An open letter from KWH Faculty Director Al Filreis:

As a member of the faculty, a Jewish professor who has taught literary representations of the horror of the Holocaust for nearly 40 years here at Penn, and Faculty Director of the Kelly Writers House for 27 of those years, I join with the Penn community in passionately expressing solidarity with all those who have been affected—killed, injured, displaced, traumatized—by the shocking, horrific assault on Israeli people by Hamas, truly acts of terror; and it is with deep sorrow and condemnation that I and my colleagues bear witness to the indiscriminate killing of families and children. We are in anguished, deep mourning for so many more innocent lives lost in the region, Israeli and Palestinian, as the conflict escalates. This is not a world we should wish for anyone.

In recent weeks some have suggested that our role as host of a poetry reading the evening before the start of the Palestine Writes conference was an endorsement of anti-Semitism. The poetry reading, which included a Q&A discussion of issues of the translation of verse from French and English (the languages of the two featured poets) into English and Arabic respectively, was attended by a thoughtful and diverse audience of poets and poetry readers. Another in a series of hundreds of poetry readings we've hosted over the years, the evening was of a piece with those other events in our Arts Café.

We affirm our place as a free and open-to-all venue and space for a wide variety of literary writers on campus. We believe this role is aligned with what Penn alumnus and former trustee Marc Rowan in his recent statement remembers as a "proud tradition" at Penn of critical reasoning and considered debate and discussion. In this spirit, he commends, via Hanna Gray's free speech principles, people on campus who continue to be committed to "open inquiry, expression and learning to think and challenge ideas." Mr. Rowan also asks those departments and programs that hosted events to "pause and reflect" on our roles and their effects. We welcome the opportunity to do just that, and as anyone who knows the Kelly Writers House knows well, such reflection is our best mode. Did we contribute, wittingly or unwittingly, to an environment on campus of anti-Semitism by hosting our poetry reading? As a teacher and scholar of both contemporary poetry and of representations of the Holocaust, I think certainly not. But this question, and our answers to it, are at the heart of what should be discussed at our house. And we at 3805 Locust Walk have indeed been discussing it. Having a free, open, and safe space in the center of campus to hold such essential conversation about art and human expression is exactly why I and others founded the Writers House 27 years ago.

I have been talking with students at KWH, so they can share what they think about the situation at Penn overall, and specifically about the Writers House as a space in which all students do or should feel heard and supported. And, yes, the meaning of statements made by people like Roger Waters and Marc Lamont Hill, although they had nothing to do with our reading, should be part of the ongoing discussion too. It was, to be clear, our only connection to the conference; we did not sponsor a conference, we hosted a poetry reading. As a campus leader-participant in this community of learners, I am strongly motivated by Mr. Rowan's insistence that we pause and reflect now on our place as a collaborative learning space on campus, as I am encouraged by the commitments across campus to teach about anti-Semitism just as about other forms of racist bias, an enlargement of our literary and cultural pedagogy I have been advocating for years. I am honored to be teaching my course on the Holocaust this very semester. Here, at the Writers House, I and my extraordinary students discern and openly discuss the meaning of anti-Semitism in every class session. As I personally lament the presence of hatred and mourn the horrific loss of life that bitter animosity can cause, so professionally it has been my life's work to convene our capable students around these hard topics.

—Al Filreis

October 15, 2023