Another quick follow-up: BDS comes to Penn

Since many of the people who read this blog go and/or* went to Penn, I would imagine there’s a decent chance you are familiar with BDS from its stunt at Frogro or its national conference at the University of Pennsylvania.

*the ‘and’ in ‘and/or’ is for myself

If not, some quick background.

BDS’ decision to hold a conference at Penn sparked a bit of a furor in the Jewish world, prompting this measured letter from Amy Gutmann:

A campus student group, Penn BDS, is planning a national conference in February that will encourage boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

This is not an event sponsored by the University. The event is being sponsored by a registered student group, as is permitted of any student group on campus.

The University of Pennsylvania has clearly stated on numerous occasions that it does not support sanctions or boycotts against Israel.  Indeed, Penn has important and successful scholarly collaborations with Israeli institutions that touch on many areas of our academic enterprise.

Penn has always supported free expression and the free exchange of ideas. These are essential elements of a great university.  These principles apply to this event, as they would any other student event, whether or not we agree with or condone the message BDS seeks to communicate.

In response, someone launched a petition asking Amy ‘to show that Penn is unquestionably Pro-Israel’:

People could contribute their names to a Google doc*, which has amassed 575 signatures to date.

*One cell up top reads ‘The names on this spreadsheet are being backed up. Regardless, please do not tamper with the spreadsheet’. This is funny because Google docs and Natalie Portman.

I know this won’t make me any friends, but I’ll get straight to the point: the letter should not have been written.

Part of the reason many consider BDS fringe and beyond the pale is because it singles out Israel for opprobrium. I could name countries I think deserve opprobrium before Israel, but it would probably resemble – at least in terms of length – the list included in Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions widens in scope, so I’ll just mention China and leave things at that.

Back to my point. If the problem with BDS is that of all the countries in the world it chose to pick on Israel, the proper response is not to ask a University President – who just went out of her way to use neutral language like ‘whether or not we agree with or condone the message BDS seeks to communicate’ – to instead single out that same country for public praise, targeted investments, and references to non-existent University departments.

I know some people might not realize this, but Penn is not actually Hebrew University. Trying to keep everybody happy is hard, and Amy probably deserves a thank you note – not this laundry list of demands.

That said, if BDS ever decides to target something worthwhile, I would invite it to join my boycott of the new $8-a-month paywall over at Haaretz.com.

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