— by Lori Lowenthal Marcus
Professor Alan Dershowitz came to the University of Pennsylvania on Thursday evening, February 2, 2012, to accomplish two goals: one, to continue in his role as American’s most outspoken, knowledgeable “celebrity” to “Make the Case for Israel” (the title of his 2003 book); and to tell Penn pro-Israel students, the Penn administration and the larger Philadelphia pro-Israel community, that they are model Israel advocates. He accomplished both.
Last semester a few students conspired to create an organization on Penn’s campus with the goal of hosting a conference there to promote the boycotting of, divesting from and sanctioning of Israel (“BDS“). Rather than create panic, however, their efforts forged an otherwise virtual impossibility: a community acting in almost complete unison to showcase Israel and educate those willing to be educated so they too would join the ranks of supporters, rather than vilifiers.
More after the jump.
There were those in the Philadelphia community who wanted Penn not to support such a conference by granting it use of its facilities, but the school administration refused to go that route, while still very clearly disassociating itself from the BDS message and goals. A virtual community-wide response was to support the efforts of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia which led the response off-campus, working with Penn Hillel on-campus, which created a myriad of events and initiatives to showcase Israel. Together the Federation and Penn Hillel brought in Dershowitz as the event unifying the university and the community at large in solidarity with Israel. It all came together exactly as the planners hoped.
In addition to the Dershowitz event, “We Are One With Israel: An Evening of Unity and Community Solidarity,” before a sold-out crowd of 900 at Penn’s Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday evening, there were several student-only initiatives, including raising money for an Israeli charity and promoting investment in Israel. For one massive initiative, “Israel Across Penn,” Penn students hosted a series of Shabbat dinners for more than 800 other students. The only requirement for attendance was to agree that the dinner conversation would center around Israel.
Students Josh Cooper and Shlomo Klapper were the organizers of the dinners. Both from New Jersey, each steadfastly refused to say that the dinners or the Dershowitz event were to counter the BDS conference. They insisted that the BDS supporters had a right to have a conference, but they both agreed the BDS event created a terrific opportunity by galvanizing the Jewish and pro-Israel community.
“Their goal is to discredit the state of Israel, we have revealed a deep and strong connection to Israel,” Klapper said.
Cooper added, “There is a strong positive energy for Israel on this campus, but sometimes it’s dormant, so this really mobilized us.”
As student and community leaders gathered for a meal in Steinhardt Hall, the Penn Hillel building, and waited for a private chat with Dershowitz, Eric Schorr, a Columbia University student, rose and read an Ivy League Solidarity Statement, which was signed by pro-Israel leaders at all the other Ivy League schools. “Boycotts are an obstacle to peace,” the statement reads, “BDS fails to recognize Israel’s prior offerings of peace that have been categorically rejected by Palestinian leadership, and merely seeks to vilify Israel.”
Samara Gordon, a leader in the bi-partisan Penn Israel Political Action Committee said that more than sixty students from organizations across the Penn campus, including the Penn Democrats, the College Republicans, the National Society for Black Engineers, and the Japan Students Association, signed a statement of solidarity with the pro-Israel Penn leadership. Gordon introduced Dershowitz to the dinner crowd, thanking him for consistently being the “go-to” person in support of Israel, and for being “awesome.”
In a short but upbeat pep talk to the select group Dershowitz made several points he reiterated to the larger crowd later: support for Israel is and must be a bi-partisan issue, all of the Penn community has presented a model of pro-Israel advocacy, the school was right not to prevent the BDS conference from taking place on the campus – so long as there is a single policy, it must be consistently applied – and just as important as it was to allow the conference on campus, was it for the supporters to respond vigorously with the truth, by making their case for Israel.
One student lamented the dearth of pro-Israel academics who speak out, in contrast to the many anti-Israel professors who do. Acknowledging the imbalance, Dershowitz explained that so many on the hard left have made it seem “politically incorrect” to support Israel. But, as Dershowitz repeated several times, “I’m a liberal Democrat and I support Israel because of my liberal values. I support Israel because I am a feminist, I support Israel because I am pro-gay rights, I support Israel because I steadfastly believe in human rights.”
The dinner crowd joined the hundreds of others who filed into the Zellerbach auditorium at the Annenberg Center. As the auditorium filled to capacity, the speeches and introduction of the introducers began. Rabbi Mike Uram, the director of Penn Hillel, set the tone by sharing a little Torah learning with the audience.
Uram remarked that one of the things Jews thank G-d for in the morning blessings, is for the understanding to discern day from night. And, he said, that was exactly why everyone was gathered together, to have Professor Dershowitz as a role model helping everyone to “distinguish between those who seek a real, lasting peace and those who simply want to demonize the Israeli people,” he continued, “and between those who search for facts and those who search only for accusations.” David L. Cohen, Chairman of the Penn Board of Trustees, as well as a former trustee of the Board of Directors of the Philadelphia Federation, read a statement from Penn President Amy Gutmann. Gutmann had been subject to heated criticism for allowing the conference to go forward, and for being insufficiently forceful in distancing the university from the conference. Gutmann’s statement again included a rejection of the message and the goals of BDS, and insisted that, “truth and reason will win the day,” and with a closer the crowd was eager to hear: “thanks for doing it the right way, Shalom, Amy Gutmann.”
The President of the Philadelphia Federation, Sherrie Savett, welcomed everyone, and introduced the star of the evening, Professor Alan Dershowitz.
True to form, Dershowitz presented a potpourri of articulately delivered bombshells, many that were welcome to most, others that were anathema to some, but most with such aplomb and unassailable logic as to calm down, if not convince, even those who disagreed.
Consistent with his theme of supporting Israel because of his liberal values, Dershowitz stated that he abhors those supporting BDS against Israel because if they really cared about human rights, they would be employing “BDS against Syria, against Cuba, against Iran, against China, against Russia, against Hamas and Hezbollah.” Because the BDS supporters are ignoring the true violators of human rights across the globe, it makes a mockery of their criticisms of Israel, “the one country in the Middle East with the highest respect for human rights.”
Going further, Dershowitz slammed the professors who support BDS generally, and those supporting Penn BDS specifically. “Those professors who are supporting BDS in the name of human rights? Shame on you! Iran is murdering dissidents and you are complaining about Israel? Shame on you – you are abusing the concept of human rights,” Dershowitz thundered, ” You are complicit with evil when you ignore other violators of human rights and focus on Israel – you have to justify yourselves!” Dershowitz went further: “this anti-Israel campaign is one of the greatest human rights issues of this century, supplying a justification for the oldest hatred.”
Continuing his theme of support for liberal values and human rights dictating support for Israel, Dershowitz invoked one of the greatest icons of liberalism in American history, Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., who visited Israel during the first violent uprising, in 1988. Upon his return, Justice Brennan remarked that, “Israel was the only country in the world that could teach the United States how to fight against terrorism with the same concern for human liberties.”
Although there were several adults who asked questions during the Q and A following the talk, students asked the questions which elicited the most informative responses.
In a nod to current global concerns, Dershowitz was asked about recent news reports that Israel may soon respond to the nuclear threat from Iran. For the second time that evening Dershowitz carefully explained that if Israel were to strike, it would be a reactive and not a pre-emptive strike.
“Iran,” he explained, “has already committed acts of war against Israel,” citing the arming of Hamas and Hezbollah, and the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Argentina. “Israel is within its legal rights to respond with force to the Iranian threat.”
The final question was one that, while hostile, Dershowitz might have paid someone to ask. Echoing the November 22, 2011 “Pinkwashing” New York Times op-ed written by professor Sarah Schulman, a young woman asked “if a ‘Palestinian’ tells me Israel stole her land, what good is it for me to say that ‘Israel is good on gay rights’?”
Warming to the fight, Dershowitz unequivocally rejected the notion of ‘Palestinian’ land having been stolen. He launched into a brief history lesson on the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, absentee Arab ownership, purchases of the land by Jews, and concluded with by quoting an Arab leader who responded to the Peel Commission in 1937 which attempted to create a Jewish and another Arab State, “There is no such country as Palestine! Palestine is a term the Zionists invented! We live in Southern Syria.”
The author of the “Pinkwashing” op-ed was one of the presenters at the Penn BDS conference. And just as Dershowitz exposed her hypocrisy for ruing instead of praising Israel’s openness and freedom for gays by pretending it was merely a front for stealing land from the Arabs, a further irony was made apparent by actions taken by the Penn BDS organizers.
According to the online agenda of the BDS conference, one of the sessions was devoted to Academic Freedom and addressed freedom of speech. A reporter for the Philadelphia Jewish Voice was immediately rejected when she applied for a press pass to the conference, and a reporter from the other Philadelphia Jewish media outlet had his press credentials revoked because the organizers disliked an article he had written.
While Professor Dershowitz could not have known about it when he gave his talk here, the refusal to operate openly, and the denial of access to those with potentially opposing viewpoints by the conference organizers were entirely consistent with his point, that the BDS advocates were hypocrites masking their hatred of Israel with a thin veneer of concern for civil rights and freedoms.