Drexel Can Build It, But Will Jews Come?

In the film Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella is inspired by voices and surprisingly is able to attract a crowd to a baseball field he built in his Iowa cornfield. Similarly, while Drexel’s Jewish community is dwarfed by that of its neighbor and rival, the University of Pennsylvania, hopes to compete for bright Jewish students by building the Raymond G. Perelman Center for Jewish Life. “Our goal at Drexel is to make the University a greater school of choice for Jewish students from our region and across the nation,” said Drexel President John Fry.

The Raymond G. Perelman Center for Jewish Life at Drexel University

The Raymond G. Perelman Center for Jewish Life at Drexel University

This three-story, 14,000-square-foot facility is well in excess of the needs of Drexel’s current Jewish community.

A Tale of Two Hillels Hillel at Drexel University University of Pennsylvania Hillel
National Rank #25 #7
Jewish Undergraduates 900 / 16,616
2,500 / 9,712
Jewish Studies 5 classes offered.
Minor available
50 classes offered.
Minor and major offered.

However, what is Drexel doing to attract the Jewish students they need to fill it?

Over the last year Israel has been removed from Drexel’s list of recommended countries for international students and internships, and Drexel students and faculty must seek special permission to study or work in Israel.

However, a new, more troubling controversy has recently arisen.

Drexel Hillel Rabbi Isabel de Koninck (Left), with Noam Chomsky (center) and Drexel President John A. Fry (2nd from Right) Photo Credit: Facebook

Drexel Hillel Rabbi Isabel de Koninck (Left), with Noam Chomsky (center) and Drexel President John A. Fry (2nd from Right). Photo Credit: Facebook.

Most of Drexel’s Jewish community members were surprised to learn that Noam Chomsky was among the people to be given an honorary degree at the University’s commencement ceremony earlier this month.

The inclusion of “Noam Chomsky: Professor emeritus at MIT, linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, logician and political commentator” on the list of laureats on Drexel’s website escaped the attention of many when it was uploaded on April 20.

However late in coming, the Jewish community is beginning to react. Lori Lowenthal Marcus recalled in The Jewish Press that “Chomsky is one of the best known and most outspoken American critics of Israel”:

He has called the Jewish State such a consistent and extreme violator of human rights “that you hardly have to argue about it.” For that reason, he claims, U.S. military aid to Israel is in direct violation of U.S. Law. At least Chomsky rejects (sometimes) the claim that Israel is an Apartheid state. But that’s because he thinks Apartheid is too gentle a term for Israel’s treatment of Palestinian Arabs.

“To call it apartheid is a gift to Israel, at least if by ‘apartheid’ you mean South African-style apartheid. What’s happening in the Occupied Territories is much worse.”

Perhaps a case could be made for the Department of Computer Science to honor Chomsky for his technical contributions to their field, but her mention is specifically made of Chomsky’s “political commentary”. In the Jewish Exponent, Prof. Abraham H. Miller pointed out that this “political commentary” is wedded to bizarre:

Chomsky seemed to be wedded to ideas of moral equivalence, which the steel trap of his syllogisms ensnared America with some of the most brutal regimes to ever desecrate the meaning of human decency.

Chomsky saw a moral equivalence between the genocidal, fanatical regime of Pol Pot and the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. To Chomsky, America was to be indicted for selective outrage at Pol Pot but not at Indonesia, which was an ally….

When the tragedy of 9/11 fell upon America, and while the nation was still consumed with shock and grief, Chomsky once again found a lesson for America in moral equivalence. Ever playing the role of the dispassionate intellectual, Chomsky made a frigid comparison of 9/11 to President Bill Clinton’s cynical bombing of a civilian pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum in August 1988.

Marcus quoted one former Hillel member who took Drexel Hillel’s Rabbi Isabel de Koninck to task for appearing on stage with Chomsky:

It is a bit disturbing that a figurehead of the Jewish community would allow herself to be next to him, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some students felt alienated and more hesitant to be involved in the organization after seeing such a photo.

The Rabbi declined to comment on this controversy. However, Drexel President John Fry defended Chomsky’s actions:

I believe Drexel’s decision to award him a degree was justified. Chomsky was among 15 people honored by Drexel at this year’s commencement ceremonies. The decision to include him among this group is consistent with academia’s tradition of recognizing those from a wide variety of fields — with a broad spectrum of perspectives — who have made significant contributions to education, business, science, and civic and cultural institutions. The awarding of honorary degrees does not in any way indicate endorsement of a recipient’s opinions.

As a scientist, Chomsky’s work is at the forefront of his discipline, and he is often described as the “father of modern linguistics.” As a political philosopher and activist, he is widely read and debated, especially with regard to U.S. and Israeli foreign policy.

Furthermore, Fry vaunted his support of The Raymond G. Perelman Center for Jewish Life at Drexel University. However, if Drexel is seen as lending its support to those who slander Israel, then will the needed Jewish students come, or will this beautiful new facility sadly become a reminder of the vibrant Jewish community which Drexel could have had?

Prof. Alan Dershowitz Makes Philadelphia’s Case for Israel

— 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.

UN in the Dock at UPenn

— by Lori Lowenthal Marcus

New York City wasn’t the only place in which the treatment of Israel at the United Nations was under discussion recently.

On Sunday evening, September 25, 2011, Penn Friends of Israel and the International Affairs Association hosted Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, at Houston Hall on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

UN Watch is a non-governmental organization the goal of which is to measure the performance of the UN according to its founding mission. Neuer’s topic was, “From Eleanor Roosevelt to Qaddafi: An Insider’s Account of the Rise and Fall of Human Rights at the U.N.”

More after the jump.
Neuer spoke to a packed crowd for well over an hour, during which time he discussed various venues and events at the UN which are perceived by many as biased against Israel. Neuer discussed the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the Durban Conference on Racism — from which UN Watch was barred — and the recent effort of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to evade negotiations with Israel and instead obtain Palestinian Statehood through the United Nations itself.

Repeatedly critical of certain aspects of the UN, stating that “one dictator, one vote” is often what passes as democracy at the United Nations, and that far too often the only expertise regarding human rights for member nations that sit on the UNHRC is their violations of it, Neuer seemed to surprise at least some members of the audience when he rejected the suggestion that perhaps it was time to do away with the global institution. “It is an indispensable forum,” because at least portions of it such as “the World Health Organization, international labor organizations, food groups, telecommunications,” are essential. “Even such critics as [President] Bush and [former US Ambassador to the UN John] Bolton, didn’t speak in terms of getting rid of the UN.”

Nevertheless, the bulk of Neuer’s talk was devoted to detailing the highly politicized and virulently anti-Israel theme at play throughout much of the United Nations. Of particular concern is what is now known as the Human Rights Council, formerly the Human Rights Commission, but according to Neuer by either name the body is nearly always run, and invariably dominated by the “greatest perpetrators of human rights abuses.” Neuer noted over the course of the past two years, China, Pakistan, Syria, Libya and Saudi Arabia have all held a seat on the UNHRC. And while the world’s worst human rights abuses have often gone ignored, “a disproportionate amount of time is spent singling out one member state for criticism, and that state is Israel” he said.

Neuer gave many examples of the ways in which, in the distorted world of the UNHRC, Israel is frequently presented as the grossest violator of human rights. For example, over the past five years, the Council has passed approximately sixty resolutions condemning a nation for committing human rights violations, forty of which have been directed at Israel. He pointed out that over the past six months more than 2500 Syrians have been massacred by their own government, yet Syria has not received a single rebuke from the UNHRC [between the time of Neuer’s talk and publication, the UN Security Council was presented with a condemnation of Syria’s brutal crackdown on pro-reform protesters, but it was vetoed by Russia and China]. Furthermore, the UNHRC has a standard agenda of ten general action items, one of which is always reserved for “addressing human rights violations against those in the occupied territories,” i.e., condemning Israel.

Another example of the way in which Israel is singled out unfairly at the UN is in the fact that while all countries in the world are divided into regional groups, Israel is barred from membership in the Asian group of which it should be a member, because the Arab nation members refuse to allow it. Yet one more example, amongst several others he gave, is that over the past five years the UNHRC has met in approximately a dozen emergency sessions, half of which were devoted to excoriating Israel. And the basis for those condemnations often ignored the context as, for instance, when Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was abducted in June, 2006, Israel responded with military reprisals, yet only Israel’s actions were condemned, not that of Hamas in abducting the soldier. The Iranian clampdown on non-violent protesters of the Green Revolution of 2011 was never condemned, nor was the brutal government repression of Muslim Uighurs, only efforts by Israel, which efforts were motivated by aggression on the part of its enemy, has been addressed by the UNHRC.

Moving on to the UN General Assembly, Neuer explained that the effort of PA President Abbas to attain statehood through a resolution in the UN is likely to be approved, given that the combined Arab and Muslim Nations have an automatic majority in the GA. But Neuer believes there will not be a significant substantive change if the PA is elevated to non-voting member state status. It already has a contingent present at the UN, it has a place at a table, albeit towards the back of the room, and it has the name “Palestine” already displayed on a nameplate where its representatives are seated. The one area in which the change may have some bearing will be in the PA’s ability to engage, and have others engage on its behalf, in lawfare against the Jewish State.

Elias Okwara, a 23-year old Drexel Junior from Kenya, spent part of last summer in Jordan, as part of his school’s Peace Studies Program. Okwara is in Drexel’s International Area Studies program with a concentration in Justice and Human Rights, and his research focuses on contemporary approaches to international peace and security.

Okwara embraces the global model of the UN, and he had been told that the talk was going to be an anti-UN event. During the brief question and answer session, Okwara asked Neuer about the Goldstone Report, which was the outcome of a UN investigation into Israel’s incursion into Gaza known as Operation Cast Lead. The Report, written by South African jurist Richard Goldstone, “excoriated Israel and exonerated Hamas,” according to Neuer. It accused Israeli leadership of intentionally targeting civilians.

One of the other members of the investigation, Christine Chinkin, prior to her being appointed had signed a letter to the London Times accusing Israel of war crimes. Goldstone himself later recanted much of the most damaging portions of the report, but the UN considers the Goldstone Report, as written, to represent its official view of Cast Lead.

Despite hearing clear criticism of the UN by Neuer, Okwara said that it was “founded on very specific and detailed information, and I could not help but seriously reflect on the issues he raised.”

Okwara was glad he came because despite his own work in the field, he found Neuer’s talk to be “enlightening.” Okwara added, “I am a scholar and a keen believer in the UN, and for a person like me intent on playing my part in the international arena, I have no room to be dogmatic.”

Penn Friends of Israel is a new initiative that was created at the end of the last academic year in response to a perceived need for a group that wasn’t at one end of the spectrum or the other, but rather for a “group in the middle that could bring voices together from across the spectrum.” Noah Feit, president of the student group, started it along with sophomore Jeff Rollman. Feit, a StandWithUs Emerson Fellow, said he was very pleased with the event, both with the size of the audience and its makeup.

“The audience contained those interested in Israel, those passionate about international affairs, local community members, and students from other Philadelphia campuses. One of PFI’s primary goals is to reach beyond the pro-Israel community and to influence opinion by providing accurate information.”

Feit and his colleagues seem to have achieved their goal.