After America’s first national BDS conference, the Jewish Forward newspaper explains the “threat” from the Zionist community’s perspective; who can seriously deny equal rights for everybody inside Israel and Palestine (oh, apart from liberal Zionists who cling to the two state solution delusion and rejectionists and the Zionist lobby who just love occupying Palestinians)?:
The movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel — long painted as a fringe group by the Israel advocacy community — is seeking to wrap itself in the mantle of the mainstream American left. At the movement’s first-ever national conference, presenters and attendees compared BDS to the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, the Cesar Chavez grape boycott and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, from which it draws inspiration.
They also worried about how to brand themselves in easily accessible sound bites.
“Palestine has to become part of the American vocabulary in the way Americans learn about and digest information, like in the kinds of magazines you read in the laundromat,” said Sarah Schulman, a professor of English at the City University of New York who spoke at the conference, held at the University of Pennsylvania the first weekend in February. “We have to brand BDS as something alive, progressive, increasingly available, with a human face, something Americans can relate to.”
But Penn’s Israel advocacy community greeted all this with a cold shoulder. Rather than protest the event, Rabbi Mike Uram, director of Penn Hillel, urged the group’s pro-Israel member organizations to steer clear of the program, lest they legitimize the BDS movement by drawing attention to it.
“On Penn’s campus, people don’t know what BDS is,” Uram said. “To engage in a conversation is to raise them to a level that they are not at.”
“Spending our time and resources and efforts standing outside, protesting the event, says that this is mainstream political discourse,” added Noah Feit, a sophomore who is president of Penn Friends of Israel. “We decided not to stage a protest, because we prefer not to legitimize radical political discourse. We think there are better and more effective forums to express our opinions.”
This contrast — a nascent pro-Palestinian movement craving legitimacy, with the Jewish establishment ignoring it — was a surprising outcome of what some had expected to be a volatile few days on an Ivy League campus with a large percentage of Jewish students and graduates. Area Jewish leaders had signed on to advertisements decrying the conference; some criticized the university for even allowing it to occur.
At the conference, which was organized by the 15-member Penn BDS group, there was talk of positioning the initiative as a democracy movement. A student activist media handbook circulating at the conference admonished BDS proponents to “infuse our language with values like freedom, equal rights, democracy, etc. This allows you to speak to Americans in terms they understand. Most can’t define Zionism, but freedom and equality are easy terms for most people to conceptualize. Emphasizing shared values also allows you to connect with Americans on both an emotional and intellectual level.”
That message was echoed by Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian rights activist and co-founder of the Electronic Intifada website. “We are fighting for rights people have fought for all over the world,” Abunimah said in his well-attended keynote speech. “We have to link this struggle to so many other struggles in this country and around the world.”