent for The Nation, where he writes on the themes of dispossession, ethnic cleansing and settler colonialism. He has also garnered controversy for comments on Zionism and Jewish Israelis. 

Students opposed to the event have accused El-Kurd of antisemitism based on themes in his poetry and statements he had posted to social media in the past. To voice their opinions, students created a petition calling on student organizations to stop co-sponsoring the event, describing it as “a harmful act.” 

“There is a line between criticism of Israel’s actions and antisemitism, and El-Kurd continually crosses this line,” the petition said. 

The petition accused El-Kurd of several instances of antisemitism, including spreading the blood libel trope — the allegation that Jews use Christian blood for ritual purposes — in his new poetry book, “Rifqa,” and dismissing the “indigeneity of Jewish people to Israel.” 

Questions arose when SJP announced only two days before the event date that the conversation was being moved to an off-campus location at the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ. El-Kurd himself and other student organizations have since said this shift was not caused by student response. 

On his Twitter page, El-Kurd responded to a claim from the nonprofit organization Foundation for Individual Rights in Education that the event was forced off campus after public backlash caused AU to withdraw its sponsorship. 

The event consisted of readings from “Rifqa” and a Q&A session between El-Kurd and the audience. 

The American University League of Latin American Citizens, one of over 20 student organizations that co-sponsored the talk, also took to their Instagram page to clarify the circumstances surrounding the event’s relocation. 

“To those who would have you believe that the location change was the result of their slanderous efforts, it was not,” the post said. “Any claims otherwise are not only lies but libel against AU.” 

While most of the AU-affiliated organizations kept their sponsorship of the event, climate activism group Sunrise AU released a statement announcing a change in their decision. 

“Our organization originally co-sponsored the event because we sought to uplift the voices of those experiencing occupation and demonstrate our solidarity with the Palestinian people living under Israeli occupation,” their statement said. “However, we recognize that antisemitism and antisemitic hate crimes are currently on the rise globally putting Jewish communities in danger.”

The statement continued to say that Sunrise AU members “strongly condemn invalidations of Jewish trauma, including the comments made by the event’s speaker, Mohammed El-Kurd” and that their group commits “to being more diligent in the future when evaluating groups, organizers, and events.” 

AU LULAC and Sunrise did not respond to The Eagle’s request for comment.

The safety of AU’s Jewish community is something that School of Public Affairs sophomore Shayna Rutman said was a concern when she first learned about the event. Rutman said that El-Kurd’s remarks made her afraid of what she might have experienced attending the event as a Jewish individual. 

“I’m afraid that if I wore my Jewish star I would have gotten verbal harassment or just a notable stare of judgment,” she said. 

Other students, like Sophie Lavender, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, disputed the argument that the event was condoning antisemitism. 

“It’s frankly Islamophobic and anti-Palestine to say that [this event] is antisemitism,” they said. 

Lavender said people who view the event as antisemitic should “engage with the art” of Palestinian creators, like El-Kurd’s poetry, to see a different perspective. 

“I think that art is the core of persuasion, art is the core of education,” Lavender said. “If you can engage yourself with Palestinian pain face-to-face through art and still be like ‘this is antisemitic,’ then you frankly shouldn’t say that you care about the rights of oppressed people.” 

Rutman said it is difficult to perceive certain remarks from El-Kurd as anything but antisemitic. 

“I don’t know how you can see Jews eating Palestinian children as not antisemitic,” Rutman said about a line from one of El-Kurd’s poems. “I just don’t understand how they don’t see the offense that that has. Even though it’s an older trope it still affects people.” 

SJP did not officially disclose why the event had been moved off-campus and did not respond to requests for comment via email from The Eagle. 

As the semester comes to an end and one of the founding members leaves American University, Section 202 has decided to take a trip down memory lane. For our fans, old and new, who are wondering how Section 202 came to be, this episode is a must. Listen along as hosts Connor Sturniolo and Liah Argiropoulos reminisce about the beginning of Section 202 and how it got to where it is now.

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