By Sara K. Greenberg
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (JTA) – I never imagined that a day would come when some of the world’s leading corporations would fund calls for Israel’s destruction, let alone at one of the world’s most prestigious universities. But that is exactly what happened last week at Harvard.
My invitation to “Harvard Arab Weekend” promised to provide a “mosaic of perspectives and insights on the most pressing issues in the Arab world.” Many of the panels appeared worthy of the conference’s corporate support from McKinsey & Co, The Boston Consulting Group, Booz Allen Hamilton, Bank Audi, Strategy& and the energy giant Shell. Yet featured prominently on the conference agenda was a panel devoted to the destruction of Israel: “The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement: Accomplishments, Tactics and Lessons.”
The panel’s moderator, Ahmed Alkhateeb, began by noting that a primary goal of the BDS movement is “promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties” in what today is Israel. As President Obama pointed out in 2008, this goal stands in opposition to a “two-state solution” and “would extinguish Israel as a Jewish state.” And in an Op-Ed published in Al Akhbar newspaper, Cal State professor As’ad AbuKhalil, an outspoken advocate of the BDS movement, affirmed that “the real aim of BDS is to bring down the state of Israel.” This is the “unambiguous goal … [and] there should not be an equivocation on the subject.”
He’s right. While Jews are the majority in the democratic state of Israel today, the BDS movement imagines and seeks a state in which Jews would ultimately become the minority, implying the end of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination.
Of course, students have a right to speak their minds freely, and corporate sponsors have a right to donate their money and institutional backing to any political view. But is it appropriate for Harvard University to lend its facilities to a group of activists who are working to eradicate the one Jewish state?
Not everyone at Harvard thinks so. Former Harvard president and current professor Lawrence Summers spoke out in 2002 against calls for Harvard to divest from Israel. When I asked him about last week’s panel, he told me that “promoting BDS is exactly the kind of thing I had in mind when I warned years ago about actions that were anti-Semitic in effect, if not intent.”
“Avoiding censorship, which is right, should not equal sponsorship, which is wrong,” Summers explained. “I am sorry that Harvard, not for the first time, has allowed its good name to be associated with calls to delegitimize Israel.”
The panel at Harvard was not a debate about the goals and merits of BDS – it was an endorsement. Panelists included a vocal supporter of BDS who frequently accuses Israel of “apartheid,” a professor who initiated the American Studies Association academic and cultural boycott and a Presbyterian minister who led the church’s boycott of Israel, as well as MIT professor Noam Chomsky.
Student organizers of the panel told me that Chomsky would provide the “anti-BDS” perspective, and he was introduced as the only voice on the panel to be critical of BDS “tactics.” But Chomsky would have none of it, saying: “It’s interesting that I’m introduced as someone that has criticized BDS tactics; actually, I have strongly advocated for BDS.”
Chomsky also encouraged anti-Israel activists to take a phased approach toward the annihilation of Israel as a Jewish state.
“The one-state option is a good idea in the long run,” he said, “but there’s only one way that I can imagine we can reach it, and that’s in stages.”
The panel discussion left me with an overwhelming sense of sadness. I was sad to see firsthand how BDS encourages Palestinians to reject compromise in pursuit of the destruction of Israel; sad that the student organizers of the conference were unwilling to create a panel of diverse, honest views that would have led to true dialogue; sad that Harvard administrators allowed an event promoting an end to the national existence of the Jewish people to take place under Harvard’s auspices; and sad that the names and institutional prestige of major corporations were used to give legitimacy to the BDS campaign.
I sent inquiries to senior executives at every sponsor company before the conference, but the panel went on. After the conference, a senior McKinsey spokesman wrote to me to apologize for the firm’s involvement with the conference: “The firm does not knowingly associate its name with political issues and debates.”
I believe it is likely that the other corporate sponsors also did not intend to have their funds used to promote the BDS movement.
Corporations and universities should not lend mainstream legitimacy to such a radical and odious movement, nor should they provide funding or resources to events that demonize Israel as this one did.
I hope Harvard and the corporations that sponsored Harvard Arab Weekend – and in doing so sponsored the BDS panel – will publicly pledge to be more vigilant in the future and never again associate their names or provide funding to any movement that seeks to destroy Israel.
Sara K. Greenberg is a joint master’s degree student at the Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School. This piece first appeared in the Harvard Crimson.