Pennsylvania BDS conference draws controversy, attacks

By Uri Horesh

This past weekend, some 300 activists met in Philadelphia to discuss the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, in a conference that drew much attention and controversy among local Jewish-Zionist circles. The conference was organized locally by a group of undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania, and modeled after a similar conference held in 2009 at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Unsurprisingly, there were plenty of people and organizations that did not want us to assemble at Penn, and even tried to dissuade the University from allowing Penn BDS, a registered student group, from hosting the event on the Philadelphia campus. One Penn professor tried to intimidate Jewish students from attending the conference by likening them to “Nazis” and “Capos.” Several articles in The Jewish Exponent, a newspaper serving the greater Philadelphia region’s Jewish community, tried to claim the conference had a “hidden agenda” of racism and anti-Semitism.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, the city’s primary daily, offered op-ed slots to representatives of both opponents and proponents of the conference, a week before it convened. Former CIA director R. James Woosley and his deputy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Jonathan Schanzer, predicted in their article that the conference would “be an exercise in disinformation and propaganda,” harmful to Israelis and Palestinians alike. The second op-ed defending the conference was written by Ali Abunimah, its keynote speaker.

It is worth noting that the president of the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Amy Gutmann, went on record several times clarifying to BDS critics that the University was not in any way supportive of the conference or of sanctions against Israel. After Dr. Ruben Gur’s particularly draconian op-ed in the student publication The Daily Pennsylvanian, in which he called Penn BDS a “hateful genocidal organization,” President Gutmann and David L. Cohen, the chair of the university’s board of trustees, responded in the same paper with a faint affirmation entitled “Protecting speech we may not like.”

I was one of a handful of Israeli participants in the conference, but the diversity amongst the audience and the presenters was so great that it was hard not to feel at home. Among us were Palestinians, Jewish-Americans, Queer activists, rabbis, imams, pastors and atheists, students, professors, laborers, senior citizens and even high school students. The demographic makeup of the conference attendees alone was enough to refute accusations that we were nothing but a war-mongering hate group. As Ali Abunimah, the co-founder of Electronic Intifada, put it in the opening remarks to his keynote address, “We stand together against all forms of bigotry: against racism, against Islamophobia, against anti-Semitism; we are one against sexism, against homophobia, against discrimination due to physical ability; we affirm and embrace the rights, dignity and equality of all human beings; and all are welcome here tonight.”

A prevalent theme in the various sessions of the conference was the analogy between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and South African apartheid. This comparison is rightfully gaining ground in the global discourse, yet many in the Israeli left are still quite hesitant to take part. The conference opened with a pre-premiere screening of the documentary Roadmap to Apartheid, followed by a Q&A with co-director and co-producer Eron Davidson. The film meticulously and convincingly analogizes Zionism and the Afrikaaner ideology on the one hand, and the Palestinians and the indigenous African population on the other.

The South African analogy lends itself to practical aspects of BDS, as many would argue that the actions against South Africa in the 1980s – which were vehemently opposed by many prominent leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – were the primary factor leading to the eventual fall of apartheid in that country. Rebecca Vilkomerson, Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace, presented such practical actions taken by adherents to the Israel-Palestine BDS movement at the conference. The organization has been involved in a campaign against the U.S. pension giant, TIAA-CREF, which is heavily invested in companies profiting from the occupation. JVP’s initiative is working to persuade shareholders to divest from those companies, include Caterpillar, which make the bulldozers that demolish Palestinian homes; Veolia, involved in “apartheid road” 443 and the Jerusalem light rail; and Elbit, which contributed to the building of the separation wall.

As a gay man and a queer activist, I have been disturbed by Israel increasingly touting itself as a gay oasis in the midst of an evil, homophobic, Middle East. In Philadelphia, where I currently reside, an annual event entitled “Equality Forum,” which celebrates LGBTQ pride from a global perspective and each year chooses a “Featured Nation” on which to focus, chose Israel in 2012. This is one example of the “pinkwashing” trend that has recently gained attention, and it was addressed at the conference by queer Palestinian activists, as well as by Dr. Sarah Schulman of the City University of New York, who recently wrote a controversial op-ed  on the matter in the New York Times (a shorter version later appeared in Hebrew in Haaretz). Schulman got a big round of applause when she called for a boycott of Equality Forum, for honoring a country where equality is nominal at best.

While the opponents of BDS were busy name-calling, the people at the conference were engaged in pointing out the facts on the ground: practical facts, historical facts and legal facts, presented by experts in international human rights law like Noura Erakat, who provided the conference with a comprehensive overview of the complex legal system under which Palestinians live. Some people may seek to hide these facts. But we will continue to work to change them.

Uri Horesh is an Israeli linguist, educator and activist. He has taught linguistics and Arabic at Tel Aviv University, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Georgetown University, the University of Texas at Austin and Franklin & Marshall College. As a graduate student at Penn, he was among the co-founders of FPAN, the Free Palestine Action Network. He tweets frequently here