UMass Amherst chancellor calls on organizers of Palestine event to include pro-Israel side for ‘dialogue’

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That forum on Palestine next Saturday night at UMass just keeps getting wilder all the time– the effort to shut it down, that is.

Aptly titled, “Not Backing Down,” the May 4 forum features Roger Waters, Linda Sarsour, Marc Lamont Hill, Dave Zirin and Sut Jhally speaking about the pressure to shut up about Palestine.

First the ADL wrote to the university chancellor to say the panel would divide students and threaten “Jewish students’ sense of belonging, as well as their sense of safety and security on campus.” But the ADL and others failed to get the university to stop the event, so then 80 rightwing pro-Israel groups called on UMass to strip its name and department sponsors from the panel because the panel could spark “violence” and “hostility” against Jewish students.

Now some students have sued UMass to shut the panel down in the name of Jewish safety. And the university chancellor has bowed somewhat to the pressure and told the panel that yes it has free speech but the sponsors have a “special obligation” to bring in opposing points of view, lest the event turns into an “echo chamber” that “simply affirm[s] preconceived notions.” (Yes, we thought there was apartheid before we went to the event; now we think it’s really apartheid…)

Here’s some of that statement from Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy. After the boilerplate about academic freedom and the responsibility of the university to permit the free flow of ideas– and repeated note that a private foundation paid for the event — Subbaswamy bends over backwards to the rightwing opposition to the panel and instructs the organizers to have varying points of view.

Kumble Subbaswamy, chancellor of UMass Amherst

Some faculty members have also observed that with academic freedom comes “special obligations.”

In today’s hyper-polarized environment, we increasingly find ourselves living in our own echo chambers where our opinions are validated by like-minded individuals, and the meaningful exchange of ideas is exceedingly rare. Unless we allow audiences to hear differing points of view, the discussion, instead of being one that opens minds, will simply affirm preconceived notions. I encourage university professors to exercise that special obligation and find meaningful ways of bringing opposing sides together to have deeper dialogues among those who hold differing opinions on the issues of the day.

The phrase “special obligations” originates in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which, given the lively discussion on campus regarding next week’s event, is worth revisiting. The Principles state that “College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations… Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.”

So Subbaswamy is urging the organizers to include the pro-Israel side in the discussion so there’s a dialogue. There was no such demand when Dennis Ross (American Jews “need to be advocates for Israel” not Palestine) came to campus. Subbaswamy inadvertently confirms the point of the panel: there’s really just one point of view on Israel allowed in official circles. And his stance reminds me of the case five years ago, when Rev. Bruce Shipman lost his chaplaincy at Yale for a three-sentence letter he wrote to the New York Times saying the 2014 massacre in Gaza would foster anti-Semitism. Prestige institutions can’t be associated with pro-Palestinian voices.

Organizer Jeremy Earp, production director of the Media Education Foundation, responds in an email to the repeated claim that the event is one-sided propaganda:

“What’s gotten lost in all these attacks on the event as this one-sided propaganda-fest is that the event itself is an attempt to push back against the overwhelmingly one-sided narrative about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in US media. For years, there’s been rock-solid bipartisan support for Israel in Congress, pro-Israel voices have dominated in mainstream coverage of the conflict, and whenever pro-Palestinian voices have managed to break through and call attention to the occupation they’ve been attacked as anti-Semites and terrorists. The entire point of this event from the start was to create a space outside this one-sided propaganda frame where some pro-Palestinian voices can be heard. And now the demand is for more diversity of opinion. It’s Orwellian.”

As for the the lawsuit intended to shut the UMass event down, it was evidently organized by Americans for Peace and Tolerance, a group linked to Charles Jacobs of Islam-bashing fame, which invoked Jewish religion as a cause for action: “Moses taught us to intervene to help our fellow Jews.”

The Boston Herald wrote up the suit and publicized the group’s claim that the event is an “anti-Semitic rally.”

University of Massachusetts Amherst students outraged that the campus is set to host an event featuring Palestinian activists are hoping a judge boots the event off campus.
A lawyer for the students on Thursday filed an emergency motion against UMass officials in Suffolk Superior Court, asking the court to order UMass Amherst to kick the May 4 forum off the Western Mass. campus…

“These departments are basically sponsoring a hate-fest,” attorney Karen Hurvitz, representing the students, said Thursday evening. “They need to move this rally off campus and not sponsor it in any way… If the Preliminary Injunction is not granted, and the anti-Semitic rally detailed in the Complaint is allowed to take place, Plaintiff students will suffer immediate and irreparable harm,” Hurvitz wrote.

Here is Sut Jhally, UMass communications chair and organizer of the event, responding via email to charges of anti-Semtism:

All of this is classic propaganda: do everything you can to re-frame the discussion, then control that frame by attacking and trying to silence anybody who dares to have a different perspective….

The strategy is to link Israel to Jews so that the two become interchangeable. That way, if you dare to criticize what Israel is doing, you automatically get labelled an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew. It’s a brilliant strategy because it means there’s no way to criticize Israeli government policy without being labeled a bigot. The danger, of course, is that it waters down the meaning of anti-Semitism and conceals the dangers of how anti-Semitism actually operates in the real world.”

Some of Hurvitz’s other opinions, from the “Times of Israel”: “Palestine is not a nationality.” There is no occupation.

Israel’s undeniable right to establish homes in the West Bank… Israel is the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people and has been continuously for over 3,000 years as evidenced not only in hundreds of references throughout the Bible but also in countless archeological relics…

Oh and the Boston Herald has an editorial condemning the event and the school, but not saying it should be shut down.

Leaders at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst continue to show their rigid, radical-left principles, even when called out on them.

Here is Jeremy Earp on the hate-fest charge:

“It’s pretty ironic that the lead lawyer on this lawsuit has branded our event a ‘hate fest’ when for weeks now the people on this panel have been targeted and attacked with the most hate-filled smears imaginable. In the most casual of ways, a succession of local and national groups have branded these people anti-Semites and terrorist-sympathizers who pose a grave threat to the emotional well-being of UMass students. What these guardians of emotional well-being haven’t mentioned, of course, is that this panel discussion is about exactly the kinds of hateful smears and attacks these groups have been using for years to discredit and vilify anyone who dares to criticize Israeli policy and speak up for Palestinian rights. The goal with all these bad-faith protests clearly isn’t to protect UMass students from hatred or to make the campus safe for civil discussion and debate. It’s to shut down discussion and debate about the billions of dollars of aid the United States gives to Israel despite its increasingly authoritarian policies and its violations of Palestinian human rights.”


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Re the topic of trying to shut down the discussion, this just happened: A federal court in Texas issued a ruling on Thursday afternoon preliminarily enjoining enforcement of Texas’ law banning contractors from boycotting Israel. The court ruled that the law plainly violates the free speech guarantee of the First Amendment. Following similar decisions by federal courts in Kansas and Arizona, the ruling becomes the third judicial finding – out of three who have evaluated… Read more »

“Some of Hurvitz’s other opinions, from the “Times of Israel”: “Palestine is not a nationality.” There is no occupation. Israel’s undeniable right to establish homes in the West Bank… Israel is the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people and has been continuously for over 3,000 years as evidenced not only in hundreds of references throughout the Bible but also in countless archeological relics…” Uh, this is the first you mention her in this article. Is… Read more »

“in the name of Jewish safety. ”

I thought Zionism was supposed to turn Jews into tough guys who didn’t need protection.

“Palestine is not a nationality.”

How does this justify ethnic cleansing?

“Israel is the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people”

What does this mean?

” and has been continuously for over 3,000 years”

But for over a thousand of those years, most Jews have lived outside the territory. Does this make a difference? If not, why is the continuity important?

I am so fed-up with this. There are no ‘two-sides’ and there is no ‘debate’ when it comes to settler-colonialism and apartheid. Was the pro-South African apartheid side called on to explain the merits of their position in anti-apartheid events? Settler-colonialism is a crime against humanity and it’s the crime we must focus on, not on who happens to be committing it. Where there is an imbalance of power and abuse of power, there are… Read more »