The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions conference hosted at the University of Pennsylvania last weekend drew significant attention in Philadelphia and across the country, but supporters of Israel in the Penn community pointed to the impact of their own work and stressed the support Israel has received from Penn's leadership.
Penn Hillel Director Rabbi Mike Uram noted that “one of the greatest signs of success is that everyone was speaking about Israel in a positive way.”
He attributed this to a wide array of programs and activities organized by the pro-Israel community that were designed to focus people's attention on many aspects of Israel.
On Thursday evening, Alan Dershowitz delivered a keynote address on campus to an audience of 900 members of the campus and Philadelphia communities. An additional 1,000 people watched the presentation, titled "Why Israel Matters to Me, You and Penn," via live streaming. Before the open event, a small group of local community members and student leaders met with Dershowitz in a more intimate setting.
Although she did not attend the program due to an out-of-town commitment, Penn President Amy Gutmann sent a letter which was read from the podium. It said, in part, "Your presence here tonight makes a very important statement. Thanks for doing it the right way. Thanks for supporting the cause of Israel. And thanks for supporting Penn." The full text of the letter can be viewed here.
Penn sophomore Noah Feit, who is president of Penn Friends of Israel (PFI), expressed satisfaction at the way the pro-Israel community met the challenge of the conference.
“In cases like these, it’s often difficult to pinpoint a winner and a loser," Feit said. "But I think the facts and response to the conference were so overwhelming that it’s clear the students, administration and local community stand with Israel.”
Feit reported that he was turned away from the BDS 101 session that was part of the BDS conference, despite the fact that the room was not full. He was, however, admitted to the keynote address by Electronic Intifada co-founder Ali Abunimah on Saturday evening.
“He spoke of children killed by the IDF with plenty of passion, but no context,” Feit said. He was particularly bothered by Abunimah’s statement that denying the nakba (Arabic for catastrophe, the term used by Palestinians to describe the events of 1948) is equivalent to Holocaust denial. Feit declared, “This statement is the embodiment of prejudice, discrimination, and anti-Semitism.”
On Friday night, nearly 800 students attended various dinners organized by members of pro-Israel groups. The dinners, which took place at Hillel and in residences and fraternities, provided a setting for students to talk about Israel.
Feit’s fraternity, Sigma Alphu Mu, held a discussion amongst the 35 brothers as to their perception of Israel and the role Israel plays in a Jewish fraternity.
PFI raised $5,000 at a local campus hot-spot open bar called Smoke’s to invest in an Israeli tech startup incubator. Students raised $3500, and donors continue to give. Uram noted that the local Federation is expected to match whatever amount is raised.
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