BDS conference at Penn met my worst expectations

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Toward the end of last week, I flew from the Bay Area to Philadelphia for the national BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) conference at the University of Pennsylvania, curious to see whether it would be as extreme as many had warned. I also hoped to meet some cooler-headed attendees who were seeking ways to promote peaceful coexistence.

Instead, I heard lies and old anti-Semitic canards. Palestinian terrorism was swept away. Israel was demonized and accused of blood libels. The idea of compromise and peaceful coexistence was deplored.

Approximately 150 to 200 people attended each session over the three-day conference, with the number swelling to 400 for the keynote speech by Ali Abunimah, co-founder of Electric Intifada.

The majority of attendees were beyond their college years, with a smaller number of students. Not one participant asked a question from Israel’s point of view; not one challenged the blood libels that I heard. It’s clear to me now that the purpose of this conference was to instill hostility against Israel, and then to call for its punishment.

The film shown at the pre-reception, “The Road to Apartheid,” set the tone for the weekend. The filmmaker used visual manipulation — splitting the screen with documentary footage of South African black-white struggles next to footage of Israel Defense Forces actions in the West Bank — in an effort to associate Israeli policies with apartheid. The scenes looked similar, as shots of violent conflicts between any groups would. But the filmmaker scrupulously erased context for Israel’s actions, such as the Palestinian terrorist war.

Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, spoke by videotape, exhorting the audience to “end your complicity” with Israel’s “apartheid regime” because doing so “is a profound, moral obligation.”

In the opening address, Susan Abulhawa, a U.S.-based author of Palestinian descent, distorted history, ignoring Palestinian and Arab wars against Israel, instead accusing Israel of committing “wholesale slaughter.” She urged extremism. Her passionate call for “justice without compromise or negotiations” had the dismantling of the Jewish state as a necessary outcome. The “no compromise” language exposed the BDS movement’s fundamental opposition to two states living side-by-side, and the hypocrisy of their claim that they are trying to uphold human rights and international law.

In Abunimah’s keynote speech, he absurdly charged that “Nakba denial is the equivalent of Holocaust denial.” The audience responded with enthusiastic applause. He indulged in classic anti-Semitic imagery. “Israelis as human beings don’t have a right to superiority.”

Abunimah claimed that an Israeli settler had killed a Palestinian teenager, Yousef al-Khalil, while he was innocently working alongside his father in their fields. I checked out that story further, and even the far left B’Tselem information agency reported that Khalil and a friend had been hurling rocks at an Israeli hiker who said he was forced to shoot in self-defense.

At the BDS conference at Penn, Tighe Barry of Washington, D.C. addresses a question to keynote speaker Ali Abunimah, a co-founder of Electric Intifada. photo/peter tobia

Abunimah’s distortion was typical of the charges made over the weekend. Isolated incidents that occurred in ambiguous circumstances were repeatedly used to portray Palestinian violence as peaceful activity and Israeli self-defense as cruel aggression.

In the other sessions, this pattern of distortion continued. The themes were often variations of anti-Semitic accusations. At a panel titled “A Faith-Based Approach to BDS,” the Rev. Graylan Hagler, national president of Ministers for Racial, Social and Economic Justice, told a questioner that “one of the things I am constantly doing is trying to disengage Christians from Hebrew Scripture.”

Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb from Jewish Voice for Peace was no more sympathetic to Jews than Hagler. She boasted about the delegation she had led to Iran to speak with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and declared that “no war, no sanctions for Iran” is part of the BDS movement. She indulged in the canard of Jewish superiority, saying that “we Jewish people have to de-privilege ourselves.” Cyrus McGoldrick from the Council on American-Islamic Relations claimed that “Zionism depends on Islamophobia.”

As a college student, I was especially shocked by a Q&A during the academic boycott breakout session. A man who identified himself as a scholar and teacher asked how BDS could be incorporated into the classroom, “especially when the course is not dealing directly with material that has to do with Palestine.” A professor on the panel offered suggestions about how to do so.

I was stunned by the devious nature of this recommended tactic. I was stunned that faculty were encouraged to devise ways to indoctrinate their unsuspecting captive audience of students in any and all classrooms. This strategy to exploit the classroom struck me as an inevitable result of BDS’ distortion of liberal values.

I did not find anyone who wanted to build bridges. Instead, I found people who call themselves human rights activists preaching against the only free society in the Middle East. I found “social justice” advocates denying justice for Jews.

Guy Herschmann is a senior at U.C. Santa Cruz and the campus professional for StandWithUs in Northern California and Western Canada.