A day before the National Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Conference was set to begin at the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz called Penn the "model campus" when it comes to pro-Israel activism.
"You guys have stood strong, you have stood hard. You don't just let anti-Israel people get away with silence," said the 73-year-old Dershowitz, a noted lawyer, author and prominent defender of Israel in academia and the public sphere.
On Thursday night, Feb. 2, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Hillel and a host of other Jewish groups sponsored an evening with Dershowitz. The goal was to galvanize pro-Israel students in light of the expected anti-Israel message of the BDS conference. During a dinner at Hillel, Dershowitz addressed about 50 student leaders — including a few from Drexel and Temple universities — and about 50 Federation donors.
Later, he spoke to about 900 people at Penn's Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Hillel had organized an "Invest in Israel" party following the Dershowitz speech and had also planned about 80 Shabbat meals across the campus where more than 800 students were expected to take part in informal conversations about the Jewish state.
At the same time, pro-Israel students worked on circulating a petition blasting the conference, and Jewish groups from all the other Ivy League schools submitted a statement opposing the conference.
Dershowitz repeatedly told the students that Penn president Amy Gutmann has been handling the controversy in an exemplary manner. She has upheld the principle of freedom of expression while stating emphatically that the university values its relationship with Israel and does not support the goals of the BDS movement.
"I don't think Penn should have banned a conference. I think it is wrong for a university to be in the business of banning," Dershowitz said during the leadership dinner. "You should have a single standard. Universities should be open places, and the BDS conference gives us an opportunity to respond to hate with positive messages."
Later, at the Annenberg program, David L. Cohen, a trustee of both Penn and Federation, spoke on behalf of Gutmann. Referring to the hundreds in attendance, the Comcast vice president said that "what we are seeing here tonight is the ultimate victory of open expression."
In a brief interview, 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 the interview. "The occupation for them is a pretext."
Why are so many Jews drawn to the BDS movement?
"Jews voted for Mussolini, Jews supported Stalin," replied Dershowitz. "Don't ask me to explain Jews. You will find a Jew on every side of every issue. The number of Jews that support the movement is small. What I am more concerned about is the number of Jews that don't condemn it."
During the Annenberg program, Dershowitz put forth the liberal defense of Israel that he'd already laid out in his 2003 book The Case for Israel. He's pro-Israel, he said, because he's pro-human rights, pro-women's rights and pro-gay rights. But he did emphasize that one can be pro-Israel and disagree with some of the Jewish state's policies. For instance, Dershowitz opposes the continued building of settlements on the West Bank.
The Annenberg program took a brief detour into current presidential politics when Dershowitz said that Israel should remain a bipartisan issue. Still, the lifelong Democrat said he had backed President Barack Obama in 2008 but was critical of some of his decisions regarding Israel. He added that he hadn't decided yet whom he would vote for this year.
Regarding the possibility that Israel may launch a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, Dershowitz said the Jewish state is well within its rights to move ahead.
"It won't be a pre-emptive attack, it will be a reactive attack. Israel is entitled to attack Iran legally because Iran has attacked Israel illegally through arming Hezbollah and Hamas," he said.
During the question-and-answer session after the Annenberg presentation, one female student asked, "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."
A number of students interviewed on campus expressed a range of emotions.* On the one hand, many said they were charged and inspired by the burst of pro-Israel activism. On the other, some said that dealing with the BDS conference had clearly taken a toll on them and the mood on campus.
Penn sophomore Lisa Felber said that the BDS conference "feels like a personal attack."
Josh Cooper, also a sophomore, said during a speech at the student leadership dinner that "this is not the most calm of moments. Things are pretty tempestuous right now. There is a lot of emotion."
Alon Krifchner, 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."