The BDS movement — a group that encourages boycotts, divestment and sanctions against the State of Israel — will run its national conference here at Penn in early February. In reply, President Amy Gutmann clarified that though BDS will be held at Penn, Penn holds no stock in BDS. In a recent statement, she wrote that “this is not an event sponsored by the University … The University of Pennsylvania has clearly stated on numerous occasions that it does not support sanctions or boycotts against Israel.”
By withholding the university’s imprimatur from BDS and its boycotts, President Gutmann reflects the Penn community’s strong and long-established ties with Israel.
The Penn community, as President Gutmann wrote, “has important and successful scholarly collaborations with Israeli institutions that touch on many areas of our academic enterprise.” Many Israelis are visiting or standing Penn Professors. Penn’s Katz Center hosts numerous Israeli fellows each year. Recently, Penn joined with Israel’s Ben Gurion University to honor acclaimed Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld.
The Penn community does not support BDS because boycotts are destructive and divisive, undermine hopes for peace and do nothing to help the Palestinians improve their lives, begin state building or develop democratic institutions. Above all, boycotts squelch all forms of dialogue and nuanced understanding by consigning blame to and penalizing only one side of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Penn, like all other universities, stands for the free exchange of ideas. Boycotts at the University, therefore, are especially repulsive.
The Penn community does not support BDS because its quasi-rational basis — the charge that Israel’s behavior mimics Apartheid South Africa’s, and, as such, Israel should be similarly punished — is spurious at best, Orwellian at worst. Despite her tough situation, Israel embodies liberal democratic freedoms and boasts a westernized, open, liberal and free society.
Israel’s record on human rights is among the world’s best, especially among nations that have confronted comparable existential threats. For instance, Israel minimizes civilian casualties by exposing its own soldiers to the risk of door to door “retail” fighting, rather than resorting to “wholesale” bombing of the kind done by many other countries, including our own.
Israel is the only country in the Middle East where minorities such as gays, Arabs and women are generally granted equal civil rights.
Gays flock to Israel not only because Israel grants them equal rights but because Israel is the only Middle Eastern country where gays have the right — to life. Hanging homosexuals is unfortunately commonplace in Israel’s neighbors — including the Palestinian Authority — but is unheard of in Israel. In fact, Israel ended discrimination against gays in her army long before the United States repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Arab-Israelis comprise about 20-percent of Israel’s population and participate in Israeli democracy at all levels. Arab men and women continue to vote in elections for and serve in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Out of respect for the complexity of Arab-Israeli identity, Arab citizens are exempt from the compulsory military service that has secured the accomplishments of Israeli democracy.
Not only can Israel’s women drive and dress as they wish — rare freedoms in the Middle East — but they are equal to men in all respects. In fact, the second most powerful elected Israeli official is Tzipi Livni, a woman.
Israel’s Supreme Court is the only independent judiciary in the Middle East and one of the most highly regarded in the world, and has not shied away from confronting other branches of government to advance human rights. The Supreme Court consists of Arabs, such as Justice Salim Joubran, and is led by a woman, Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch.
BDS is right that Israel is different from all other western countries: only Israel took black Africans out of slavery and into freedom, instead of the reverse.
This list could go on and on, and by every single standard Israel would surpass most other countries, especially those that perpetrate real human rights violations and against which no divestiture petition has been directed, such as Syria, Sudan and Somalia (just to name three countries whose names begin with the letter “S”).
To be sure, Israel is far from perfect. But ignoring the fact — that Israel is the only country in the Middle East with a moral army, a commitment to the equality of minorities and an independent judiciary — in an effort to single out the Jewish state of Israel as if it were the worst human rights offender is a bigoted double standard, pure and simple.
Ignorance can excuse bigotry, but neither — like BDS — has support on our college campus.
Shlomo Klapper is a College freshman. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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