BDS conference arrives this weekend
Alums are threatening to cease donations to Penn for allowing the conference on campus
February 3, 2012, 1:23 am · Updated February 5, 2012, 10:10 pm·
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions conference, which begins this weekend, has generated widespread debate over the movement’s mission and its place at Penn.
The two-day conference begins Friday night with a reception and film screening. On Saturday and Sunday the conference will feature panels, speakers and question-and-answer sessions to educate and mobilize the BDS movement. BDS is a pro-Palestine movement to force Israel to comply with its demands regarding territorial disputes.
The event is hosted by PennBDS, a student group officially recognized by the Student Activities Council. The group of about 15 students was founded last year.
As the conference approaches, the movement has received negative backlash toward its cause.
The University issued a statement on Dec. 23 that it “does not support sanctions or boycotts against Israel.” The statement, signed by Penn President Amy Gutmann, said Penn is not sponsoring the conference, but lauds freedom of expression.
Many Penn graduates, however, have voiced concerns over the University allowing the conference to take place on its campus.
“I think there’s a lot of major donors that have threatened or plan to withhold significant financial support from Penn as a result of this,” said an alumni donor who wished to remain anonymous to maintain his relationship with the administration.
Alumni have been calling and emailing the administration expressing opposition to the conference, he said. However, he added that he does not know anyone who has received a response from Gutmann.
“I ultimately don’t particularly understand why Amy Gutmann and the trustees agreed to hold this conference and are essentially hiding behind a veil of protecting free speech and free expression,” he added.
1996 College graduate Aaron Ross has been working with fellow alumni to spread his discontent with the administration’s decision.
“Certainly in the short term this would affect [donation] decisions,” he said.
“That’s unfair because we haven’t done anything wrong,” said College sophomore Jacob Minter, a PennBDS member. “All we’re doing is standing up for human rights.”
“We recognize and respect their right to open expression. Just because we disagree — in this case strongly and deeply — with a group’s message does not mean that they lose their right to voice that message,” wrote Gutmann and Chair of the Board of Trustees David Cohen in a letter to The Daily Pennsylvanian.
Many others have voiced their opinion to the administration.
The conference’s keynote speaker, Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian-American activist who founded Electronic Intifada, an online publication about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, emailed Gutmann a response to a Feb. 1 DP guest column by Ruben Gur — a professor in the Departments of Psychiatry, Radiology and Neurology. The column attacked the BDS movement, comparing the Nazis in the 1930s as a “relevant precedent” to BDS.
“I would like to ask you now to condemn in the strongest terms [Gur’s] inflammatory rhetoric,” Abunimah wrote in his letter, which he published on Electronic Intifada. He plans to use any response he gets from Gutmann in his Saturday-night keynote address.
“Silence from [Gutmann] would in my opinion be a form of complicity or almost condoning this kind of inflammatory rhetoric,” he added.
The Jewish Defense Organization, a self-proclaimed militant group unaffiliated with Penn is calling upon donors to the University to “cut off every cent they give.” The campaign launched on Jan. 31.
“The boycott is the only way to bring the president to her knees,” JDO member Jeff Weiss said.
However, others object to the strong rhetoric of JDO’s campaign.
“I think that kind of an approach couldn’t be more wrong,” said College sophomore Noah Feit, president of Penn Friends of Israel.
“It’s ironic that people … protest against boycotting a state by boycotting a university,” Abunimah said.
Penn Hillel and other students are sponsoring dinners and meetings to promote a forum of free discussion about Israel.
In addition, Penn Israel Public Affairs Committee is circulating an online petition, demanding the University to strengthen Penn-Israel ties. As of Thursday evening, the petition had garnered 573 signatures.
There has been heightened security concerns surrounding the conference as a result of Gur’s column, according to Matt Berkman, one of three co-founders of PennBDS and political science doctoral candidate at Penn. PennBDS has been working with the Division of Public Safety to ensure the security of this weekend, Berkman said. He added that security costs have accounted for much of the group’s budget.
“Professor Gur’s article prompted a meeting [within] the Penn Police because it has raised the possibility of aggression or hostility against our speakers,” Berkman said. “Now [Penn Police is] going to increase the security because of this man’s op-ed.”
Berkman, who is speaking on behalf of the three co-founders, said Penn Police called the meeting independently of PennBDS. Stephen MacCarthy, vice president for university communications, declined to confirm or deny that the meeting took place.
College and Wharton senior Madeline Noteware and second-year Molecular Biology doctoral student Abbas Naqvi serve as the other two co-founders of the conference.
PennBDS originally planned to hire security guards from a private company, Berkman said. “I’m sure the school … will not make us pay for any more security, since the cost would have been a direct result of this professor’s incitement against us,” Berkman added.
PennBDS has since consulted their lawyers about their next step of action.
“[Our lawyers] will make sure we’re treated fairly and aren’t assessed for huge security costs because of the op-ed,” he said. The group has not yet received an invoice with the final costs.
Minter said once the speakers of the conference found out about the added security costs, they offered to donate their honoraria to the cause.
DPS will take special precaution this weekend.
“For any special event that would bring people to campus, there would be specially assigned officers,” Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush said. “We are very able to handle any type of large groups at Penn.”
Organizers of the conference are not disclosing the location to the public due to security reasons. Specific locations will be sent to those registered for the conference a day before.
“We want to prevent people from … planning and mobilizing against the conference in a disruptive fashion,” Berkman said.
While the student group continues to receive SAC funding, they did not receive any funding for the conference itself.
Political groups such as PennBDS have stringent funding restrictions from SAC, according to SAC chair and College junior Melissa Roberts. SAC does not fund political activities for any political group, she said, adding that the council does not choose organizations to recognize based on the their political beliefs.
“I think almost all people recognize that SAC isn’t the organization to dictate political thought,” Roberts said.
In reserving campus facilities for the conference, the group followed the same procedure as any other SAC-recognized student group, according to Hikaru Kozuma, the executive director of the Office of Student Affairs.
Many of the conference speakers are professors, alumni and activists that PennBDS has had prior contact with, Berkman said.
2006 College graduate Ahmed Moor will be speaking at “The Economics of Israeli Occupation” session on Saturday.
“I intend to analyze it to see how the ways of cooperating with the occupation has been incentivized by realities that have been created over time,” he said. Moor was born in the Gaza Strip and is now enrolled at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
“At the end of the day, what you hope is that people will approach this issue in good faith,” Moor said.