Despite heated rhetoric in the weeks leading up to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions conference, the weekend proceeded relatively smoothly.
Participants from around the country gathered at Penn to learn and exchange ideas during the two-day conference.
“What was striking was the positive, relaxed atmosphere,” said Ali Abunimah, creator of the online publication Electronic Intifada and the BDS conference’s keynote speaker. “I’m so relieved it went that way, because I think the inflammatory rhetoric before had everybody a little bit on edge, and maybe that’s what it was intended to do.”
Matt Berkman, co-founder of PennBDS and doctoral candidate in Political Science, believed that the conference was a success based on participants’ responses.
“Scores of people came up to me to say all the panels were amazing and thanked us for organizing it,” he said.
“I think the University of Pennsylvania ought to be proud that this conference took place,” Abunimah said.
In the days prior to the conference, there were heightened security concerns due to a Feb. 1 guest column in The Daily Pennsylvanian by Ruben Gur — a professor in the Departments of Psychiatry, Radiology and Neurology.
The article prompted a meeting with the Penn Police, and PennBDS was required to hire more security forces for the conference, according to Berkman.
However, there were no security problems or disruption over the weekend, Berkman said.
PennBDS had paid for Penn Police and other private security to be present at the conference, according to Abbas Naqvi, co-founder of PennBDS and doctoral candidate in Biology. However, there were personel from the security company Staff-1 present at the conference.
The Staff-1 event personnel were sent by the University, according to a source with the Perelman Quadrangle office who wished to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to comment on the situation. The source declined to say whether or not the University paid for the event staff.
Matthew Waller, director of Communications and External Affairs at the Vice Provost for University Life, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
The conference did run into conflicts with media organizations.
On Thursday, PennBDS revoked The Jewish Exponent’s press pass after reading an article published by Bryan Schwartzman, the Exponent reporter coming to cover the conference.
After the article appeared in the Exponent, Schwartzman was disinvited from the conference because the BDS founders “didn’t like the way he wrote the story,” said Lisa Hostein, the Exponent’s executive editor.
“We expect bias, but we expect fair coverage,” Berkman said.
“They don’t seem to understand the irony of that. It’s a conference based on free speech and presumably they claim that they’re open to dialogue and a free exchange of ideas,” Hostein said.
Another media confrontation took place at the conference itself.
Martin Himel, an international correspondent and filmmaker, was removed from the conference during an interview.
During an interview with Abuminah, Himel tried to ask Abunimah about anti-Semitism, Himel said.
However, Abuminah decided to end the interview. “It was clear to me that he had a very specific agenda … and it was a very extreme agenda,” Abunimah said. Himel was later removed from the conference.
The pro-Israel community
Absent from the conference were many members of Penn’s pro-Israel community.
“The general sentiment that I’ve heard is that we didn’t even want to attend,” said College sophomore Sam Gersten, legislative coordinator for Penn Israel Public Affairs Committee. “We think that it’s counterproductive to basically everything we stand for.”
Instead, the pro-Israel community launched their own series of events this weekend.
Friday night, State Senator Anthony Williams spoke to an audience of student leaders to show his support for Israel.
“[Senator Williams] contacted Penn wanting to … know how he could counteract BDS,” Gersten said.
Friday also marked the beginning of Penn Hillel’s “Israel Across Penn,” a series of dinners and discussions about Israel.
The program, which began simultaneously with the BDS conference, gave students of all faiths an opportunity to discuss Israel in a more positive light. Over 800 students participated, according to College sophomore Josh Cooper, a co-organizer of the event.
College freshman and “Israel Across Penn” co-organizer Shlomo Klapper said while the dinner program wasn’t a direct response to the conference, it used the conference as a chance to characterize Hillel’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian debate.
“One thing we found quite distasteful about the BDS conference is it shuts down dialogue,” he said.
Klapper, who helped generated the idea for the dinner discussions, hopes to continue the dinners every year.
Last Thursday, Penn Hillel also held an “Invest in Israel” party at Smokey Joe’s. Over 300 people attended, contributing over $6,000 to the charitable organization onefamily.org, according to College senior Samuel Schear, a co-organizer of the party.
Schear said the large turnout was “a great show of solidarity.”
“The Penn community came together, gave a lot of money to an incredible charity, and it’s hard to really argue with that,” he said.
Hillel is planning to invite Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren as a speaker in the near future, Schear said.
PennBDS also has plans for the future. They plan to launch a campaign for the University to boycott and divest from Israel, according to College sophomore and PennBDS member Sarah Shihadah.
“The exchange of ideas taking place here has sowed the seeds that will continue to grow as we go forward,” Shihadah said.
Editorial | Behind the rhetoric
BDS keynote speaks on Palestinian’s struggle for equality
BDS conference opens with criticism of UN, Israel
State senator Anthony Williams addresses student leaders at Hillel
BDS conference arrives this weekend
Upcoming conference sparks debate
Students sign petition against BDS
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