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Willing to Talk at Penn

February 16, 2012 By:
Noah Feit
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As a student who was at the forefront of the campaign to confront the boycott, divestment and sanctions conference at the University of Pennsylvania earlier this month, I think it's important to demystify much of the perceived hysteria behind the pro-Israel community's efforts surrounding the event.

The mixed messages and apprehension about the conference were the result of a few loud and dissenting voices as well as the BDSers' attempts to use this caricature to mischaracterize the pro-Israel community.

One of the first skills we learn in debating is to throw the straw man aside and to respond to substantive criticism. Rather, anti-Israel advocates prefer to take a small and factious group, call them out for being polarizing and out-of-touch, and assert that they are the rightful representatives of all who support Israel.

The same can be said for the few who threatened to boycott the University of Pennsylvania for allowing the BDS movement to host its national conference on our campus.

These individuals are not characteristic of the Philadelphia pro-Israel or Penn's pro-Israel communities. The overwhelming sentiment among student leaders, national advocacy groups, as well as members of the Philadelphia community, was that the only remedy for misinformation is information. Both the national and local pro-Israel communities facilitated this pursuit through their moral and financial support.

This course of action manifested itself in the conversation with Professor Alan Dershowitz on Feb. 2, titled "Why Israel Matters to You, Me and Penn," and the "Israel Across Penn" initiative the following night, during which nearly 800 students sat down over Shabbat dinner to discuss Israel.

We support President Amy Gutmann's decision to allow free speech to prevail. We hope that she will extend this same hand to the pro-Israel activists on campus. After all, Israel's case is reliant upon law, history and facts. The more voices added to the ongoing dialogue, the more support Israel garners here at Penn.

The willingness to have a conversation, as we did with our programming, is a key feature of the pro-Israel movement here at Penn and in the community at large. It enables us to question some of Israel's policies while unwaveringly supporting Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. BDS, on the other hand, rather than being proactive and seeking stimulating and important discussion, looks to label the most culturally diverse, democratic and human rights-minded nation in the Middle East an apartheid state. To them, it is not about progress; it is about blame.

Professor Dershowitz embodies the sentiments surrounding freedom of speech and integrity in activism that characterized the community's response to BDS. Dershowitz challenges us to make the "80 percent case for Israel," or the case that, despite its errors, Israel was born in law and embraces the democratic, liberal and progressive values that are dear to most Americans. These ideals were an integral part of the message pro-Israel activists on Penn's campus successfully conveyed over the past few weeks of drama.

The BDS conference gave community organizations, the student body and the academic world an unprecedented opportunity to reflect on the state of affairs for Israelis and Palestinians alike as well as on the importance of Israel to each and every one of us. Despite the haze of a few raucous voices, what we witnessed through this experience was a strong and cooperative alliance among community members, faculty, administrators and students who stand with Israel.

Noah Feit, a University of Pennsylvania sophomore, is president of Penn Friends of Israel.

 

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