(Page 2 of 2)
To Israel’s supporters, this third stipulation would tip the demographic balance of Israel’s population, spelling demise for a Jewish state. Israel advocates also balk at the comparison to apartheid-era South Africa, saying that BDS’s focus on Israel alone presents a perilous double standard, giving other Middle Eastern countries with poor human rights records a free pass.
At the conference, which was organized by the 15-member Penn BDS group, there was talk of positioning the initiative as a democracy movement. A student activist media handbook circulating at the conference admonished BDS proponents to “infuse our language with values like freedom, equal rights, democracy, etc. This allows you to speak to Americans in terms they understand. Most can’t define Zionism, but freedom and equality are easy terms for most people to conceptualize. Emphasizing shared values also allows you to connect with Americans on both an emotional and intellectual level.”
That message was echoed by Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian rights activist and co-founder of the Electronic Intifada website. “We are fighting for rights people have fought for all over the world,” Abunimah said in his well-attended keynote speech. “We have to link this struggle to so many other struggles in this country and around the world.”
In formulating a response to Penn BDS, Philadelphia’s Jewish community at first split on whether it should ask the university to reject the conference outright or counter the initiative with its own programming.
Some, like Rabbi Neil Cooper of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood, railed against the university for allowing BDS to come to campus. “I believe that, in the future, this conference at the University of Pennsylvania will be identified not only as a political gathering but as a movement grounded in and supported by the worldview of academia,” he wrote in an email to his congregants. According to Penn’s student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, several major donors threatened to withdraw their support of the university should the conference go forward there.
Though a staunch supporter of Israel, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz affirmed the BDS movement’s right to be on campus, saying that had the university rejected it, he would have defended it on free speech grounds.
Dershowitz spoke before an audience of 900 people at Penn the night before the BDS conference was scheduled to begin, in an event hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia along with several other on- and off-campus Jewish groups. “We are going to win this encounter,” with BDS, he said.
After the Dershowitz speech, Penn Hillel threw a fundraiser for an Israeli charity at a bar near campus; the next night it ran a series of dinnertime conversations about Israel, “Israel Across Penn.”
A brief flare-up occurred when Ruben Gur, a Penn psychiatry professor, wrote an op-ed in The Daily Pennsylvanian, calling the BDS proponents “Nazis” and their Jewish backers “Capos”— a slam that Abunimah and others said only distracted from the issues.
But when Penn BDS kicked off, there was nary a protester in sight. And that was a good thing, said Geri Palast, head of the Israel Action Network, a group countering delegitimization on campus and beyond. “While we may disagree with people, it is not in our interest to try to squelch the speech,” she said. “It really turns the opposition into a martyr, and we don’t need that.”
Even Cooper has since changed his tune, writing about BDS in another upcoming newsletter that he shared with the Forward: “When our enemies attack, we might, at times, be better advised to strengthen and build up ourselves rather than engaging in battle.”