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Who came out ahead at BDS conference?

(Jewish Exponent) — Did the National Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Conference at the University of Pennsylvania over the weekend backfire for organizers and illustrate the strength of the pro-Israel community on campus?

Or did BDS speakers like Electronic Intifada co-founder Ali Abunimah reveal how much pro-Israel students need to learn in order to counter arguments that are steeped in the language of universal justice and human rights?

Alan Dershowitz, right, speaking at the University of Pennsylvania in a bid to galvanize pro-Israel students there, Feb. 2, in light of the expected anti-Israel message expected at the BDS conference on the Penn campus. Political journalist Robert Traynham served as the moderator for the program. (Scott Weiner)

According to Penn students, Hillel staff and Jewish communal professionals, the end result just might be a little bit of both.

“It can be very difficult in situations like these to pinpoint a winner and a loser,” said Noah Feit, president of Penn Friends of Israel and a fellow with StandWithUs, a national pro-Israel group. “But in this case, the entire Penn community came together and sent a very clear message that we are against BDS and it runs counter to our principles.”

But the BDS organizers claimed victory as well.

Matt Berkman, a Penn graduate student and organizer of the conference, said the many articles written about the conference in the campus newspaper drew attention to the cause.

“If this kind of learning and exchange continue, which we hope it will, then the conference will have served one of its purposes,” he wrote in an email.

The BDS movement seeks to impose economic hardship on the Jewish state and pressure it to end the “occupation” (it’s not clear whether that means just the West Bank or not), grant full equality to Israeli Arabs and find a just resolution to the Palestinian refugee issue by granting the so-called “right of return.” The movement does not take an explicit stand on whether Israel should exist as a Jewish state.

Penn president Amy Gutmann said on several occasions that the university does not support the BDS movement and that the school values its ties with Israel.

In response to the conference, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia partnered with Hillel to plan an evening with famed attorney Alan Dershowitz that was attended by about 900 community members and students. Students also staged an open bar party in which they raised $6,000 to invest in an Israeli start-up company, and they held a series of Shabbat dinners in which 800 students took part in informal conversations about Israel.

Rabbi Michael Uram, director of Hillel at Penn, said that the Shabbat dinners represented “what Penn Hillel does the best: Do more by enlisting the power of various leaders and social networks.”

Uram said that many of the students who turned out weren’t already deeply involved in Israel activism. Conversation topics included religious Zionism, the arguments of the BDS movement and what Israel means to students personally.

Pro-Israel students did not turn out to protest at any point during the three-day conference, which organizers said was attended by more than 300 people. Several sources said that many of the attendees were older activists. It’s not clear how many Penn students attended, though Berkman said that about 50 attendees used Penn email addresses.

Dershowitz called Penn the “model campus” when it comes to pro-Israel activism. He also said Penn’s administration was right to allow the conference to go forward on the grounds of free speech.

“You guys have stood strong, you have stood hard. You don’t just let anti-Israel people get away with silence,” he said.

Dershowitz said students can win more support for Israel “not by  convincing the individuals who support BDS and the extremists who will not be reasoned with, but by talking to people with open minds.”

In a brief interview before the Penn program, Dershowitz rejected the notion that staging large communal events brings more attention to the BDS conference than it might otherwise have gotten. He said the true agenda of the movement must be exposed.

“Their definition of occupation is Haifa and Tel Aviv. Their motto is Palestine will be free from the river to the sea,” he said in a interview. “The occupation for them is a pretext.”

The day before the conference was set to begin, BDS organizers revoked the press credentials of a Jewish Exponent reporter and accused the paper of engaging in “polemics” and “crafting a political narrative” after a story appeared reporting the anti-Israel records of some of the slated speakers.

“It is ironic that a group that purports to be interested in open dialogue is operating under the cover of free speech and insists it is not anti-Semitic is barring the Jewish Exponent,” said Lisa Hostein, the executive editor of the Exponent.

The group did allow the paper to cover Abunimah’s Saturday night keynote address, which was open to the public. Abunimah has been described even by his opponents as a stirring, emotive speaker. Well-versed in pro-Israel arguments as well as the debates going on inside the Jewish community and the Jewish state, the Palestinian-American journalist and author spoke for an hour comparing Israel to apartheid-era South Africa.

He asked rhetorically whether it was just for Israel to remain a Jewish state.

“If the answer is yes, you have to accept the awful moral consequences of that decision, that you are supporting some of the most vile ways of categorizing and segregating and separating human beings,” he said.

Abunimah also referred to an exchange that took place during the Feb. 2 Dershowitz program at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. During a question-and-answer session there, a female student asked Dershowitz, “If an Arab student comes up to me and says, ‘You took my land,’ and I respond, ‘Yeah, but we support gay rights,’ how does that add up?”

Dershowitz said the answer is that the Jews didn’t steal the land.

“The land on which Israel was established had a Jewish majority,” he said. “In Israel’s case, they bought the land, in this case from distant land owners, who lived in Syria and Lebanon. The Israeli policy of the Yishuv was never to throw indigenous Arabs off the land.

“Israel’s birth certificate is cleaner than the birth certificate of almost any other modern country in the world,” he added. “Israel was established by law.”

Abunimah claimed Dershowitz had told the student to lie.

“On an ethical level,” he said, denial of Nakba, the term Arabs use to depict the events surrounding the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, “is the same as Holocaust denial,” he said.

Brett Cohen, national campus program director for StandWithUs, wasn’t admitted to the Abunimah talk but listened to a recording of it.

“At the end of the day, you need to examine his rhetoric,” said Cohen, who said he considered Abunimah a highly effective speaker. “If they are making this a zero-sum argument, then they are not talking about coexistence.”

Josh Cooper, a student with Penn Hillel’s Israel sector who helped organize the Shabbat dinners, went to hear the speech in order to better understand the other side’s arguments.

“He makes a compelling argument when you are listening,” Cooper said. “That doesn’t mean that after serious reflection and discussion that you will end up agreeing with him.”

Could he convince a fellow student that Zionism does not equal  racism, as Abunimah contends?

“If I had sat down and had a conversation with someone for an hour, you could flesh out those ideas,” he said.

For their part, BDS conference attendees said they were motivated by human rights and a desire to see all people live in peace.

Austin Branion, a 27-year-old African-American who wore a “Boycott Israel” T-shirt, said he wishes the movement would take a clearer stance against the existence of a Jewish state.

“I think we should all stand up and say that we will not accept a state premised on ethnic-religious superiority, even if its borders were confined to the size of a teacup,” said Branion, who likens the Palestinians’ struggle for equality with that of African-Americans.

Liza Behrendt, who graduated in May from Brandeis University, where she organized a local Jewish Voices for Peace chapter, said she supports the BDS movement because it is aligned with Jewish values.

Behrendt said that it might still be possible for Israel to remain a Jewish state and “end the occupation and do things a lot better, but the more the settlement project continues, the harder that becomes.” She added, “The onus is really on Israel to change their policy and change them sooner rather than later.”

Among the pro-Israel students, many spoke about the upside of the activism that the conference generated.

Alon Krifcher, a freshman member of the Penn Israel Public Affairs Committee, said the BDS conference “has pretty much taken over our lives in the past few months, but in a good way. We see this really as a gift. We have taken this opportunity and, we think, have drawn Israel into the forefront.”

Cohen, of StandWithUs, said it is important not to dismiss the appeal of the BDS movement or the arguments of people like Abunimah, but he thinks that the pro-Israel students won this round.

“Free food is a big attraction, but free food doesn’t draw 800 people,” he said, regarding Hillel’s Israel Shabbat program. He added that the BDS movement “is going to awaken a sleeping giant if they keep pushing this. Penn is one of the few campuses left in the country where it is still cool to be pro-Israel.”