Both sides claim victory after BDS conference at Penn

Did the recent national boycott, divestment and sanctions conference at the University of Pennsylvania backfire for organizers and illustrate the strength of the pro-Israel community on campus?

Or did it reveal how much pro-Israel students need to learn in order to counter arguments that are steeped in the language of universal justice and human rights?

According to Penn students, Hillel staff and Jewish communal professionals, both are true.

“It can be very difficult in situations like these to pinpoint a winner and a loser,” said Noah Feit, president of Penn Friends of Israel and a fellow with StandWithUs, a national pro-Israel group. “But in this case, the entire Penn community came together and sent a very clear message that we are against BDS and it runs counter to our principles.”

Alan Dershowitz (right) speaks Feb. 2 at the University of Pennsylvania, with journalist Robert Traynham moderating. photo/jta/scott weiner

But organizers of the BDS event, held Feb. 3-5, also claimed victory.

One of them, Matt Berkman, said the many articles written in the campus newspaper drew attention to the cause.

“If this kind of learning and exchange continue, which we hope it will, then the conference will have served one of its purposes,” the Penn graduate student wrote in an email.

The BDS movement seeks to impose economic hardship on Israel and pressure it to end the “occupation,” grant full equality to Israeli Arabs, and find a just resolution to the Palestinian refugee issue by granting a right of return. The movement does not take an explicit stand on whether Israel should exist as a Jewish state.

Penn’s president, Amy Gutmann, on several occasions said the university does not support the BDS movement and values its ties with Israel.

In response to the conference, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia partnered with Hillel to plan an evening with attorney Alan Dershowitz that was attended by about 900. A student-organized party raised $6,000 to invest in an Israeli startup, and students also held a series of Shabbat dinners where 800 took part in informal conversations about Israel.

Pro-Israel students did not turn out to protest the conference. Organizers said about 300 people attended, and several sources said many were older activists (see Opinions, 16a).

Dershowitz said Penn’s administration was right to allow the conference to go forward on the grounds of free speech.

He rejected the notion that staging large communal events brought more attention to the BDS conference than it might otherwise have gotten. He said the true agenda of the movement must be exposed.

“Their definition of occupation is Haifa and Tel Aviv. Their motto is Palestine will be free from the river to the sea,” he said in a brief interview before the program.

The day before the conference, BDS organizers revoked the press credentials of a Jewish Exponent reporter and accused the paper of engaging in “polemics” and “crafting a political narrative” after a story appeared reporting the anti-Israel records of some of the slated speakers.

“It is ironic that a group that purports to be interested in open dialogue … and insists it is not anti-Semitic is barring the Jewish Exponent,” said Lisa Hostein, the paper’s executive editor.

The group did allow the paper to cover Ali Abunimah’s keynote address, which was open to the public. Well-versed in pro-Israel arguments as well as the debates going on inside the Jewish community, the Palestinian-American journalist and author spoke for an hour comparing Israel to apartheid-era South Africa.

He asked rhetorically whether it was just for Israel to remain a Jewish state.

“If the answer is yes, you have to accept the awful moral consequences of that decision, that you are supporting some of the most vile ways of categorizing and segregating and separating human beings,” he said.

BDS conference attendees said they were motivated by human rights and a desire to see all people live in peace.

Liza Behrendt, who graduated in May from Brandeis University, where she organized a Jewish Voice for Peace chapter, said she supports the BDS movement because it is aligned with Jewish values.

Behrendt said it might still be possible for Israel to remain a Jewish state and “end the occupation and do things a lot better, but the more the settlement project continues, the harder that becomes.” She added, “The onus is really on Israel to change their policy and change them sooner rather than later.”

Many pro-Israel students spoke to the event’s upside: the activism it generated.

Freshman Alon Krifcher said the conference “has pretty much taken over our lives in the past few months, but in a good way. We see this really as a gift. We have taken this opportunity and, we think, have drawn Israel into the forefront.”