Palestinian activist opens conference at Penn

Susan Abulhawa gives the opening address Saturday at the national conference of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions at the University of Pennsylvania. (Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer)
Susan Abulhawa gives the opening address Saturday at the national conference of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions at the University of Pennsylvania. (Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 04, 2012

There are hundreds of laws and military orders that create a world of oppression for Palestinians in Israel, Susan Abulhawa, a pro-Palestinian author and activist told an audience Saturday.

"Everything we have has been taken from us," she told a crowd of 250 in Meyerson Hall on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

Abulhawa detailed 20 including an Israeli law that she says ended the growth of Arab villages and a military order that she claims allows Palestinians to be detained for up to six months without a charge or trial.

Abulhawa is the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, a group that builds playgrounds for Palestinian children in refugee camps and in the occupied territories. She is also the author of Mornings in Jenin, a novel about a Palestinian family displaced to a refugee camp.

Abulhawa, of Yardley gave the opening address Saturday at the national conference of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions,(BDS) a movement that aims to put international pressure on Israel to recognize Palestinian rights by promoting a consumer boycott of Israeli goods and services.

The BDS movement came into being seven years ago after the World Court ruled that Israel's separation barrier along the West Bank violates international law.

The group advocates a strategy similar to the anti-apartheid divestment movement of the 1980s, urging the boycott of Israeli-made goods and divestment from companies whose products help Israel maintain its military control over disputed land in the West Bank.

Abulhawa was one of about 20 speakers scheduled to participate in the conference which began on Friday and is scheduled to end on Sunday.

Other speakers included writer and activist Remi Kanazi, editor of Poets for Palestine, a collection of hip hop, poetry and art featuring Palestinian poets; Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace; and Ali Abunimah, of Chicago, cofounder of the website Electronic Intifada.

The conference was hosted by PennBDS, a newly-organized, 20-member branch of the organization. The event has been the subject of controversy on campus, spawning statements by president Amy Gutmann and prompting the organization of events meant to counter the message of BDS.

"We are unwavering in our support of the Jewish state. Let me say in the clearest possible words: we do not support the goals of BDS," Guttman said in a letter dated Feb. 2.

At the same time, "the university recognizes the right of any student or student group to freely express their opinions," the letter stated.

The letter was read by David L. Cohen, the university's board chairman, at a lecture on Thursday by Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard University law professor and staunch defender of Israel.

Dershowitz spoke to a packed Zellerbach Theater at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on the Penn campus.

In recent days, student leaders also hosted social gatherings to support Israel, including a campus party that raised $5,000 for an Israeli charity, said Rabbi Mike Uram.

Several speakers at the weekend pro-Palestinian conference admonished the university for what they described as aligning itself with BDS opponents and failing to speak out against those who sought to paint the group as extremist.

The school's actions cultivated what Abulhawa described as a "threatening and intimidating" atmosphere for conference organizers.

A Penn spokesman could not be reached to respond.

Amy Kaplan, a professor of English at the university and a panel moderator, complimented the student organizers for withstanding pressure inside and outside of the university.

Organizers kept a tight reign on the proceedings, barring the media from attending several discussion sessions.

The sessions featured strategy discussions that organizers said they wanted closed to preserve their effectiveness and to "keep ourselves safe," said Anna Marie Murano, a spokesperson for the conference.

Organizers also disinvited The Jewish Exponent, a Philadelphia-based newspaper serving the Jewish community, because Exponent journalists who wrote about the conference are "full of polemics and misquoted organizers," Murano said.

Lisa Hostein, editor of The Jewish Exponent, said organizers had emailed her about the "polemics" issue but had not said anything about being misquoted.

"It's ironic that free speech is an important principle under which [conference organizers] are operating and yet they are trying to suppress The Jewish Exponent's First Amendment rights to cover the conference."

At the conference, a diverse gathering listened intently as speakers described the Palestinian plight as unjust.

"For years, I didn't want to get involved," said Marlena Santoyo, of Mount Airy who described herself as Jewish and Quaker, "but I came because I want to support justice and equality for Palestinians and Israelis."

Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or

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