Penn students prepare to counter BDS conference

Students mobilize against conference that they say is a clear effort to delegitimize Israel.

BDS Israel (photo credit: Courtesy)
BDS Israel
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) conference scheduled to be held February 3-5 on the University of Pennsylvania campus has mobilized pro-Israel student groups, as well as off-campus organizations, to counter the anticipated torrent of anti-Israel activity.
Penn's administration has distanced itself from the conference, but it maintains that student groups have a right to hold events, even if many in the community do not endorse the views expressed.
PennBDS, a registered student group that was established earlier this academic year, seeks to advance a BDS agenda among members of the Penn community.
Pro-Israel student leaders at Penn say the conference is a clear effort to delegitimize Israel, and they are working to counter it.
Penn Hillel director Rabbi Mike Uram said the conference provides an opportunity to “dramatically increase and deepen the pro-Israel campus coalition for Jews and non-Jews to help better understand Israel and give positive messages.”
He said the BDS movement has limited support, while the pro-Israel response will involve thousands of students in the coming weeks. The organized response to the conference sets the scene for a semester of programs and activities that “will create fertile ground and an up-kick for pro-Israel sentiment on the Penn campus.”
Joshua Cooper, a sophomore and Penn Hillel intern, shared details of a multi-pronged strategy that is being developed to counter the conference's impact.
• Students affiliated with certain Israel groups on campus are writing op-ed pieces in local Philadelphia newspapers.• Members of PIPAC, the Penn Israel Public Affairs Committee, are circulating a leadership statement that will be signed by representatives of multiple student organizations, including political groups and the Greek community, to demonstrate the widespread opposition to BDS among members of the Penn community.• The Orthodox community of Hillel plans to devote study sessions to topics related to religious Zionism, philosophy and halacha (Jewish law) related to Israel.
About 40 student volunteers also plan to engage Jewish and non-Jewish students in dialogue during multiple Friday-night dinners over the conference weekend. These dinners will target 15 students each, reaching a total of 500-700 students on campus, and seek to create positive energy around open discussion within the Penn community about students’ experiences in Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hillel staff will train student hosts to provide user-friendly conversation starters.
Cooper noted that pro-Israel students have organized quickly to face the challenge posed by the upcoming conference.
“Prior to this year, the main group on campus for the Palestinian cause was Penn for Palestine," he said. "Unlike PennBDS, [they] didn’t bring such politically charged events or speakers to campus. There has always been a pretty quiet relationship.”
Noah Feit, a sophomore and president of Penn Friends of Israel (PFI), said the group is planning a collaboration with Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) involving academics who will provide positive statements on Israel. SPME acting director Asaf Romirowsky is working with PFI to ensure an optimal response prior to the conference.
PFI has arranged for Professor Alan Dershowitz to speak at a private dinner for students and community leaders on the eve of the conference with community and student leaders. His address is titled “We Are One with Israel: An Evening of Unity and Community Solidarity.”
Other efforts target the Greek community, with dinners, dialogue and an "Invest in Israel" party all designed to raise awareness about Israel and increase the community's understanding of the benefits of strong US-Israel ties.
FRI's Feit stressed that the group does not oppose critical discussion of Israeli policy. In fact, he noted, "These very discussions are espoused specifically in Israel by Israelis." However, he said, when the BDS movement calls for boycotts of high-profile Israeli goods, it "fails to consider other Israeli products developed and perfected such as computers, cellphones and chemotherapy. It goes beyond convenient products such as hummus.
“The BDS conference is a radical effort aimed at demonizing and de-legitimizing the Jewish state," Feit said. "It unduly subjects Israel to a double standard and falsely attributes the inability to achieve peace to the policies of the Israeli government. On Penn’s campus, it polarizes debate and hinders the prospect for mainstream and legitimate discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Penn Hillel's Israel fellow, Sharona Kramer, recently returned from a group of Penn students on a Birthright trip to Israel. In light of the upcoming conference, she worried that her absence was untimely. But when she got back to campus, she was impressed to see all that the students had achieved in her absence.
“As an Israeli, it was so touching to see how the students handled the issue and cared so much to shift the focus to a positive platform for the university to engage in a deep and sophisticated conversation,” Kramer said.
Last month, Penn's administration issued a statement that said, in part, "The University of Pennsylvania has clearly stated on numerous occasions that it does not support sanctions or boycotts against Israel. Indeed, Penn has important and successful scholarly collaborations with Israeli institutions that touch on many areas of our academic enterprise."
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