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Photo: Stephanie Nam / The Daily Pennsylvanian

While some students prepared for the weekend’s national Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions conference at Penn, others used it as an opportunity to spread awareness about Israel and its right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state.

Bright lights shone through the floor-length windows inside Hillel as Penn student leaders — Hillel members and Undergraduate Assembly representatives — casually circled around the Korman Rotunda, listening to Pennsylvania State Sen. Anthony Williams (D).

“What are you doing to represent your legacy?” he asked the group.

While he isn’t Jewish, Williams said his African-American roots compelled him to make a statement to the Penn community.

“My great-grandparents were not that far removed from slavery,” he said. “Bigotry is still a part, unfortunately, of our everyday society.”

Williams said he isn’t a man who watches from the sidelines. He said he aims to use diversity to get along rather than to divide.

He was disheartened when the BDS movement announced it would hold its national conference at Penn. On Jan. 30, he wrote a letter to President Amy Gutmann expressing his concerns.

“While an ardent supporter of free speech, [I believe] hate speech remains an exemption from this privilege,” he wrote. “Based on prior evidence brought to my attention, that is to what BDS amounts. I would no more support this event than I would a Klan rally, a homophobia convention, a ‘birther’ march, or an Islamophobia assembly on the Penn Quadrangle.”

Williams sought out Penn Hillel to express his support for Israel, to encourage dialogue among students and to speak with students from the Jewish and African-American communities.

“People who make decisions for our campus, state and country are here,” said College sophomore Susan Finch, a member of the Penn Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Pointing out that the evening involved no boycotts, no violence and no hostility at all, College sophomore, UA member and Daily Pennsylvanian columnist Ernest Owens said the event was “something positive where people [could] engage with one another.”

Williams captivated the audience, which sat silent, wide-eyed and engaged.

“Most of us want to talk about this issue quietly,” Williams said. “I don’t.”

Williams went on to explain that he sees Israel as a nation of peace and tolerance. “The fact that violence occurred … is because others chose to become, frankly, indifferent to the community that [the Israelis] made.”

As an elected official, Williams said, he seeks to do everything possible to show his support to students at the government level.

“I understand the struggle that Jews are going through and the sacrifices that their parents, grandparents [made],” he said.

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