PennBDS – Perspective

Well the PennBDS conference has come and gone and before looking at what it all adds up to, I’d like to start by congratulating the organizers for the impressive job they accomplished.

I know this might seem strange coming from someone who has done so much to criticize the event, both at the PennBDS-Oy site and in the local Philadelphia Jewish paper.  But having organized programming in the past (and having also put a great deal of effort in a PennBDS-related project over the last month), I appreciate the time, energy and logistical effort needed to pull off a program of this scale.  And just because my appreciation of their efforts will never be reciprocated, that’s no reason not to express such sentiments.

Needless to say, I found the content of the program misguided at best.  And recognizing the various tricks they played to give the appearance of debate while never actually engaging in it did not make watching such manipulative behavior any less distasteful.  But now that the event is over, it’s best to step back and get some perspective on what might emerge from the last few days.

Regarding U Penn where the program was held, my first instinct was to use the last few weeks as another example of stalemate between pro- and anti-Israel forces on US campuses.  After all, the BDS group clearly had the people, resources and wherewithal to pull together a reasonably large conference just as Israel’s supporters put together program of generally comparable size in opposition.

But after visiting campus last week, seeing who was doing what, and thinking through the long-term results of efforts started over the last month, I may have to give the long-term edge to Israel’s supporters vs. the players at PennBDS.

After all, the organized Jewish community on campus received a lot of attention as well as resources targeted at long-term programming related to Israel-related political action.  More importantly, students that might have spent four years indifferent to Israel (or focused on apolitical Jewish or Israel-related issues) have been galvanized to action.  And, as we’ve seen on campus after campus, all it takes is one energized and skilled organizer to make a difference.

In contrast, if a goal of group called PennBDS was to make the University of Pennsylvania divesting and distancing itself from Israel more thinkable, all they managed to do was to focus a spotlight on the warm relationship between U Penn and the Jewish state and force the school’s administration to articulate their support for that relationship openly.  With actual BDS closed off to them, chances of even getting a toothless, symbolic divestment resolution passed by the student council are practically nil, leaving little practical outlets for their energy outside of hummus boycotts (which failed as well).

So if on the U Penn campus Penn BDS is remembered as a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing, what about the “free media” they got from the event? Might that have some long-term outcome outside of campus?

Well if you subtract stories that appeared in the U Penn paper, stories penned by the BDSers on their own web sites, and what I’ve written about the subject, you end up with an event that generated maybe a dozen stories (mostly in the Pennsylvania or general Jewish press, and mostly negative).  And even at U Penn, the press bandwagon is moving on, with remaining stories wondering what all the fuss was about.

This is important since; despite increasingly ludicrous claims by Omar Barghouti that his political position represents the unspoken will of that mythical “99%,” the vast majority of college students remain indifferent to either side in the Arab-Israeli conflict and distrustful of partisans in either camp.  Sure they support human rights and justice (who doesn’t?), but they show no indication of believing that groups like PennBDS represents those values, just because they mouth the words incessantly.  And, as mentioned before, those unaffiliated with either side tend to favor the party that shows a willingness to engage in dialog.  Which means that the BDSers decision to ban journalists they don’t care for (while all the time insisting they be allowed to do whatever they want, all in the name of free speech) might leave the most lasting impression of their entire effort.

Moving off campus, there is the legitimate concern that students energized by attending the conference will get back to their schools and use what they have learned to inflict BDS on their fellow students for the coming months or years.  But as we have seen for over a decade, BDS has been a complete dead end, particularly at colleges and universities.  So the notion of anti-Israel forces doubling down on a failed tactic for another decade or three should actually fill pro-Israel hearts with joy.

And for those who hope (or fear) that BDS is simply a transmission belt for pumping the Israel = Apartheid propaganda message into public discourse, keep in mind that the level and scale of rejection of BDS over the last 11-12 years cannot be explained as bad luck or a conspiracy of the 1%.  For when boycotts and divestment have been put to a vote (even in places like the Mainline Protestant churches which have been increasingly unfriendly towards Israel over the last few decades), it was voted down by 95-100% ­i.e., by almost the entirety of the grassroots who understood that everything about BDS: its arguments, its message its presentation of facts are simply a tangle of lies and propaganda masquerading as virtue.

And so as the BDSers pack up their tents, pat each other on the back and claim victory on every blog and twitter feed where they maintain control of the conversation, the rest of us can take satisfaction that outside the fantasy world of BDS activists themselves, their event will barely leave the footprints you see in the sand before the next tide comes in.

25 thoughts on “PennBDS – Perspective”

  1. Thank you for your hard work. It's worth pointing out that Omar Barghouti lives in Israel and hasn't the slightest clue what American college students think. And we would have been rather dismayed to see today's leadership statement in the DP, which reflects this thinking better than this fleeting gathering of misguided activists with no political power.

  2. My favorite moment during the entire debate was Omar Barghouti trotting out the 99% trope from last year's Occupy protests to claim that this was the percentage of his “true” support.

    Given that maybe 30 Penn kids went to the BDS event (vs. 900 who went to see Dershowitz), it made me realize that according to Barghouti-math that the Zionists must represent the 2970%!


  3. I have heard that the Dershowitz event was inundated with adults, many of whom unassociated with the University itself. As for the PennBDS conference, the organizers were forced to turn away hundreds of potential participants due to a lack of resources. When your side receives millions of dollars in external funding every year and has a paid staff dedicated to spreading the pro-Israel message, it's quite easy to accomodate more participants, no? PennBDS accomplished something that was unimaginable to the pro-Israel “activists” at Penn. They actually organized something of this magnitude by themselves. They received no external support, had no paid staff, and relied completely on their imaginations and expertise to put together a conference that rattled the University on its foundations. They moved the goalposts of the debate to something far more fair. And they triumphed over those who called for censorship. As for the conference, it was a wild success, and re-inspired and educated hundreds of activists.

    1. I will admit that my last comment was mostly about finding a home for that Barghouti math/2970% gag (which I've been trying to sneak onto the site). If you look at my original piece, I think you will find a more measured analysis that looks at what the PennBDS organizers and their allies did (in their entirety) and compared it to what the pro-Israel students and their supporters accomplished (again, in their entirety) and determined a rough comparability in scale and scope of both efforts.

      But I also stick with my prediction that long-term benefits will accrue to critics of BDS more than its proponents (at least at Penn). What will be most telling is if we look back a year from now and see if the the PennBDS event truly “rocked the school to its foundation” in terms of seeing any reversal or slowdown in the growing relations between the university and the Jewish state.

      If, at the end of that year, all that remains of PennBDS are some vague memories and BDS proponents insisting that you only keep losing because your enemies are spending millions of dollars conspiring against you, I think we'll be in a better position to judge just whose foundations ended up rocked.

    2. What was the attempt at “censorship”? I don't remember that one. Hopefully you are not confusing the notion that UPenn has its own institutional regulations regarding what campus-based organizations can do, and the questions over whether they were following them, with 'censorship', right?

    3. There was never any reason to believe that Penn was not following its institutional regulations when it came to PennBDS. Show me something that suggests otherwise.

  4. Anonymous' comment reminds me of all those old Andy Rooney-Judy Garland movies where the kids all got together in an unused barn and “put on a show!”

    Jon, you are making a classic mistake. You are using real world metrics to judge success or failure. You should adopt the BDS Metric where it is all about the participants (and not actually about the Palestinians).

    Q: Did Anonymous get to posture and preen in front of all his like-minded friends? Did he get to chant in an echo chamber for a weekend and pretend he actually cared about something other than himself?

    If the answers to the above questions are “yes” than to Anonymous the Conference was an earthshattering success. Full stop.

  5. Barring the Jewish paper from covering the proceedings was a classy move, PennBDs, one that the Jewish community and Upenn will likely not forget. Whats that you were saying about “censorship”?

    1. “But even more important is the fact that the Israel Lobby routinely restricts media access to reporters it doesn’t like at events they host. Aipac provided press credentials to The Guardian’s Chris McGreal to cover it’s 2007 national conference. When McGreal arrived to pick up his credentials and registration packet, he was not only denied access, but Josh Block, Aipac’s then PR capo di tutti, had the reporter frog-marched out of the hall escorted by security guards. I reported this story in my blog at the time and in the Guardian’s Comment is Free. But The Forward never took up the matter. Somehow, when the BDS movement stifles the press it’s newsworthy, but when Josh Block and Aipac do it they get a pass.”

    2. There's also a significant difference here in the events– AIPAC events are not intended or advertised as welcoming anti-Israel activists to share their own opinions and debate them. BDS events supposedly welcome them. So the BDSers can justifiably be accused of hypocrisy (as, of course, can Dickie Silverstein himself, whose modus operandi is to refuse to post any comments significantly challenging him and to resort to highly personal attacks on those he considers his enemies ie anyone who doesn't agree with him).

  6. Just to confirm, are you (and Richard Silverstein) saying that the PennBDS group WAS guilty of censorship (but making the case that AIPAC does this sort of thing too)?

    1. No, but by those standards, both PennBDS and AIPAC are guilty of censorship – the difference being that PennBDS is comprised of 15 college students and AIPAC has a $67 million budget and thousands of members nationwide. Of course, you would never even mention how pro-Israel groups revoke or refuse to give media credentials to reporters with whom they disagree.

      Most importantly, however, what about the concerted, highly organized campaign targeted at preventing the BDS conference from ever taking place? While you repeat ad nauseam how much you value debate, you refuse to condemn the many alumni, pro-Israel organizations, newspapers, etc. that called for the University to cancel the conference in an attempt to censor dissent and legitimate criticism of Israel. You repeatedly underscore your desire to engage in measured debate, so much so that you've prodded at the organizers to establish a joint forum for it to take place. If you truly value debate and you truly believe in the Jewish Exponent's rights to free speech, why have you not condemned the campaign to stifle PennBDS' freedom of speech?

  7. I will have to look into the AIPAC story since I've never heard about it before, but I do appreciate your providing something to hold it up against as an example of genuine censorship: the behavior of the PennBDS organization itself.

    As for this “highly organized campaign to prevent the BDS conference from ever taking place,” I know for a fact that both the University and the organized Jewish community made specific decisions to NOT try to stop the event from happening (in fact, the only debate I'm aware of within these groups was whether to make public comments about PennBDS or to simply ignore it).

    This “organized campaign” you complain about was nothing more than people completely outside of that decision-making circle arguing that U Penn and the Jewish community made the wrong choice. In other words, this “organized opposition” was simply complaining that genuine powers-that-be chose instead to use their free speech rights to denounce your program (U Penn) and organize effective counter programming (Jewish organizations on campus and in the Philadelphia area).

    It is only your desire to play the role of martyr that prevents you from seeing that organized attempts to suppress you only exist in your own mind, unless of course you consider anyone using their free speech rights to criticize you and not automatically grant you the moral high ground you demand (including, I suppose, me) as engaged in an act of repression.

    So, at least as far as last weekend goes, the only example we have of speech bans by people controlling a civic space was the decision by PennBDS to ban members of the press they didn’t like from the event (a decision you yourself have acknowledged as a form of censorship).

    1. Jon, I don't have time to go through the hundreds of articles written about the conference and give you all of the evidence to prove the existence of said campaign, but here's something right from Penn Hillel's website:

      “Penn Hillel communicated its objections to the University about having this type of conference on Penn’s campus. While we would have preferred that the conference not be granted space at the University of Pennsylvania, we welcome the university’s statement distancing itself from the conference and affirming its strong rejection of boycott, divestment or sanction of Israel.”

      Obviously, “communicated its objections” is rather benign language. It was probably much more involved. But, even if you take it for what it's worth, you're still wrong.

    2. Paraphrasing a previous commenter, is that the best you’ve got?

      Look, when you bring an ugly, offensive event to a campus that is bound to (if not designed to) bait a major portion of the campus community, you will get a reaction which normally involves the offended group thinking through its options and making a decision what avenue to pursue in response.

      When a conservative group tried to start an “Islamofascism Awareness Week” program on college campuses a few years back in order to return the favor of “Israel Apartheid Week,” Muslim groups on campus who were similarly (and understandably) offended also faced similar choices.

      In the case of U Penn, the school decided early on that the PennBDS show could go on. And the Jewish community, while expressing a preference that such an offensive event would not take place on campus, chose not to try to get PennBDS banned, not to disrupt your program by sneaking in activists planning to jump up every ten minutes and shout anti-BDS slogans, not to post fraudulent posters around campus depicting your event in the ugliest light (, but to challenge BDS in the realm of ideas with effective counter-programming and campus organizing.

      Because your preference is to NOT confront the ideas that were part of that counter-programming (just as you refuse to confront any ideas on this site), you choose instead to create a narrative of martyrdom in which enemies conspired to shut you down, despite the fact that the program not only didn’t get shut down but never even faced the threat of such action.

      But by creating this fantasy of repression (including zeroing in on one letter to the editor by a 60+ year old man who criticized you with intemperate language and claiming you were all under dire threat of bodily harm unless protected), you can avoid engaging with the real reaction to your event (which effectively demolish every position of the BDS program) and instead try to put your opponents on the defensive by claiming they are guilty of what the PennBDS group is the only example I can think of: repression of free speech by anyone who is not them.

  8. An anonymous friend of boycotting Israel complains that his side, in particular PennBDS, has nowhere near the money that AIPAC has. That's ridiculous. Consider that the New Israel Fund finances some organizations in Israel that support bds; that somebody had to pay for Omar Barghouti's transportation to Philadelphia for the bds konklave, and likewise his transportation to last year's konklave; that JStreet is well funded, getting millions from Arab and Iranian sources [Trita Parsi, etc]; that the Free Gaza movement of 2010 was funded in part by the Sheikha of Qatar and that CodePink, which took part in the “free Gaza flotilla” has connections in the White House, that Saudi Arabia and several of its princes [ie, Prince al-Waleed] give millions every year to selected Middle East, Arab world, and Muslim study centers and institutes at American universities; that Yale U Press censored a book that it was about to publish because it might have offended Muslims, etc etc. It seems to me that with their oil wealth, the Arab side is quite well funded and is likely better funded than the pro-Israel side.

    1. I think Barghouti was studying for his finals at Tel Aviv university, which is why he couldn’t join the PennBDS conference to discuss why all true friends of the Palestinian people must boycott Israel academia and had to instead join the meeting by video feed.

    2. I tend to take a somewhat different view of money as it relates to both BDS and general Israel de-legitimization activities. At the lowest level (including specific BDS and anti-BDS action), the dollar cost of engaging in these campaigns is not that high. From personal experience, time and effort are much more important than money.

      Once you move up to the institutional level, I would say that in the US pro-Israel groups have more resources than their anti-Israel counterparts. But this is flipped in Europe where anti-Israel forces clearly have the resources to (among other things) buy or rent fleets of ships to sail across the Mediterranean. And even here, seemingly large budgets are not an indication of actual dollars being spent on BDS or anti-BDS campaigns (as anyone who has tried to get money out of these supposedly “wealthy” groups can attest).

      It is at the level of nation states that the disparity of wealth becomes most apparent with one Jewish nation (Israel) having to face off against 20+ wealthy and powerful Arab League states allied with 50+ Islamic Conference states, all allied with the allegedly non-aligned movement states. This lopsided imbalance in wealth and power is why most human rights in the UN (or any other institution where votes are taken by states) will target Israel. And these votes provide BDSers the ammunition they need to claim they are not fighting for a narrow partisan cause (heavens no), but are just attacking Israel in the name of “international law.”

      A boycotter having to confront the fact that their cause only gets the attention it does because of their alliance with wealth and power would likely explode, which is why such facts can never be uttered or even be thought at events like PennBDS.

    3. Wait, how could Barghouti participate in a BDS conference? I though the B in BDS was for boycott and included a boycott of Israel academic institutions and Israeli scholars.

      As a student at Tel Aviv University, Barghouti obviously is an Israeli scholar. Shouldn't BDS be boycotting him.

      That means….BDS doesn't target Israel.. it targets Jews. Who could have guessed.

  9. Jon –

    I hope you will address in a longer post the issue of allowing BDS platforms to speak vs. censorship.

    I am very torn on this issue. People I admire, such as Dershowitz, say let them speak, uphold free speech, and then challenge their ideas.

    My reservation is why should a private institution provide a stage for them. I consider BDS to be a hate group. I used to think that they used hate language to promote their cause. Now I realize it is their hatred for Jewishness that causes them to promote BDS.

    So, why should any respectable organization host them? Why must the community of that organization be subjected to their speech?

    Also, why shouldn't someone deny press credentials to an outfit they don't like? If a reporter calls you and you choose not to give him a comment, is that censorship? Is denying press credentials any different? Why do you have to give press credentials to everybody?

    I am not asking this rhetorically. I am asking what are the arguments in favor?


    1. Excellent questions, and something I'll need to think about over the next few days so I can give you a reasonable response to the important issues you raise.

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