UMass SJP open letter to chancellor on statement attacking BDS

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Editor’s Note: The following is a statement from UMass Amherst Students for Justice in Palestine. Mondoweiss occasionally publishes press releases and statements from organizations in an effort to draw attention to overlooked issues.

Open Letter to Chancellor Subbaswamy:

The UMass Amherst Students for Justice in Palestine read your statement on October 21st, 2019 regarding the November 12th panel event titled: “The Attack on BDS [Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions] & American Democracy.” We were appalled that as Chancellor of a University which prides itself on being “revolutionary” you would use your position of power to alienate students and provide false information regarding the reality of the non-violent, non-anti-Semitic, Palestinian-led BDS movement.

Chancellor, your statement did not even include a link to the website of BDS so students could research the movement for themselves and come to their own conclusions. It is not only extremely troubling that you used your powerful and influential position to control the narrative of BDS, but it is also contradictory to your advocacy of the “free exchange of ideas.” How can these ideas be freely exchanged if you are controlling the information that students have access to thus keeping them from engaging in free rational deliberation that our democracy desperately needs and which both SJP and BDS strongly support?

In the movement’s own words: “The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement works to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.”

The allowance of Israel into the United Nations General Assembly was predicated on the requirement that they allow the Right to Return for Palestinian refugees. For 50+ years this has not been fulfilled and the conditions of the occupation have led to grave human suffering on all sides. BDS recognizes this suffering and factually locates it in the violent occupation of Palestine by the Israeli government which has been documented by human rights organizations for engaging in extreme human rights abuses (unlawful killings, unlawful detention and abuse of children, illegal settlements and home demolition, institutional discrimination, and more). BDS urges people around the globe to speak truth to power by engaging in historically non-violent tactics used by the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and the South-African anti-apartheid movement to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel for the purposes of freeing Palestinians from underneath Israel’s spiked boot.

The movement itself has thousands of Jews around the world, including some in Israel, calling for the BDS’ objectives: to end the occupation and dismantle the Wall that segregates Palestinians in their occupied land from Israel; the recognition of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel full and equal access to citizenship because they currently live under an apartheid regime, and the enforcement of Palestinian refugees’ (the largest refugee population in the world) internationally mandated right to return to the homes from which they have been forcibly removed as stipulated in U.N. Resolution 194.

BDS is a direct response to the grave and despicable lack of care for life shown by a government that has the most power, most money for weapons (largely due to U.S. military aid), and most protection for engaging in these inhumane acts. BDS, our group, and the panelists on November 12th take a firm stance against violence. What we are advocating for is boycotting, a traditional non-violent tactic of social movements; divesting from the resources that make this occupation possible, and sanctioning a country that has routinely, factually violated human rights. Any individual with information about the facts on the ground and who has read what the movement is about will come to the logical conclusion that BDS is not an anti-Semitic position. There very well may be people in this world who use BDS to hide behind their anti-Semitism, but those few cannot speak for the movement itself which profoundly rejects all forms of racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination including anti-Semitism.

The statement you wrote is in and of itself polarizing and does not recognize that Israel is engaging in illegal military occupation of Palestinians with large support from the United States, and now this institution’s complicity through silencing and controlling the narrative. We are confident that you did not take into account how Palestinian students would feel reading a statement that implicitly, arguably explicitly, says we do not support your community. You did not take into account anti-Zionist students, Muslim students, Black students, and other students of color whose struggle for liberation in the United States is directly tied to the liberation of the Palestinian people. In an age marked by strict scrutiny for people who advocate on behalf of and speak out for Palestinian Freedom, your words jeopardized the safety of our group members and other students who see BDS as a necessary act of solidarity by your public demonization and clear support for an anti-BDS stance. We and other students on this campus do not feel welcome here because you as the representative of this University do not recognize the nonviolent movement of BDS as legitimate, and in fact, see it as worthy of public shaming. There is an ad being circulated on Facebook by the Israel on Campus Coalition, a Zionist organization, praising you for your “anti-BDS statement” and for “reminding us that boycotts divide people and that’s part of the problem, not the solution”. Finally, you wrote this statement trying to represent the feelings of Jewish students on campus while not considering the fact that there are Jewish students who see the freedom of Palestinians to be at the core of what their Judaism teaches. Shame on you, Chancellor, and other administrators who were a part of writing and/or approving your statement.

You have been cited in the past by student leaders saying: “Rallies are not the way to talk about this issue, we’re a university, if you want to talk about these things bring academics.” In your letter, you said, “a panel discussion where only one perspective is shared does little to increase the understanding of such a complex topic.” The panel on November 12th: “Criminalizing Dissent: The Attack on BDS and American Democracy” has incredibly intelligent academics and scholars, including but not limited to: Dr. Cornel West, a Harvard Professor, civil rights scholar and activist; Shaun King, who was invited by Amherst College two years ago because of his enlightening work as a journalist; Dina Khalidi, the founder Palestine Legal who does legal advocacy work to protect people’s civil and constitutional rights that are infringed when speaking out for Palestinian rights, and Omar Barghouti, the founder of BDS who will be skyping in as voice that will further give factual, clarifying information regarding the BDS movement.

Far from a “one perspective” panel, six outstanding panelists from multiple different identities will come together to share their six unique perspectives informed by their lived experiences on the issues surrounding the factual occurrence of BDS criminalization and its dangerous implications for American democracy. The point that you must be against Chancellor is the shared understanding among these panelists that we have a right and duty to boycott, divest and sanction governments and institutions that contribute to the devaluation of human lives, in this case, Palestinian lives. What you must be saying then is that discussion around Israel and Palestine is only legitimized when we include the voices of those who contribute to the oppression of Palestinians.

This event is explicitly discussing the ways that criminalizing the first amendment right to BDS has been normalized in our country. Federally, there have been multiple instances, including the first Senate bill of 2019.  Twenty-seven states currently prohibit BDS and there is legislation being introduced in Massachusetts (House No. 2719 which will be heard at the statehouse on November 19). This attack on BDS nationally is now manifesting in this university which is dedicated to “being revolutionary.” There is nothing revolutionary about silencing the voices of those marginalized, thus reproducing and normalizing the systems that produce those conditions. BDS is saying that there is legitimacy in non-violent protests against a state that has engaged unequivocally in illegal inhumane abuses of the rights of a population solely because of their nationality. This movement is about standing up for people who have been bombed into submission, who cannot freely move about the homes that their loved ones and ancestors have cultivated for centuries; and most importantly it is about recognizing that safety cannot come at the expense of keeping a group of people in bondage.

We believe that racist ethno-supremacism should, in fact, be challenged on campus. We also believe that dissent is a powerful tool that the student body can use to voice their rejection of Zionism, white supremacy, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other oppressive ideologies. Chancellor, in your statement you claimed that such a challenge would entail actual, physical or psychological violence against individual Zionist students reflects a racist—but all-too-common—strategy that depicts pro-Palestinian advocacy as inherently prone to violence, escalation, and ‘terrorism.’

On Tuesday, October 29th Benny Morris, an Israeli historian, is coming to campus sponsored by multiple University departments. He has made extremely anti-Palestinian and Islamaphobic comments including the justification for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. In an interview, Morris justified the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the land. The lack of concern you have shown for this event and your failure to prioritize the safety and security of students has disillusioned many of us, including Palestinian students, Muslim students and those in solidarity on our campus; and has made the double standards very clear- we will not be silent about them.

Chancellor, we are demanding that you retract your October 21st statement on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement; acknowledge and apologize for the lack of inclusion that this letter failed to address and the alienation that this letter produced for Palestinians students and other students in solidarity with the BDS movement as well as for those advocating for the liberation and justice for all in Palestine. Finally, we are demanding that the university make a clear public statement explaining the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism to prevent future flagrant and dangerous accusations of anti-Semitism.


The Members of the UMass Amherst Students for Justice in Palestine

[see full list of signatories here]

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A few statements by Benny Morris, before he rolled over for his Zionist masters: In 2004, when asked by Ha’aretz journalist, Ari Shavit, what new information his just completed revised version of The Birth of the Palestinian Problem 1947-1949 would provide, historian Benny Morris replied: “It is based on many documents that were not available to me when I wrote the original book, most of them from the Israel Defense Forces Archives. What the new… Read more »

I have no connection to UMass, but nor am I a dispassionate observer. In September 2017, three professors at UMass Amherst who learned that I was to speak there about Israel-Palestine, organised a letter-writing campaign to stop it. The letter accused me of “supporting ‘identity-based hate’ against Jewish people.” As “evidence” against me, they invoked the inventions of two notorious pro-Israeli propagandists in the UK. Thanks to the efforts of UMass Amherst Students for Justice… Read more »