As an upcoming conference criticizing Israel approaches, the Penn community has been engaged in multiple discussions about the merits of hosting such a conference on campus.
Several student groups, as well as alumni, have been engaging in activism and discussion in anticipation of the national Boycott, Divest and Sanction Conference that will be hosted by PennBDS in early February.
BDS is a pro-Palestinian movement that aims to use the three-tiered approach outlined in its name to force Israel to comply with what it deems is international law.
On Monday, Martin Luther King Day, students met to discuss the BDS conference. A member of Counseling and Psychological Services who has experience as a mediator served as a third-party moderator at the meeting, according to College junior Sam Greenberg, executive board member of the Jewish student organization J-Street.
“Ideologically, people accused the BDS movement of being divisive, unprofessional, and over-simplistic, but I think a lot of people at the meeting were able to share their support for the movement as being more nuanced and more sophisticated than people originally understood it to be,” said College sophomore Sarah Shihadah, co-president of Penn for Palestine, adding that “it was enriching for a lot of people.”
Matt Berkman, a doctoral student studying political science who is co-organizing the BDS Conference at Penn, also attended the discussion.
“It was productive in that we bridged some of our gaps in some form,” he said, explaining that he expected BDS opponents “to be a lot more hard line than they were. I found what they said very refreshing.”
“We weren’t there as representatives of groups,” Greenberg said. “We were there as people who were interested in learning about how people felt about BDS.”
College sophomore Samara Gordon, the campus relations coordinator of the Penn Israel Public Affairs Committee, has been helping her group highlight their differences in opinion with BDS within the Penn community.
“We don’t think it’s reality that the whole student body supports this cause,” she said. PIPAC plans to use tools such as social media to spread their opinions around campus.
Gordon said the group does not intend on doing anything during the actual conference out of respect for the BDS organizers. “I think that what we do, we’re going to do after the conference at a time where people are curious and we want to give them answers and give our side of the story,” she said.
Penn alumni have also been following the BDS developments. Ira Rosen, a 1988 College graduate, said he was proud to be a Penn alumnus but saddened by the choice the University made in allowing the conference.
“As an alum who interviews [prospective students] on behalf of the University, [the BDS conference] is enough to make me not do it,” Rosen said. “I don’t want to help anybody that doesn’t stand up against hate speech.”
Dov Hoch, 1986 College graduate and president of the alumni group Penn Club of Israel, discussed BDS from his economic perspective.
“If you want to break up Israel economically, everyone from BDS has to stop using computers, because Intel has $5 billion in Israel, and an Intel chip is in everyone’s computer,” he said. “Microsoft has R&D in Israel. Apple just bought a major company in Israel. If they put their convictions there, they should all stop using those products.”
On campus, both sides look forward to the discussion. “We’re on a campus that fosters dialogue,” Gordon said. “We want to use this opportunity to keep talking about Israel, and thinking about Israel and the conflict.”
The BDS conference will be held from Feb. 3-5.