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Response to BDS Goes Beyond Chickpeas

January 5, 2012 By:
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Penn student Naomi Hachen mulls over hummus flavors at a recent "buy-cott."

Just before finals, University of Pennsylvania sophomore Noah Feit stumbled upon a Facebook link from a newly formed student group affiliated with the international movement that targets Israel with boycotts, divestment and sanctions.

Another student might not have given it a second glance, but for Feit, the leader of Penn Friends of Israel, the Penn BDS post announcing a national conference on campus in early February set off alarm bells.

As a result, Feit has spent part of his winter break, still ongoing, making calls to fellow campus leaders and even to national Israel advocacy groups to plan a strategic response.

At the same time, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia convened about 20 professionals and lay leaders from local Israel advocacy groups for an emergency meeting in late December to discuss the same issue.

Over the course of two and a half hours, representatives from across the political spectrum -- from the left-wing J Street to the right-wing Z Street -- agreed that it was important to come up with a rational, systematic and articulate opposition to the BDS movement, said David Cohen, senior associate for Israel and Middle East Affairs at the Federation.

There's a fine balance between sending a strong message and not throwing "more light to the BDS movement than they deserve," Cohen said.

The students are wrestling with that, too, Feit said, but there is a feeling that portraying the movement as an "attack on Judaism" could "serve to wake up a number of students who've had great experiences with Israel."

Though boycotts targeted at Israel date back decades, the phenomenon took on a new dimension when a coalition of primarily Palestinian organizations founded the global "Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions" movement in 2005.

The movement equates Israel with the former apartheid regime in South Africa, and seeks to isolate it in the same way. It calls for divestment from companies that do business with Israel and multifaceted consumer, academic and cultural boycotts to continue until Israel ends what it terms the occupation of the West Bank, recognizes full equality of Israel's Arab-Palestinian citizens and protects the "rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties."

The return of the refugees is a non-starter for Israel, with the assumption that a flood of Palestinians would mean the end of a Jewish majority and, therefore, the end of a Jewish state.

A Philadelphia BDS branch formed in summer 2010 and now counts a few dozen Jewish, Christian and Arab supporters as well as a similar number of endorsing local organizations.

That fall, Philly BDS supporters launched a campaign against Sabra and Tribe hummus, punctuated with a flash mob song and dance routine at the Fresh Grocer near Penn's campus. Pro-Israel students responded with an impromptu hummus shopping spree.

The Fresh Grocer scene repeated last month as BDS "carolers" returned, and Penn students once again filed in to load up on the chickpea spread.

Wary of the upcoming conference, student leaders and Hillel staff went straight from finals to pro-Israel advocacy. Feit, who is also an Emerson fellow for StandWithUs, as well as several other students and a team of Hillel Israel fellows, began devising plans for what they are tentatively calling an "Israel-Across-Penn" movement that would include speakers.

Freshman Shlomo Klapper said he and another student are organizing discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, perhaps to be hosted over campus dinners.

Meanwhile, Feit is trying to build coalitions with secular student groups and pro-Israel professors, and sign up prominent speakers who would even draw audience members from other campuses and the greater community. Ideally, he said, one speaker would argue "the ideological and political alignment between our ideals and those that the State of Israel promotes," while others would focus on how the country's advancements in energy, science, medicine and other fields have positively affected the world economy.

Coincidentally, Hillel staff had already planned a slate of "Israel Encounters" programs for the second semester as part of a new strategy to build advocacy through social and cultural connections. A centerpiece of this effort is a Shabbaton planned for the third weekend in February.

Even though that mandate aims to move away from politics, Sharona Kramer, an Israel fellow stationed at Penn to strengthen student connections with the Jewish state, said she may now add a session about why BDS is so destructive.

Speaking last week, a day before leaving to escort 120 Penn students on a Birthright Israel trip, Kramer said she was also developing events that would appeal to a range of students, from those who are already involved in pro-Israel activism to those who are simply curious about the country.

"It's like a great opportunity actually for us to encourage conversation about Israel," Kramer said. "That's much more educational and productive."

How much programming they do in response to the BDS conference will depend largely on how students react, said Rabbi Howard Alpert, who oversees all the Hillels in the Greater Philadelphia area.

Alpert predicted that for the vast majority of students on area campuses, the conference would be a "non-event." If that's not the case, he said, his team of three Israel fellows are prepared to add programming wherever it's needed, even at Temple or Drexel universities.

Matt Berkman, 27, a graduate student involved in organizing the BDS conference, said he hoped fellow Jews -- supportive or not -- would attend to see for themselves what BDS was about. So far, he said, between 80 and 100 people are signed up for the conference.

He bristled at charges that the movement was anti-Semitic. He and another organizer also refuted claims that outside supporters had pushed to create their group specifically to host a national conference on a well-respected campus. Raising the profile of BDS through campus conferences is certainly a new tactic, he said, but the initiative came from their core of about a dozen student members who petitioned for recognition as an official campus political group in the fall.

Many of them have also been active in Penn for Palestine, which cannot host political advocacy events since it is classified as a cultural group, he said. Penn BDS also has an advisory committee comprised of 15 Penn professors, he said, four of whom will make presentations at the conference.

The conference was coordinated without funding from the official movement, he said. Instead, he said, they received more than 100 donations from individuals to make up the $15,000 conference budget.

"If it builds a greater solidarity within the BDS community" and "educates people about the movement, then that's success for me," Berkman said.

Off campus, Jewish organizations that participate in regular Israel advocacy meetings agreed to send out a clear communal message against the movement.

Students and Hillel will take the lead when it comes to campus action, Cohen said, but the community will back them with resources and support where it can.

He said there may also be special community activities or buy Israel efforts leading up to the conference.

Community involvement is important because the BDS conference "is so much more than what's happening on the campus," Cohen said. "Our students are being used by a movement that tries to demonize Israel."

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