A week into the semester, University of Pennsylvania students have begun organizing a grass-roots Shabbat dinner program and, with support from the larger Jewish community, a public lecture from Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz as a response to a fast-approaching national conference promoting boycott, divestment and sanctions against the Jewish state.
The university has distanced itself from the conference, slated for the first weekend in February, saying that Penn is not sponsoring the event and does not support the mission of the movement, known as BDS. But pro-Israel groups say they fear it could lead to an atmosphere of divisiveness and intolerance on campus.
In an effort to prevent that from happening, students have devised an "Israel Across Penn" initiative that will enlist up to 40 student volunteers to host free dinner discussions over the conference weekend.
Hillel staff and student leaders are recruiting a wide range of hosts to appeal to the diverse spectrum of Jewish students and their friends, including those who live in freshman dorms, fraternities or off-campus, said Rabbi Mike Uram, the Penn Hillel director.
They'll reach out to those who recently returned from a free Birthright trip to Israel, for example, as well as those who have been active in the religious community. Even the captain of the men's basketball team has agreed to host.
Ideally, Uram said, if each dinner draws at least 15 people, they could reach anywhere from 500 to 700 students.
Hillel staff will provide training and user-friendly conversation starters for the hosts. The topics could be anything from sharing experiences in Israel to more organized discussions of a particular issue, depending on the interests of the hosts, said Josh Cooper, a sophomore who serves as an intern for Hillel's Israel fellow.
Along with Hillel and Penn alumni, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, also known as CAMERA, are picking up the tab for the food, which Uram estimated would cost about $10 per person.
"We're not trying to create a counter-conference," Uram said. "We're viewing this as a semester-long opportunity" to "mobilize an Israel-friendly community and network on campus."
Cooper said he and fellow activists have been careful not to simply reject the whole conference because they don't want to disenfranchise anyone.
Aside from the dinner program, student leaders have been working with Hillel staffers to discuss planning some kind of "Invest in Israel" party, writing op-eds and building coalitions with other campus groups.
Freshman Shlomo Klapper wasted no time in voicing his opinion in a Jan. 11 issue of The Daily Pennsylvanian, saying that BDS boycott tactics were "destructive and divisive, undermine hopes for peace and do nothing to help the Palestinians improve their lives, begin state building or develop democratic institutions."
Above all, he continued, boycotts squelch dialogue and understanding by consigning blame to only one side of the conflict.
"BDS is right that Israel is different from all other Western countries: Only Israel took black Africans out of slavery and into freedom, instead of the reverse," Klapper wrote.
"To be sure, Israel is far from perfect. But ignoring the fact — that Israel is the only country in the Middle East with a moral army, a commitment to the equality of minorities and an independent judiciary — in an effort to single out the Jewish state of Israel as if it were the worst human rights offender is a bigoted double standard, pure and simple."
Leaders of the Chabad house at Penn, along with Hillel, are also working to set up a business presentation with leaders of Rainbow Medical, an Israeli company that has hundreds of patents on medical devices. The idea is to highlight the positive things that Israel contributes to the world, said Rabbi Ephraim Levin.
Meanwhile, off-campus, an emergency December meeting of nearly two dozen communal organizations resulted in a statement condemning "the corrosive nature" of the conference, which will gather people whose sole purpose is to pursue a "delegitimization campaign against Israel." The BDS effort, it continued, undermines attempts to attain peace through a two-state solution, as well as "the Jewish people's right to self-determination in their homeland."
The statement noted the university's position distancing itself from the conference, but added: "Still we feel that, rather than encourage discourse, the conference is likely to create deep divisions among students and promote an atmospshere of intolerance on campus."
The statement further said: "We believe that the outrageous claims of the BDS campaigns do not stand up to the rigors of academic inquiry and as such, go against the sophisticated civil discourse that is a core element of the mission of the University of Pennsylvania."
The statement, which appeared in a full-page advertisement in the Jewish Exponent, The Daily Pennsylvanian and the Jewish Community Voice in Southern New Jersey last week, was signed by 23 educational, political and community groups, including Hillel, area day schools and the Republican Jewish Coalition.
David Cohen, senior associate for Israel and Middle East Affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said gaining consensus for the statement was challenging but ultimately, it proved to be a rewarding community-building process.
"Some people put some of their stronger views slightly to the side for the sake of solidarity," Cohen said.
"Is it the perfect statement that every organization would put out there on their own? Nope. But they felt the value in the community making one statement."
One group, J Street, which has generated controversy for its outspoken criticism of Israeli policies and its support of public pressure on the Jewish state, was involved in discussions over the wording of the statement but ultimately decided not to sign on.
Rebecca Kirzner, assistant regional director for the group's Mid-Atlantic region, said J Street is aligned with the communal opposition to the BDS movement but wanted to issue its own statement to "maintain the integrity of our values and kind of a unique position on this issue."
The J Street statement criticized BDS' "overly simplistic assertions of singular blame for the complex circumstances that underlie the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," but emphasized that the conference should not be barred from occurring.
"The Jewish, democratic and most effective way to counter views one disagrees with is to subject them to the scrutiny of a vibrant and open debate," the Jan. 12 statement read.
"We too oppose the occupation of the West Bank and the expansion and entrenchment of settlements there. We recognize, however, that a comprehensive resolution to the conflict will not be achieved through alienation or isolation, but rather through diplomacy and engagement."
The Federation, which facilitated the communal statement, also teamed with Hillel to book Dershowitz for a campus appearance on Thursday, Feb. 2, at 7:30 p.m.
After a private dinner with community and student leaders, the renowned author is scheduled to keynote an evening program titled, "We Are One with Israel: An Evening of Unity and Community Solidarity," at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
His lecture will be free and open to the public, but registration is required at www.jewishphilly.org or 215-832-0560.
Cohen declined to disclose how much the event will cost, but said it was worth the investment "to really shout without shouting to the community that we support Israel and we disagree with a group that's coming to Philadelphia the very next day to say some really troubling and less than truthful things about Israel."
Dershowitz said he hoped he could draw people with open minds, including BDS supporters, to hear why he considers the movement to be one of the most "immoral, illegal and despicable concepts around academia today."
"People who support BDS ought to look themselves in the mirror and ask themselves, 'Why Israel?' Why not against Hamas for murdering gays or against Syria for murdering dissidents or against Cuba for imprisoning dissidents?" he said.
"To single out only the Jewish nation for collective punishment has a name and it's called bigotry, and I want to point my finger and call them bigots to their faces and ask them to justify their double standards."