Even before its arrival on campus, the national Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions conference— to be held at Penn in February — is generating heated debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
BDS is a pro-Palestine movement to force Israel to comply with the movement’s interpretation of international law. Last year, students at Penn founded PennBDS — a group that supports the movement on campus.
Activists from around the country will attend the two-day conference, hosted by PennBDS, to listen to keynote speakers and participate in panel discussions and question-and-answer sessions.
The University issued a statement on Dec. 23 that it “does not support sanctions or boycotts against Israel.” Though Penn lauds freedom of expression, it is not sponsoring the conference.
Education and mobilization will serve as the conference’s main purposes, according to Abbas Naqvi, PennBDS co-founder and graduate student in Biology. He likened the BDS strategies to those used against South Africa to end apartheid.
The upcoming conference has elicited strong reactions from Penn’s pro-Israel community. “This [conference] isn’t about discussion,” said College sophomore Noah Feit, president of Penn Friends of Israel. “This is about Israel’s right to exist.”
According to an official statement from Penn Hillel, BDS “is less about constructive ideas for building peace and more about delegitimizing the state of Israel.”
Feit is also affiliated with StandWithUs — a pro-Israel organization that educates the public about Israel. “There’s a lot of community concern about the BDS conference because a lot of the speakers … are incendiary in their rhetoric,” Brett Cohen, campus coordinator of StandWithUs, said. “They’re opposed to Israel’s existence and against a two-state solution,” he added.
Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, described a controversial video released by PennBDS that angered several Penn faculty members and led four of them to withdraw their participation from the conference. The video has since been removed.
“[PennBDS] changed the description of who they are rather than being honest and owning that,” Alpert said.
Though the four faculty will not participate, other Penn professors will still be speaking at the conference, Naqvi said.
“We pulled [the video] down because we didn’t want to alienate people,” he added. The video contained clips from different speakers in the conference.
Deputy Consul General of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic Region Raslan Abu Rukun said the consulate does not plan to involve itself in preventing Penn from hosting the conference.
“We did not have any contact with the University,” he said.
“We look at it as a local issue,” he added. “We think that [BDS] is an extreme group that is damaging the chances for peace in the future.”
Naqvi said the conference is open to more than just sympathizers and supporters. “We invited [the opposition] to come,” he said. “If they seriously want to challenge BDS, they should attend.” Attendance will be capped at about 190 people.
However, Feit does not plan to attend. “I’m not going to question them because I’d be giving $20 to a campaign I oppose,” he said.
Others look forward to the discussion opportunities the conference will provide. “I know it’s controversial but I think it’s a really great opportunity,” said College sophomore Sarah Shihadah, co-president of Penn for Palestine. “I hope people use this opportunity for constructive dialogue and that they’re not afraid to speak to people they disagree with on the topic,” she added.
While the conference is taking place, Feit and Penn Hillel plan to host discussions about Israel around campus, including dinners and debates.
A BDS conference was held at Hampshire College in Massachusetts in 2009 and in Canada in 2010.