UMass Amherst faculty respond to chancellor statement attacking BDS panel

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On November 12, the Media Education Foundation of Northampton, Mass, whose director is Sut Jhally, Prof. of Communication at UMass Amherst, and the Resistance Studies Initiative will be presenting a panel discussion on the UMass campus entitled “Criminalizing Dissent: The Attack on BDS and American Democracy.” Among the speakers will be Linda Sarsour, Cornell West, and also Omar Barghouti (by skype).  Pro-Israel organizations and news outlets have been attacking the event and Jhally’s work, and on October 21 UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy issued a statement that, while allowing the event to happen, was extremely critical of it. In response, several faculty members wrote the following open letter and sent it out for signatures, garnering 121 signatures so far, though that number might yet increase.  The letter, which was sent to the chancellor this morning [10/29], is reproduced below.

Open Faculty Letter to UMass Amherst Chancellor Subbaswamy

We, the undersigned UMass Amherst faculty, express our deep disappointment and dismay at the recent statement from Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy regarding the upcoming November 12 event at the Fine Arts Center entitled “Criminalizing Dissent: The Attack on BDS and American Democracy.” The event is sponsored by the Media Education Foundation of Northampton, MA, whose director, Sut Jhally, is Professor of Communication here at UMass. While we appreciate the chancellor’s stated commitment to freedom of speech, and his refusal to cancel either this event or the equally controversial event that occurred on May 4, his recent statement falls far short of the robust defense of academic freedom, and the integrity of the campus community, that we expect of our chancellor. Indeed, whether wittingly or not, his statement lends credence and legitimacy to the claims of those who have been fighting to silence criticism of Israeli violations of human rights, and to vilify those who publicly press these criticisms, including students, faculty, and staff on this campus.

There are three points in particular that concern us. First, the chancellor apparently accepts the totally unwarranted characterization of the event as “troubling,” “based on its title and past statements by its panelists,” without giving one example of any statement from any of the panelists that would be cause for alarm. He goes on to misrepresent the BDS movement by saying it “fails to acknowledge the humanity on the Israeli side of the conflict and is considered by many as anti-Semitic.” In fact, BDS acknowledges Israeli Jewish humanity precisely by eschewing violence and engaging in this time-honored nonviolent tactic, one common to both the civil rights struggle in this country and to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Furthermore, while hiding behind the vague qualification “considered by many,” the chancellor offers legitimacy to the charge of anti-Semitism, which in fact has no basis in this case. While some of us support BDS and others do not, we are all opposed to the weaponizing of the anti-Semitism charge against activists of good faith opposing what they see as injustice.

Second, the chancellor criticizes the event for being a “one-dimensional, polarizing event.” It is “polarizing” largely because of the unreasonable response to it. Supposedly it is “one-dimensional” because there are no anti-BDS voices on the panel. While it is often a good idea to have debates on controversial issues like this one, it is extremely common for departments and student organizations to sponsor presentations that mainly support one side. In fact, many of us see it as a part of the mission of the university to ensure that legitimate positions that are marginalized by the mainstream media and those in political power get a special hearing. Moreover, in this case the panelists represent a great diversity of experience and expertise; to call the event “one-dimensional” disrespects the individuality of the voices they bring. We also wonder, has the chancellor expressed similar concerns about the invitation to Benny Morris, who has explicitly expressed extreme and dehumanizing views about Palestinians? We are not advocating his exclusion from campus, but we do note the apparent inconsistency in the chancellor’s response.

Which brings us to the third point, the chancellor’s expressed concern for the feelings of Jewish students and the possibility that the event might alienate them. While we acknowledge the often strong feelings of Jewish students on this issue, how are Palestinian students, other students of color, and Muslim students, many of whom see a genuine connection between struggles for equality and dignity in the United States and the Palestinian struggle, supposed to feel when the chancellor demeans the voices of leading civil rights leaders, including Angela Davis, Linda Sarsour, and Cornel West? Furthermore, many of us, along with many of the student activists who support BDS, are Jewish and feel erased when what are clearly political pro-Israeli positions and sentiments are identified as Jewish ones. How is the chancellor’s denigration of BDS supporters, Jews and non-Jews alike, an exercise in “inclusion”?

We are not naïve and understand the pressure being brought to bear on the campus administration over events like this one. But it is precisely our awareness of the political context that makes us so alarmed by the chancellor’s statement. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a bill condemning BDS, and 27 states have already passed laws punishing advocates of BDS (a Massachusetts bill of this sort will be the subject of a hearing at the statehouse on November 19). These facts make clear that there is a nationwide, well-funded, and well-coordinated attack on public criticism of Israel. What we expect from our administrators is a robust defense of our academic freedom and especially the integrity and good name of our faculty, students, and staff. Swamy, you can do better than this.

For the full list of signatures, updated daily, please click here.

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The letter rings true in every way. The Chancellor should be ashamed of himself and of those to whom he kowtows. He came to the US and made very, very good. As usual, those in power in US academics cater to their donors and complainers (they are often the same and their voices mean more than the average Jane or Joe). From his bio: “Kumble R. Subbaswamy became the 30th leader of UMass Amherst July… Read more »

It’s INFURIATING that so much effort is being sidetracked from action and advocacy for freedom, justice, and equality in Palestine to defense of civil liberties and academic freedom in the U.S. I think we should try to craft our petitions and opinion writing so that Palestine, not the U.S., is the lede.