The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions conference held this weekend exposed a wide gulf of disagreement among Penn professors on opposite sides of the issue.
“I feel the need to speak when I see something wrong,” said Psychiatry professor Ruben Gur, who expressed disapproval of Penn professors who supported the goals of the conference. “I think this is despicable,” he said.
Gur, who has secondary appointments in the Departments of Neurology and Radiology, also condemned the conference in a Feb. 1 guest column in The Daily Pennsylvanian. At one point, he compared the BDS movement to a campaign “organized by the Nazis in the 1930’s.” He also likened Jews who participated in the movement to “the Capos in the extermination camps.”
Gur’s rhetoric disturbed English professor Ania Loomba, who wrote a letter to the editor with English professors Amy Kaplan and Heather Love criticizing his choice of words.
“All the professors I know at Penn who are pro-BDS are respectful in their language,” said Loomba, who supports the conference. “We have heard a lot of invective on the other side.”
Loomba said the strong condemnation of BDS on Penn’s campus is scaring people into silence, especially when comparisons are made to Nazism.
“Those of us who are now invested in BDS have also been invested in exposing anti-Semitism,” she said.
Loomba likened telling people they are “perpetuating the legacy of Nazism” to censorship. “A lot of people are scared to support [BDS],” she said, noting that most professors who express support for the conference are tenured. “If you’re a young professor, you’re going to be scared to come out.”
Gur countered that the analogy to Nazism is more accurate than the “inappropriate analogy” that BDS supporters have been using — the comparison of Israel’s actions to apartheid in South Africa.
The organizers of PennBDS were also offended by Gur’s column. They wrote a letter to Penn President Amy Gutmann, published on the news site Mondoweiss, claiming that Gur’s tenure should not allow him to “to incite hostility and aggression against students” and asked her to publicly condemn it.
The University responded with a letter from Vice President for University Communications Stephen MacCarthy, which stated that Penn could not be “the referee of individuals’ comments, regardless of how overheated or ill-advised they may be” and would not intervene in these debates.
“Much of Dr. Gutmann’s academic career has been devoted to the importance of civil discourse to a democratic society,” MacCarthy wrote. “It is always unfortunate when people make personal or ad hominem attacks against others in the course of that discourse. This kind of attack is counter to her personal values and the goal of civility on campus.”
Gutmann has previously declared the University’s disapproval of the goals of the BDS movement.
“It is important that you all know that we have been unambiguous in repudiating the positions that are espoused by those sponsoring that conference,” she wrote in a letter read aloud before a talk by Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz last week. “They run counter to our principles, our ideals and importantly, our actions.”
Loomba said she was dismayed by Gutmann’s dismissal of the movement. “Amy Gutmann made it sound like it’s some loony, fringe thing,” Loomba said, adding that the BDS movement is “widely supported” all over the world.
“Every political issue has to be debated,” Loomba said. “If you just out of hand dismiss it, that’s also shutting down the debate.”
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