CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (JTA) — I never imagined that a day would come when some of the
world’s leading corporations would fund calls for Israel’s destruction, let alone at one of the
world’s most prestigious universities. But that is exactly what happened last month at Harvard.
My invitation to “Harvard Arab Weekend” promised to provide a “mosaic of perspectives and
insights on the most pressing issues in the Arab world.” Many of the panels appeared worthy of
the conference’s corporate support from McKinsey & Co, The Boston Consulting Group, Booz
Allen Hamilton, Bank Audi, Strategy& and the energy giant Shell. Yet featured prominently on
the conference agenda was a panel devoted to the destruction of Israel: “The Boycott,
Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement: Accomplishments, Tactics and Lessons.”
The panel’s moderator, Ahmed Alkhateeb, began by noting that a primary goal of the BDS
movement is “promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and
properties” in what today is Israel. As President Obama pointed out in 2008, this goal stands in
opposition to a “two-state solution” and “would extinguish Israel as a Jewish state.” And in an
Op-Ed published in Al Akhbar newspaper, Cal State professor As’ad AbuKhalil, an outspoken
advocate of the BDS movement, affirmed that “the real aim of BDS is to bring down the state of
Israel.” This is the “unambiguous goal … [and] there should not be an equivocation on the
He’s right. While Jews are the majority in the democratic state of Israel today, the BDS
movement imagines and seeks a state in which Jews would ultimately become the minority,
implying the end of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination.
Of course, students have a right to speak their minds freely, and corporate sponsors have a right
to donate their money and institutional backing to any political view. But is it appropriate for
Harvard University to lend its facilities to a group of activists who are working to eradicate the
one Jewish state?
Not everyone at Harvard thinks so. Former Harvard president and current professor Lawrence
Summers spoke out in 2002 against calls for Harvard to divest from Israel. When I asked him
about last week’s panel, he told me that “promoting BDS is exactly the kind of thing I had in
mind when I warned years ago about actions that were anti-Semitic in effect, if not intent.”
“Avoiding censorship, which is right, should not equal sponsorship, which is wrong,” Summers
explained. “I am sorry that Harvard, not for the first time, has allowed its good name to be
associated with calls to delegitimize Israel.”
The panel at Harvard was not a debate about the goals and merits of BDS — it was an
endorsement. Panelists included a vocal supporter of BDS who frequently accuses Israel of
“apartheid,” a professor who initiated the American Studies Association academic and cultural
boycott and a Presbyterian minister who led the church’s boycott of Israel, as well as MIT
professor Noam Chomsky.
Student organizers of the panel told me that Chomsky would provide the “anti-BDS”
perspective, and he was introduced as the only voice on the panel to be critical of BDS “tactics.”
But Chomsky would have none of it, saying: “It’s interesting that I’m introduced as someone
that has criticized BDS tactics; actually I have strongly advocated for BDS.”
Chomsky also encouraged anti-Israel activists to take a phased approach toward the annihilation
of Israel as a Jewish state.
“The one-state option is a good idea in the long run,” he said,” but there’s only one way that I can
imagine we can reach it, and that’s in stages.”
The panel discussion left me with an overwhelming sense of sadness. I was sad to see firsthand
how BDS encourages Palestinians to reject compromise in pursuit of the destruction of Israel; sad
that the student organizers of the conference were unwilling to create a panel of diverse, honest
views that would have led to true dialogue; sad that Harvard administrators allowed an event
promoting an end to the national existence of the Jewish people to take place under Harvard’s
auspices; and said that the names and institutional prestige of major corporations were used to
give legitimacy to the BDS campaign.
I sent inquiries to senior executives at every sponsor company before the conference, but the
panel went on. After the conference, a senior McKinsey spokesman wrote to me to apologize for
the firm’s involvement with the conference: “The firm does not knowingly associate its name
with political issues and debates.”
I believe it is likely that the other corporate sponsors also did not intend to have their funds used
to promote the BDS movement.
Corporations and universities should not lend mainstream legitimacy to such a radical and odious
movement, nor should they provide funding or resources to events that demonize Israel as this
I hope Harvard and the corporations that sponsored Harvard Arab Weekend — and in doing so
sponsored the BDS panel — will publicly pledge to be more vigilant in the future and never
again associate their names or provide funding to any movement that seeks to destroy Israel.
(Sara K. Greenberg is a joint master’s degree student at the Harvard Business School and
Harvard Kennedy School. This piece first appeared in the Harvard Crimson. You can listen to the
full audio of the BDS panel here.)