From February 3-5, 2012 the University of Pennsylvania hosted a National Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Conference organized by “PennBDS.” The focus of the conference was the political and academic boycott of Israel, in the context of the BDS movement which promotes political activism against Israel, and seeks to educate students and faculty into methods of effective activism against Israel.
Because the BDS movement is well known internationally for its anti-Israel agenda, the conference generated considerable criticism from a variety of sources, including condemnation and commentary in Israeli press, with some very heated exchanges between pro- and anti-BDS spokespersons. Its organizers defended the conference as an expression of free speech and academic freedom, while others compared it to Nazi hate speech of the 1930s.
Other critics noted the stark anti-Israel bias of the BDS agenda and lack of balance in the conference’s speakers and panelists (not a single pro-Israel voice was heard), which cast in high relief the essentially pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist nature of the conference and of the entire BDS movement.
PennBDS leaders inadvertently justified this perception by revoking the press credentials of a journalist from The Jewish Exponent just one day before the conference. Even neutral observers noted that on one hand the BDS movement claims to be fair and balanced in its interpretation and representation of the Israel-Arab conflict, promotes itself as working toward a just and peaceful resolution between Arabs and Israelis, insists that it is not anti-Israel or anti-Jewish, and claims to champion free speech and uninhibited discourse. On the other hand, barring entry to a Jewish journalist representing a Jewish newspaper, who wrote a critique of the conference demonstrates a controlling and repressive anti-Jewish aspect of the movement which is quite the opposite of how BDS proponents represent it.
A similarly revealing decision was barring Brett Cohen, national campus program director for StandWithUs, from entry to the Saturday night keynote speech of Ali Abunimah, an internationally recognized Israel basher, even though Abunimah’s talk was advertised as open to the public.
But even more revealing was the list of speakers, many well known as anti-Israel personalities who seek the dissolution of the Jewish state by political or violent means. These speakers have a long and undeniable history of virulent anti-Israel rhetoric and borderline anti-Semitic vitriol. Their predominance on the dais of the PennBDS conference, and the absence of any voices to the contrary, brand the conference as a diatribe of irrational Israel-hatred and exhortation to the elimination of the Jewish state rather than any sort of constructive political discourse.
Among these speakers, Abunimah is primus inter pares. He demonstrated his anti-Israel credentials in his keynote speech, in which he compared Israel to apartheid-era South Africa, compared historical criticism of the Arab narrative to Holocaust denial, and called for a “one-state solution” which many see as a subterfuge for using Arab demographic expansion to end the Jewish majority in Israel and thus, via democratic plebiscite, to convert the Jewish state into a Muslim state with a dhimmi-fied Jewish minority. Elsewhere, most prominently on the anti-Israel website “Electronic Intifada” that he founded, he regularly compares Israel to Nazi Germany, and has compared Israeli defensive actions against terrorists as a Zionist holocaust of Palestinians.
It follows therefore, that those who participated in the conference but never uttered a word of balance, or raised any criticism that a putatively academic agenda had been transmogrified into the diatribe of Israel-hatred, knowingly supported the Arab efforts to eliminate the Jewish State.
And that brings us to Amy Kaplan.
Dr. Kaplan is a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania where she teaches courses on the culture of imperialism, comparative perspectives on the Americas, and mourning and memory. Currently she is the president of the American Studies Association and is writing a book about the persistent and powerful working of Zionism in American culture and politics. Her most prominent publication, The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture, has been described by one reviewer as
a typical product of the academic sweatshop. Jargon abounds. The passive voice wraps whole paragraphs in gauze. Long words take the place of short ones; a voice that envisions itself as oppositional and penetrating distinguishes itself chiefly by its unbroken conformity to fashionable views.
But at the same time, the reviewer tells us, she provides real insight into American history and identity. So she seems to be a serious scholar, but at the same time a lackey to the whims of academic fashion and political trends.
She is also a signatory to the pro-Palestinian U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which calls for boycotting Israeli universities and academics, including those who support the Palestinian cause. It is not surprising therefore that she was featured at the BDS conference as the leader of a break-out session on February 4th, titled “Academic Boycott of Israel,” where she told participants how to surreptitiously insert into unrelated classroom material the “reality” of Israeli occupation and oppression of Palestinians. Her comments were captured on video and promptly disseminated via You Tube, giving rise to criticism directed at her and at her host university.
Her instructions came in response to a question from a participant in her break-out session.
Question to Kaplan:
My question falls … on Prof. Kaplan’s call to think about a positive program on BDS .… about teaching in the classroom about BDS …. how can that be formed into pedagogy; especially ….when the course is not dealing directly with material that has to do with Palestine?
Well I don’t know how you can, how you can address the issue if you are not dealing with a course that has no content or relationship to it. But I know that, I mean, you can make courses that have content. I mean, for example, I happen to know you and I know that you’re interested in prisons and the literature and culture about prisons. So you can teach a course on which you included prisons as a really, really big thing, not only in the political life of Palestinians but also in their literature and in their poetry. So that will be kind of an ideal way, you take a thematic course and you bring in themes from this issue. And literature is really a great way to teach students about what’s going on – students who think they know they have an ideological line, a political line, and then they read Darwish, they read, you know, “The Pessoptimist” and it opens up a whole new world — so that’s my answer (emphasis added).
The questioner wants to teach the Palestinian narrative in classes that are not related to the Middle East or the Arab-Israel conflict. Why would a college instructor want to do that? Why would anyone suggest that any aspects of BDS are legitimate themes for classes about other topics… unless, of course, the instructor wants to advance the Palestinian narrative, an essentially political agenda, into the putatively apolitical quest for knowledge that is supposed to take place in the university setting?