Student hosts picking up their Shabbat dinners for Israel across Penn.
February 2012 / Adar 5772
If the University of Pennsylvania’s Israel supporters wanted to grab headlines, they would have staged a ‘made-for-TV’ protest when national leaders of the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction (BDS) Israel gathered at Penn for a three-day conference. But instead they chose to use the BDS conference at Penn as a teachable moment in which they would defuse tensions and set the stage for more effective advocacy.
According to Ronen Weiss, the Jewish Agency’s national shaliach to Hillel, the BDS movement is trying to establish a toehold on North American campuses by engaging student groups, faculty members and community members to boycott Israeli companies and push the university to sever ties with Israeli universities or commercial institutions deemed sympathetic to Israel’s diplomatic or security policies.
“The calls for BDS can vary from boycotting Sabra Hummous to official resolutions of the student senates asking their administrations to boycott Israeli/American companies that are supporting or assisting Israel,” Weiss said.
Sharona Kramer, the Jewish Agency Israel Fellow to Hillel stationed this year at Penn, said she started to receive phone call just prior to winter break from students, including several Birthright Israel alumni, who were upset that Penn was going to host the national BDS conference. Over the break, Kramer spent hours in conference calls with students—who were by then all over the country—to develop an advocacy strategy that revolved around Israel Across Penn, an evening of Shabbat dinners hosted in fraternity houses, dorm lounges and off campus apartments.
The students believed that if they could ‘talk Israel’ with smaller groups of Jewish and non-Jewish friends who would listen to them, they could change the dimensions of the Israel discussion.
“We had discussions and we concluded that we didn’t want to create more awareness about BDS in America,” Kramer said. “(BDS) is a radical and small movement, but the decision for this conference to be held at Penn was disturbing. We wanted to do something positive to engage as many Jewish and non-Jewish students as possible in an authentic way so students could take ownership of the discourse”
With meals, talking points and written materials provided by Hillel, more than 50 students—trained by Rabbis to facilitate meaningful discussions—hosted some 750 guests across the Penn campus as the BDS conference began. The night before, Penn’s Jewish community brought prominent trial lawyer Alan Dershowitz to campus to present his famous ‘case for Israel’ to more than 800 people. A group of students also hosted an Israel-themed party at a bar with the proceeds going to the One Family Fund, an Israeli organization that assists terror victims and their families.
A particularly challenging aspect of Kramer’s job is helping students walk a difficult line between vocally supporting Israel and not alienating campus peers, who might come from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds and may not be well informed on substantive issues. After all, a diverse learning environment is one of the benefits a university education can offer.
“There is a lot of pressure on students, who want to form positive relationships with their fellow students but also be able to express themselves and promote Israel,” she said. “Programs like Israel Across Penn allow them to inform people who already trust them while also acknowledging that there are complicated issues when it comes to Israel.”