AMHERST – “I told you that I wanted you nowhere near that event,” read my mother’s text as I sat and waited for “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech, and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights” to begin.
I told her not to worry; there were at least two dozen state police vehicles in various locations surrounding the building for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions rally. Outside, there were no visible protests from either Jewish or Muslim students. Still, police officers were on standby, strategically placed by the entrances and exits of the Fine Arts Center. Everyone was required to empty their pockets, get their bags checked, throw out any liquids, walk through a metal detector, and get scanned for possible weapons with a handheld metal detector. I understood these precautions were supposed to make me feel safe, but safe was the last thing I felt as I walked through a sea of anti-Zionists who waited anxiously for Roger Waters and Linda Sarsour to denounce Israel.
I purposefully sat next to a man wrapped in an Israeli flag – I was afraid to sit with supporters of the event, knowing my beliefs made me unwelcome in their presence. In a thick Israeli accent, he explained why he felt being there was important. His daughter was a student at the school, and he wanted to show support for his child and his home country. He showed me the multiple alerts he had received that day about rockets being fired into Israel. My heart sank as his phone played the sound of the sirens that rang through the country we consider our home.
At the beginning of the event, a panel member, BDS activist Dave Zirin, mentioned that a rocket had been fired from Israel into Gaza that day. In truth, more than 250 rockets were launched that day from Gaza into Israel. I scoffed at the lack of context given to the situation, and quickly realized that their definition of “free speech” meant picking and choosing what information made their stance look as persuasive as possible.
I became irritated with the amount of time spent on discussing why the event was not anti-Semitic. I thought, “If large populations of Jewish people are calling you anti-Semitic, maybe you should step back and rethink your strategies and purpose of your movement,” as the panel members listed off reasons as to why they weren’t anti-Semitic. They claimed that calling the BDS movement anti-Semitic undermined “real” acts of anti-Semitism and boasted about how they were the “least anti-Semitic people” to exist.
Sarsour, a Muslim-American of Palestinian descent who is co-founder of the Women’s March and a leader of the BDS movement, told us that there is nothing anti-Semitic about criticizing the state of Israel. But her words and tone suggested otherwise.
Disgust flowed through my body. Were they aware that “Israeli state” and “Jewish state” are interchangeable terms? I wanted to scream, “You’ve spent 30 minutes of a two-hour presentation listing every reason why you aren’t anti-Semitic; don’t you think that’s a statement within itself?” Could they not process the fact that anti-Zionism is inherently anti-Semitic? Did they understand that anti-Semitism comes in all shapes and sizes?
As they spoke, I found myself wanting to ask: “You claim to love and support the Jewish people, but you don’t think their home country is a legitimate state? You swear up and down that you stand with the victims of anti-Semitism, but choose to stay silent when Israelis are attacked in their own homes by Palestinian terrorists? You scream, ‘Free Speech!’ but work toward silencing the Jewish people defending their homeland?”
Every five minutes or so, the crowd would give a standing ovation. Most of the people stood and cheered after panels degraded Israelis and demonized Israel. Any statement that included the phrases “apartheid,” “freedom,” or “racism” was greeted with thunderous applause and raised fists.
While I had hoped that there would be a fair discussion about the conflict, I realized that the event was a rally that called for the destruction of the Jewish state and all people who supported it. The panelists claimed that the people who agreed with them would be on the “right side of history,” and continuously compared the Israel-Palestine conflict to racial injustices throughout the history of the United States.
As I listened to the speakers, I was reminded why I had felt so uncomfortable on campus this past year. In the fall, a student who opposed white supremacists had placed a sign condemning Nazis in her dorm window. In an email to the student, a UMass residence director objected to the sign and requested that it be taken down. “There are some in the community who have expressed that the sign should be taken down as it has created mixed emotions in the community on how to proceed, issues of inclusion, and the ability to be active members of their community,” he wrote.
Since that occurred late last year, my family and I have been worried about not only whether or not I was welcome at UMass, but also my safety.
After attending the anti-Israel event held on my own campus, it is clear that my beliefs and religion have made me an enemy to some students and faculty at UMass. This has left me feeling angry and heartbroken. I hope to see the day where my faith, beliefs, and ideas are welcome by all members of the UMass Amherst community.
However, I have accepted that a day when we are welcome and fully accepted may never arrive.
Mae-Lou Zaleski, of Danvers, is a freshman at UMass Amherst.