A controversial online video promoting this weekend's National Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions conference at the University of Pennsylvania was pulled by organizers at the height of their effort to advance their agenda targeting Israel.
The flap over the video highlights the charged nature of the issue and suggests the tenor likely to be heard at the conference, which is sold out, with more than 300 people expected to attend.
The video contained a clip of the Palestinian-American poet Remi Kanazi, who called for a boycott of "all Israeli goods"; in other venues, he's called for a full cultural boycott of Israel.
At least one professor, Eve Troutt Powell, withdrew her participation after the video went live. It is no longer available online, and Powell declined to comment.
The speakers on the agenda include some of Israel's most strident opponents, with activists who claim that Israel's occupation in the West Bank "recalls the Jim Crow laws of the American South" and that Israelis are "incapable of empathy and compassion for other people."
The fact that the national movement to boycott Israel, known as BDS, is holding its conference here, at the region's most prestigious university, has set off alarm bells in the local Jewish establishment. In response, pro-Israel groups on campus have organized dialogues and programs to help better educate students about Israeli society. The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, in partnership with Hillel and other groups, organized an event featuring Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz.
The long-term impact of the conference, if any, remains to be seen, including whether it will affect the Middle East debate, the efforts of pro-Israel students on campus or the decade-long attempt to liken Israel to apartheid-era South Africa.
Organizer Matt Berkman, a Penn graduate student in political science, said the video was taken down because Kanazi's statement about boycotting all of Israel is shared "by a lot, but not all, of the people who identify" with the movement known as BDS.
"If we erred with the video, it was in not showcasing this particular diversity of opinion within the movement," said Berkman.
Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, saw the video before it was taken down and said it clearly articulated that the goal of the BDS movement is not a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the creation of one Arab-majority state that would, in essence, eliminate Israel as a Jewish state.
Alpert said that by distancing themselves from the video, organizers are hiding "their true agenda. That is disingenuous."
Slated speakers at the conference include keynoter Ali Abunimah, the Palestinian-American journalist who founded Electronic Intifada, which has been described as one of the most popular Web addresses for anti-Israel rhetoric.
According to material compiled by the Anti-Defamation League, Abunimah has written that Hezbollah and Hamas constitute legitimate resistance organizations rather than terrorist entities and he has likened Israel to a fascist state.
The author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, Abunimah has also argued for a one-state resolution of the conflict.
Another slated speaker is Palestinian-American journalist Ahmed Moor, who in a recent piece on The Huffington Post, made clear that his problem goes beyond Israel's presence in the West Bank.
"Many liberal Zionists don't like to acknowledge it," he wrote, but "the process that yielded the land West of the Green Line," meaning Israel proper, "was just as wrong as anything the settlers have done. Its scale was also several magnitudes larger."
More than a third of the listed speakers are Jewish, including Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace.
Listed by the ADL as one of the most anti-Israel groups in the country, Jewish Voice for Peace advocates a resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem, but does not speak to whether such a resolution would end Israel as a Jewish state.
Asaf Romirowsky, acting executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, said the event lacks academic credibility. "This is not a scholarly debate."
Berkman said his group had reached out to several prominent academics, such as Columbia University's Rashid Khalidi. He apparently declined, citing a scheduling conflict.
Berkman's academic adviser at Penn, Ian Lustick, is a well-known critic of Israel and sits on the advisory board of the U.S. chapter of Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, which supports the BDS movement. He has not publicly supported or lent his name to the BDS conference at Penn but he declined to be interviewed for this story to explain why.
His colleague in Penn's political science department, Anne Norton, had withdrawn her participation in response to the video, stating that she was "in sympathy with the BDS movement, but I do not endorse a complete academic and cultural boycott of Israel."
According to Berkman, Norton later changed her mind and has decided to participate.
Berkman said that he has reached out to Jewish groups on campus, arguing that the movement is not extremist. He cited the movement's goal to pressure Israel to end what it calls the occupation, discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel and the Palestinian refugee issue.
"I don't think anybody in the movement is in any way anti-Semitic or wants to drive the Jews into the sea. It's about rights," said Berkman.
Yet most Israelis consider the so-called Palestinian right of return a non-starter because it would likely end Israel as a Jewish, democratic state.
Barry Morrison, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that a number of the speakers have problematic records, but he didn't want to overstate their influence.
"This is the largest gathering of its kind," he said, but "we have to recognize that this is a campaign that has not succeeded elsewhere -- it has not gained traction."
Penn officials released a statement that the university does not support the conference or boycotts of Israel, but some alumni are upset by the decision to allow the conference to take place at all.
"Permitting the holding of the BDS conference on Penn's campus brings shame to Penn, its graduates, faculty and students," alum William Wanger, a Blue Bell attorney, wrote in a letter to Penn president Amy Gutmann. He added that the conference "will create deep divisions" and "promote an atmosphere of intolerance on campus."
Stephen J. MacCarthy, vice president of university communications, responded to Wanger by saying that "the University has repeatedly and forcefully expressed its opposition to the ideas underpinning the BDS movement."
In an interview, MacCarthy said that the university has received about 80 emails from individuals, most of whom weren't alumni, who were upset about the conference.
"The notion and idea of free expression is an important one at a university," he said. "That very important principle is the most challenged when the speech in question is most problematic."