Despite a lawsuit, a letter of opposition from 80 organizations, and protests by students, faculty and alumni, UMass Amherst is poised to allow a May 4 pro-Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement event at its Fine Arts Center that will feature anti-Israel activists Roger Waters and Linda Sarsour.
According to UMass Amherst, the BDS event, “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech, and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights,” is not a university-sanctioned program, and no university or taxpayer funds are being used to support it. According to UMass, the rental fee for the 1,700-seat hall will be $5,579, and will cover hall workers, security, custodial help and emergency medical personnel. The official sponsor is the Northampton-based Media Education Foundation. But the event raises questions about the university’s position on academic boycotts and the BDS movement since it is also being co-sponsored by the university’s Department of Communication, Department of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies, and Resistance Studies Initiative UMASS.
Earlier this week, a Suffolk Superior Court judge heard a lawsuit brought by students who alleged that in allowing the event, the university had violated the law and its own policies by sponsoring an anti-Semitic rally. The judge planned to rule on the case on Thursday, May 2.
In 2016, UMass Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy said in a statement that the “University of Massachusetts Amherst is opposed to academic boycotts of any kind.” He reaffirmed that last month in a letter to AMCHA Initiative, which represents the 80 organizations that oppose the May 4 event. The 80 organizations range from B’nai B’rith International to the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
In his April 23 letter to AMCHA Initiative, Subbaswamy wrote, “UMass Amherst is committed to fostering a community of dignity and respect and rejects all forms of bigotry. The campus is also firmly committed to the principles of free speech and academic freedom. As such, and as is required of a public institution under the First Amendment, UMass Amherst applies a content-neutral standard when making facilities available to outside organizations for the purpose of holding events.”
The proposed event will feature Waters, Pink Floyd’s co-founder, who compared the Israeli government to Nazi Germany during a 2017 Facebook chat. Also included in the panel is Women’s March co-founder Linda Sarsour, who wrote, “Nothing is creepier than Zionism,” on her Twitter homepage in 2012. In addition, Marc Lamont Hill and Dave Zirin, two other critics of Israel, will appear on the panel.
“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, who is the chairman of the university’s Department of Communication. Jhally also serves as executive director of the Media Education Foundation, the organization that is sponsoring the May 4 event.
In an essay in today’s Jewish Journal, Daniel Gordon, a professor of History at UMass Amherst, asserted that the politicization of academic life on the UMass campus has been “out of control” for many years.
“The BDS event is not only sponsored by some of the academic units on campus, it is organized with major input from the faculty,” Gordon wrote. “Professor Sut Jhally, the chairman of the Communication Department is one of the leading organizers. The chancellor has stated that the BDS event is the effort of a ‘private foundation’ and not the university. But the Media Education Foundation, which is producing the event, was founded by none other than Jhally, who has also served as its long-term executive director.”
Jhally, who earned $177,902 on the state payroll last year as a UMass professor, also was paid $72,974 while serving as executive director of the Media Education Foundation. His film “The Occupation of the American Mind,” was shown by the Unitarian Universalist Church of Marblehead in 2017, and caused dozens of local Jews and Christians to protest outside of the church. Critics said the film embraced traditional anti-Semitic tropes, and conspiracy theories, with the film concluding that Israel created a public relations policy to control the American media.
The Department of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies, which is co-sponsoring the event, is led by Professor Laura Briggs. In 2015, Briggs tweeted “BDS is a feminist issue,” and in 2014, Briggs signed an open letter that affirmed the passage of a BDS resolution at UMass which called “on the graduate students’ employer and their union to divest from and boycott companies that fuel and profit from the military occupation and repression of Palestinians.”
Stephanie Margolis, president of the Student Alliance for Israel and a junior at UMass Amherst, believes the proposed event has made Jewish students uncomfortable and concerned about their safety on campus.
“Jewish students on campus are voicing concerns regarding the upcoming event. Many feel that the event may cause increased incitement and anti-Semitism being that the panelists have been known to be involved with anti-Semitic rhetoric,” said Margolis, of Acton.
“Certainly the event is not creating a platform for open dialogue where students can have a nuanced discussion; rather this panel will further polarize our campus. It is sad, to me, but unfortunately not surprising, to see that departments have sponsored the event, and I believe it is giving a very bad reputation to the university I love.”
Peabody’s Rachel Ellis, a member of the Class of 2021 at UMass Amherst, said she was disappointed that the program was being held on campus and cautioned that the pro-BDS panel “could create a very hostile environment for Jewish students on campus.” She said university departments that sponsor the event are promoting a single viewpoint. “As a result, UMass Students In Alliance For Israel (SAFI) is running a campaign titled Dare 2 Discuss, which opens up a space for constructive dialogue about the conflict at universities. We all may have differences in opinion, but the only way we can learn from each other is through discussion,” she said.
Rabbi Aaron Fine, executive director of Hillel at UMass Amherst said that Hillel has responded to the event by working with student leaders and the university to ensure all Jewish students are safe. This includes supporting a range of student initiatives, directly addressing Jewish community concerns with the UMass Amherst administration, and continuing to organize programming about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that models sophisticated civil discourse aimed toward peace and understanding.
“We are deeply concerned about the ‘Not Backing Down’ event taking place on campus, as are many UMass students, alumni, and community members. The divisive message of the event perpetuates conflict and amplifies polarization through a one-dimensional dogmatic narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We are particularly disconcerted that the event is being co-sponsored by two university departments,” said Fine.