Penn’s president condemns article likening BDS conference to Nazism as ‘counter to her personal values and civility’

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Amy Gutmann
Amy Gutmann

Organizers of the BDS conference (boycott, divestment and sanctions) at the University of Pennsylvania this weekend are facing mounting incitement against the conference and rising security costs. Today they called on Penn president Amy Gutmann to condemn an article in the school newspaper that called their work “genocidal” and likened them to Nazis. Tonight Gutmann’s office issued a statement condemning the article.

Their letter deploring the “atmosphere of fear”– and Penn’s president’s response: 

Dear President Gutmann,

We are the organizers of the upcoming BDS conference. First, we want to thank you for upholding our freedom of expression on campus. We would expect no less from such a prestigious university.

The purpose of this letter is to express our deep and serious dismay at the opinion piece published in yesterday’s Daily Pennsylvanian by Professor Ruben Gur of Penn’s Department of Psychiatry, Radiology and Neurology. With no evidence whatsoever, and in complete contradiction to every statement we’ve ever issued, Professor Gur designates our student group “genocidal” and equates our upcoming conference with Nazi anti-Semitism. He compares our Jewish participants and student organizers to “Capos”–that is, Jews who policed other Jews in German concentration camps–and accuses us of attempting to bring a second Holocaust to Penn. 

Statements like these by a tenured professor in a school newspaper are not only outrageous, deplorable, and frankly unprecedented, but they also incite against and endanger both the speakers and organizers of this weekend’s conference. This is not only our opinion: in response to this op-ed, Officer Leddy of the Penn police has called an emergency meeting to consider increasing the security at the conference, at significant cost to our group.

Tenure does not, on our understanding of it, permit professors to incite hostility and aggression against students with whose political positions they disagree. Professor Gur has created an atmosphere of fear for PennBDS members and our guests. We hope you will publicly condemn his article and seek whatever administrative redress might be available to ensure nothing like this happens in the future.

It is the University’s responsibility and burden to protect its students. This includes both safeguarding our physical security at events like our conference and taking all appropriate action against language with the potential to incite.

And the response to Penn BDS from Gutmann’s office:

Thank you for your note concerning the letter to the editor of the Daily Pennsylvanian by Professor Gur, a faculty member who does not represent the University in this matter.  President Gutmann asked that I respond on her behalf.
Much of Dr. Gutmann’s academic career has been devoted to the importance of civil discourse to a democratic society.  It is always unfortunate when people make personal or ad hominem attacks against others in the course of that discourse.  This kind of attack is counter to her personal values and the goal of civility on campus.
It is, however, neither possible, nor consistent with the value of free expression, for me or the Administration to intervene in the exchange of words that will inevitably occur in the context of highly controversial and deeply emotional issues.   It is not an appropriate role (nor that of the University’s), to be the referee of individual’s comments, regardless of how overheated or ill-advised they may be.
We certainly appreciate the concern that you feel over this matter.  We are doing everything we can to ensure the safety of all participants in this debate.
Steve MacCarthy

Stephen J. MacCarthy
Vice President for University Communications
University of Pennsylvania

Here is Ali Abunimah condemning the incitement and reporting that he has also challenged Gutmann:

Whenever you think that smears against the Palestinian solidarity movement cannot get more inflammatory or sickening, something new appears. In the latest shot against the upcoming boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) conference at the University of Pennsylvania next weekend, the movement is being openly compared to Nazism by a University of Pennsylvania professor.

I have written to University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann asking her to speak out against these smears and noting that I wish to quote her response in my conference speech.

Ruben Gur, a professor in the Departments of Psychiatry, Radiology & Neurology at UPenn, writes in The Daily Pennsylvanian:

‘The purpose of BDS as presented seems similar to what was apparently stated in their version of “Mein Kampf” (I am referring to Omar Barghouti’s book titled “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions”) and base my understanding of it on the article in the Harvard Crimson….

‘The aim of the hateful and discriminatory BDS rhetoric is to delegitimize Israel in preparation for the ultimate goal of its destruction. A relevant precedent for such a movement is the groups organized by the Nazis in the 1930’s to boycott, divest and sanction Jews and their businesses. Sadly, now as then, there are Jews among the posse in the assault on their own people. The macabre sight of the likes of Stella Kübler, (arguably Hannah Arendt) and the Capos in the extermination camps is about to be replayed here at Penn.’

Gur is apparently a former Israeli soldier and served as an expert witness in the defense of Ramzi bin al Shibh, a Guantanamo detainee whom the US accuses of involvement in the 11 September 2001 attacks.

Meantime, speaking to the Jewish Federations in Philadelphia tonight, Alan Dershowitz has described the BDS conference as a gathering of bigots. He attacked the “misguided students” who support BDS and congratulated Penn for “the remarkable letter written by your president in support of Israel.” Look yourself in the mirror, he challenges students who support BDS, and ask why you’re singling Israel out for human rights violations.

Name a country that in 63-and-a-half years has contributed more to the welfare of the world [than Israel]… It has probably saved more Arab and Muslim lives than all the Arab and Muslim countries together…. It has taught the world how to fight terrorism without compromising human rights…

Here is Max Blumenthal’s takedown of Dershowitz’s record in the Daily Pennsylvanian.

Indeed, Dershowitz is an open advocate of torture who has urged Israel to destroy entire Palestinian villages, attack civilians and bulldoze their homes. Despite Dershowitz’s professed concern for political dissidents living under autocratic regimes, he has called for personal retaliation against Israeli academics who speak out in favor of BDS. Meanwhile, Dershowitz routinely smears high-profile critics of Israel’s 45-year-long occupation as evil anti-Semites — and worse.

And remember this too: Gutmann signed a letter on behalf of Marty Peretz at Harvard a couple of years back.

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It is, however, neither possible, nor consistent with the value of free expression, for me or the Administration to intervene in the exchange of words that will inevitably occur in the context of highly controversial and deeply emotional issues. It is not an appropriate role (nor that of the University’s),… Read more »

i don’t know the east coast. i really don’t know the east coast. but i do know if this were happening in berkeley it would likely triple the attendance of the conference. it really makes me curious how many people take this rampage of emotion thrown on the conference seriously.… Read more »

Well, I guess there’s nothing left to talk about? We were bound to come to this point sooner or later.

I don’t see a condemnation from her. In fact, she doesn’t even sign her own name to the letter – perhaps because even her milquetoast ” [t]his kind of attack is counter to her personal values and the goal of civility on campus” will be deemed detrimental to fundraising. University… Read more »

Phil–Ali Abunimah doesn’t agree with you. We love you, Phil. But you tend to see the half-empty glass as approaching full.