BDS conference sparks free-speech debate at Penn

Rabbi Mike Uram, director of the Jewish service group Penn Hillel, at a gathering with members of the Penn Israel Public Affairs Council, including Tamar Friedman.
Rabbi Mike Uram, director of the Jewish service group Penn Hillel, at a gathering with members of the Penn Israel Public Affairs Council, including Tamar Friedman. (ALEX REMNICK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 01, 2012

Just one semester after registering as a student group at the University of Pennsylvania, a pro-Palestinian organization is at the center of an increasingly rancorous war of words over free speech on campus.

The mission of PennBDS, founded by two doctoral candidates and an undergraduate, is to put political pressure on Israel by promoting a consumer boycott of its goods and services - everything from hummus and chocolate bars to Dead Sea vacations.

But what has been raising temperatures at Penn in recent weeks is the group's national conference, starting Friday. It is expected to bring 300 supporters to the West Philadelphia campus for a weekend of speakers and workshops on the BDS strategy against Israel: Boycott, Divest, and Sanction.

Supporters of Israel, who have been vocal in their opposition to the conference, anticipate a hate-fest. They have launched their own campaign, including discussion groups to advocate for Israel, and a "solidarity evening" Thursday headlined by a prominent defender of Israel, the Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz.

Penn officials have had to walk a tightrope.

"Issues around open expression are always among the most challenging on a university campus," Penn president Amy Gutmann and board chairman David L. Cohen wrote in a memo sent Monday to Penn's overseers.

Since word of the conference began circulating in December, university officials have felt the heat from concerned alumni and donors.

"We adamantly oppose" the tactics urged by BDS supporters, Cohen and Gutmann wrote. "At the same time we recognize and respect their right to open expression. Just because we disagree - in this case, strongly and deeply - with what they advocate does not mean they lose their right to voice their opinions."

Said to number fewer than 20 active members, PennBDS is part of the seven-year-old international BDS movement, which came into being after the World Court ruled that Israel's separation barrier along the West Bank violated international law.

In an attempt to pressure Israel to comply, and to recognize Palestinian rights, BDS founders adopted the model of the antiapartheid boycott movement against South Africa in the 1980s.

In addition to avoiding Israeli-made goods, BDS urges divestment from companies whose products help Israel maintain its military control over disputed land in the West Bank.

At Penn, the weekend lineup of more than 20 speakers includes Ali Abunimah of Chicago, cofounder of the website Electronic Intifada, and Susan Abulhawa of Yardley, author of the novel Mornings in Jenin.

Political science doctoral student Matt Berkman, 27, of Florida, a PennBDS cofounder, said the conference is also promoting an ongoing campaign targeting TIAA-CREF, the financial-services giant, which manages many college retirement plans. Its portfolios include such companies as Motorola and Northrop Grumman, which, Berkman said, provide communications and military equipment to Israel.

Rocketing across Penn websites since December, comments about the national conference have rumbled with the animosity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself.

"I hope this conference will make immediate plans for Boycott Israel resolutions at Penn and nationwide," someone calling himself Boycotting Apartheid wrote to the Daily Pennsylvanian.

Coming to Israel's defense, a commenter identified only as Jon said the anti-Israel sanctions movement has been a flop.

Colleges and universities "reject your Israel = apartheid propaganda," he wrote. "Your self-image is . . . courageous paladin. . . . From my perspective [you] resemble that annoying bar patron who keeps hitting on the same woman . . . and takes an unwillingness to take 'no' for an answer as progress."

In the run-up to the conference, Penn's campus has been riven by debates, most of them online, about the legal status of land Palestinians claim for a future state; the significance of the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank; the impact of U.N. resolutions on the conflict; and allegations by each side that the other distorts Middle East history.

Critics say BDS engages in thinly veiled anti-Semitism designed to make pariahs of the government of Israel and the Israeli people.

"Individuals of good will whose goal is to help Israelis and Palestinians find a solution to the tragedies on both sides don't seek to demonize just one side," said Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia.

"A lot of people conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism," said Berkman, "but I believe that is simply a tactic for suppressing dissent."

Through Penn's chapter of Hillel, the campus Jewish service organization, several dozen students opposed to the conference have organized "Israel Across Penn," a semester-long program of dinners and discussion groups, also beginning this weekend.

Some members also are proposing a "buy-cott" of Israeli goods. Don't skip hummus, they say, buy extra.

"It doesn't make sense that this [conference is] at Penn," said sophomore Susan Finch, 19, of Chicago. "Student leaders at the University of Pennsylvania support a strong U.S.-Israel relationship."

Working with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, about two dozen local groups and individuals, including the Israeli consulate in Philadelphia, said in a joint statement that "rather than encourage discourse," the conference will promote "intolerance on campus."

The pro-Israel lobbying group J Street, which has been outspoken in its criticism of Israel's occupation of the West Bank, issued a separate statement. "While concern about the present and future of the Palestinian people is both legitimate and warranted," said J Street, BDS' "criticism crosses the line when it demonizes Israel," denies its "right to defend its citizens, or rejects Israel's very right to exist as the democratic homeland of the Jewish people."

In a move apparently aimed at stealing thunder from the conference, Dershowitz, a staunch critic of BDS, will speak at Penn's Annenberg Center on Thursday night. About 900 students reportedly have registered to attend.

Dershowitz has said that the advocates of boycotts "have blood on their hands" because the actions they urge "discourage the laying down of arms."

Speaking over coffee at Penn's bookstore cafe last week, Berkman said BDS was mischaracterized by its critics.

The movement, he said, "is about nonviolent civil-society pressure" on Israel "in the absence of state pressure."

As for the allegation that BDS harbors anti-Semites, he said: "I have never seen a trace of anti-Semitism in the BDS movement. If I did, I would speak out against it as a Jew."

Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or

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