On May 4, activists are staging a star-studded event at UMass Amherst about their refusal to bow to intimidation tactics and shut up about Palestinian human rights. Titled “Not Backing Down,” the forum will feature Roger Waters, Linda Sarsour, Dave Zirin and Marc Lamont Hill.
Sponsors had hoped to bring Hanan Ashrawi from Palestine. But she did not receive a visa over several weeks during which the event was organized. “I think this is something new from the Trump administration,” Professor Sut Jhally said of the delay on Ashrawi’s application. He linked it to the denial of entry to Omar Barghouti last week and said that Trump is “doing the bidding of the Israeli government.”
The University of Massachusetts is coming under pressure locally to shut the forum down. The Anti Defamation League wrote to the UMass chancellor that the event is a threat to “Jewish students’ sense of belonging, as well as their sense of safety and security on campus.” StandWithUs is said to have filed a legal request for email traffic from the school’s administration about the approval and sponsorship of the event, while CAMERA and a group called Americans for Peace and Tolerance, linked with the Islam-basher Charles Jacobs, have also organized to try to force the event off campus.
Anti-semitism is of course the charge. CAMERA said Sarsour traffics in “blood libels” and a “narrative of perpetual Palestinian victimhood at the hands of Israel.” While the Peace and Tolerance group has said Jews have a religious duty going back to Moses to prevent a gathering of anti-Semites:
Moses taught us to intervene to help our fellow Jews. Make your Passover extra kosher: help fight anti-Semitism and help our fellow Jews.
The sponsors are not losing sleep over the campaign. “Universities are one of the last places you can have this kind of discussion,” Jhally says. “People are not backing down. This is precisely what people with tenure should do: have debates and discussions you can’t have anywhere else.”
The venue of a flagship state school is important. The pushback has been intense, Jhally says, because Israel supporters fear that the Palestinian solidarity movement is “being given legitimacy in their minds by the fact that [the event] is taking place at a large public institution.”
The antagonists have written to the Massachusetts governor and the UMass chancellor arguing that no public funds should go to a forum supporting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). The event isn’t about BDS as such; it’s about efforts to shut down debate; and the Media Education Foundation, which is staging the event, took care to pay for the hall and security and even potted plants for the stage so that no state funds would go to the evening.
Several campus entities are sponsoring the event, including Students for Justice in Palestine, the Communications Department, a program in Resistance Studies, and the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies.
“It’s always a serious issue when you’re in print being called an anti-Semite,” says Jeremy Earp of the Media Education Foundation. The same sort of fear-mongering surrounded a screening two years ago of his film, “The Occupation of the American Mind” in Marblehead, Mass. The demonstrators outside the Unitarian church that bravely aired the documentary were red in the face, he said. “They thought we were Nazis. And if I’d read the propaganda they’d been reading about us, I’d have thought it was a Steve Bannon event too!
The Jewish Journal ran an attack last week, describing the event as a pro-BDS panel and characterizing Roger Waters as an anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist. It quoted a spokesperson for the UMass chancellor saying no student group or academic department had provided funds for the event, though those organizations’ decisions to back the event “are a matter of academic freedom and free speech.”
That article excerpted a letter by Robert Trestan, head of the Anti-Defamation League in New England, to UMass-Amherst Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy saying that Jewish students would feel threatened.
“The program, featuring speakers who engage in rhetoric that demonizes the State of Israel and seeks to marginalize its supporters, has raised significant consternation among Jewish students and many others on campus and in the community, who not only care about Israel but worry about civility on campus….
“Regrettably, this event links the university with a discredited concept having a singular outcome: the elimination of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people. Our experience indicates that programs of this nature are highly divisive, impacting Jewish students’ sense of belonging, as well as their sense of safety and security on campus.”…
The student newspaper also ran an article last week by Aviva Rosenschein, a CAMERA campus activist, saying UMass should shut the event because of “blood libels” — and because it did not meet “diversity” requirements.
The panel lacks a diverse viewpoint, and attendants will only hear arguments against the Israeli government’s policies without any scholar to defend those ideas. It’s propaganda unworthy of higher education…. [F]ree speech does not compel UMass, a state-funded university, to endorse this one-sided event. A University-backed lecture should consist of various viewpoints, providing students with a means to better educate themselves and learn how to dialogue and debate with one another respectfully…
Jhally notes that two weeks ago the Israel advocate Dennis Ross (Jews “need to be advocates for Israel”) spoke on campus with the sponsorship of many mainstream groups and there was no balance, and no one tried to shut that down.
Americans for Peace and Tolerance then sent out its “Moses” and “Passover” letter calling on Jews to shut the event down. It said lawyers were hard at work to do so.
Lawyers are constructing a legal challenge to the University to not allow this event on University property, given the University’s public stance against BDS (see their statements on it, here and here), and the fact that sponsoring this conference is a direct refutation of their statements [“Hate Has No Place at UMass“] and their policy on fighting bigotry.
If you are or know students at UMass Amherst or employees there (professors or staff) who would like to help in this effort, please contact Attorney Karen Hurvitz…
“All of this blowback,” Earp said in an email to me, “is a perfect and predictable demonstration of what this panel is actually about: the fact that you can’t raise legitimate questions about U.S. support for Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights without being smeared as an anti-Semitic, terrorist-sympathizing extremist.”
The organizers’ release for the event stresses that each member of the panel has come under pressure not to speak up for Palestinians.
Panelists include: Legendary rocker Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame, who has been repeatedly vilified as an “anti-Semite” for his outspoken criticism of the occupation and his staunch support of a cultural boycott of Israel; Palestinian-American political activist Linda Sarsour, the co-founder of MPower Change and co-chair of the Women’s March, who was recently targeted by a private Israeli intelligence firm as part of a coordinated, U.S.-based campaign to stop her from speaking out against Israeli policies on American college campuses; Marc Lamont Hill, a professor and political commentator who has visited the occupied territories with Black Lives Matter and was fired last year by CNN for remarks he made in support of Palestinian rights; and Nation magazine sports editor and author Dave Zirin, a frequent contributor to MSNBC and ESPN who has been called a “self-hating Jew” for his criticisms of Israeli human rights abuses, his outspoken defense of Ilhan Omar, and his support for NFL players who refused to go on a promotional trip to Israel.
“The vicious smears these four people have been subjected to are part of a systematic effort to change the subject and deflect attention away from the billions of dollars in financial and military aid the U.S. continues to give Israel despite its ongoing violations of international law and Palestinian human rights,” said Sut Jhally, a professor of Communication at UMass and the Executive Director of the Northampton-based Media Education Foundation (MEF), which is organizing the event.
Everyone fully expects the event to come off, by the way. UMass has taken a strong stand in favor of free speech in the context of rightwing speakers coming to campus. The event is free, but you must get a ticket in advance.
Update: This post first reported that Hanan Ashrawi had reportedly been denied a visa. Our new understanding is that she has not received one despite waiting several weeks, and that it is more accurate to describe the process as delay, not denial.