The atmosphere in the lead-up to the recent boycott, divestment and sanctions conference at the University of Pennsylvania was characterized by acrimony and anger not native to this campus. Yet this acrimony did not come from students or university representatives, or from campus institutions like Hillel. We in the Penn community did our basic duty to uphold free speech on campus. And the conference went forward without incident.
Not only Penn students, however, responded to what went on here.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an issue that attracts a tremendous amount of passion, but also posturing and even recrimination from outside the university. Both the "pro" and "anti" Israel communities spend a great deal of time and money denouncing each other, in their efforts to lay sole responsibility for one of the most complex conflicts of the modern era at the other's doorstep.
The all-or-nothing attitude was on display in the wider Jewish communal response. Various groups not only denounced the conference but challenged the university's decision to allow it to go forward. When the conference could not be budged, attacks on participants and organizers intensified. The imperative was not to respond thoughtfully, but forcefully.
To present a united face, local Jewish organizations from across the spectrum were asked to sign on to one statement, which expressed concern about the conference and condemned the BDS movement.
J Street U and J Street were rebuked for declining. We oppose the BDS movement vigorously — for refusing to recognize Israel's right to exist, singling out Israel in a world with far worse regimes and refusing to address any Palestinian responsibility for the conflict.
We believe, however, that the best way to defeat the movement is through open debate. We decided that we could not sign on to a statement that implied BDS does not even deserve a place in the debate at Penn. Yet taking this independent position was deemed unacceptable by many.
In contrast, on campus, student leaders from various Israel advocacy organizations met regularly at Hillel to discuss a constructive response to BDS. Where we were able to agree on joint actions, we took them. Where we felt the need to go our own ways, we did.
On the Friday night before the conference, we held dinner discussions across campus. Leaders were encouraged to invite and discuss who and what they wished. At the dinner hosted by J Street U Penn, Jewish voices from across the spectrum openly and passionately raised questions of Israeli identity, the occupation and Israel's future. In some cases we agreed to disagree. But most importantly, we agreed to speak again.
The main "response" event on campus, sponsored by the local Jewish community in partnership with Hillel and other groups, followed a different model. The speaker, Professor Alan Dershowitz, was not chosen by a joint decision of Penn students. To Dershowitz's credit, he advocated forcefully that the conference should be allowed to take place, that supporters of Israel must be confident enough in our own arguments to allow others to voice theirs.
Yet Dershowitz is also a fitting representative of the all-or-nothing mentality. As one of the greatest defense attorneys alive, he is at home in a world of absolutes, where one is either completely innocent or completely guilty. In his speech, at which the majority of attendees were not students, he rightfully denounced those who delegitimize Israel — yet his remarks showed little concern for the rights and legitimacy of Palestinians.
J Street's opposition to BDS stems from its similar predilection to view the conflict in absolute terms, placing virtually all the blame on Israel, blinded by a false sense of moral certainty. Sadly, neither BDS nor Dershowitz offered much realistic advice for how to achieve a better Israeli and Palestinian future.
Intimidation, shame and absolutism undermine productive and intelligent discourse. At Penn, students are encouraged to check our preconceived notions at the door, and instead embrace the complexity of opinions and approaches that are the hallmark of higher education. Israel is a complicated, difficult, heart-wrenching place — but if there is anywhere it ought to be openly and honestly discussed, studied and connected with, it is here.
The furor and hysteria over BDS in parts of the organized Jewish community may serve some communal institutions, but not the actual work of combating BDS on campus. Nor does encouraging students to ignore and belittle each other, or to confront each other with the same old talking points.
The argument can only be won on the plane where students operate best — using logic, empathy, analysis, debate. We don't need to be taught how to do this; we only need to be allowed to try.