News that an insidious movement to delegitimize Israel will be convening a conference at the University of Pennsylvania next month is stirring much angst in our community.
The anxiety is justified, but we as a community must be careful not to overreact so as not to hand the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, known as BDS, a public-relations victory.
We also must be careful to let the pro-Israel student activists on campus take the lead in their response to the BDS forces about to descend on their university.
Make no mistake: The effort to boycott Israel is a misguided, malicious attempt to equate Israel and its policies with the oppression of South Africa's former apartheid regime. Those at the helm of the movement are less interested in finding a peaceful resolution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict than in promoting a pro-Palestinian agenda that, if achieved, could lead to the so-called "one-state" solution and spell the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
The University of Pennsylvania must be commended for its recent statement disassociating itself from the conference and opposing the boycott efforts. Noting that the event is not sponsored by the university but by a registered student group, the Penn statement, signed by the president, Amy Gutmann, states:
"The University of Pennsylvania has clearly stated on numerous occasions that it does not support sanctions or boycotts against Israel. Indeed, Penn has important and successful scholarly collaborations with Israeli institutions that touch on many areas of our academic enterprise." Now the esteemed Ivy League institution must be careful not to be manipulated as the national BDS movement inevitably will try to use the university's prestigious backdrop to advance its cause.
There is likely no good that can come from the divisiveness and anti-Israel rhetoric that will surely characterize this conference. Rather than constructive debate and discussion about two states for two peoples, this gathering will feature speakers with long histories of blaming Israel for all the region's problems.
While the BDS movement is no doubt manipulating its few supporters on campus to advance its agenda, the larger challenge is how to educate the wider university community, and particularly Jewish students, about the realities in Israel. This is not to whitewash the problems that Israeli society faces or even stifle criticism of Israeli policies that will inevitably arise, especially among college students, many of whom grew up with little knowledge of — or connection to — the Jewish state.
Hillel's plans to help students organize discussions and forums to gain a better understanding of Israel in response to and beyond the BDS conference should be applauded. That's the difference between constructive and destructive engagement. The BDS movement could learn a little something from such an approach.