On May 4, 2019, a large BDS rally took place at UMass Amherst. BDS is an organization committed to discrediting Israel as a Jewish state and blaming only Israel for the Palestinian refugee problem. In his recent book “Israel Denial: Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism, and the Campaign Against the Jewish State,” Cary Nelson demonstrates how counterproductive BDS is. BDS offers no solution to the Palestinian question. And by questioning Israel’s right to exist, BDS makes compromise on a two-state solution less likely.
UMass will soon host another massive BDS rally on November 12. It’s well known that universities are committed to free speech. Yet, this time the anti-Zionist professors organizing the event seem to have gone too far for the UMass administration. On October 21, UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy released a critical statement about BDS.
The Chancellor wrote that the university “remains firmly opposed” to BDS. He described BDS as seeking to suppress academic freedom, and he was right. The B in BDS stands for boycott. This includes boycotting all Israeli academics from conferences, academic journals, and other forums – simply because of where they come from. Excluding people on the basis of nationality is discrimination, and the Chancellor was correct to denounce it.
The Chancellor also described the upcoming BDS rally as “one-dimensional” and “polarizing.” It is an event in which “only one perspective is shared” and “does little to increase the understanding of such a complex topic like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Subbaswamy even added that BDS “fails to acknowledge the humanity on the Israeli side of the conflict and is considered by many as anti-Semitic.”
A culture of excess and impunity had been developing on the UMass campus. The Chancellor’s statement is the beginning of a correction. Some faculty members have been abusing their academic positions. The problem is not simply that lectures and panels take place in which Israel is attacked. The problem is that faculty members are organizing biased events, designed to attract thousands of anti-Zionists in the region, and that academic departments have “sponsored” these gatherings in the past.
The chief organizer of the two BDS rallies is Sut Jhally, a professor and Chairman of the Communication department. As a Chairman, Jhally holds a management position; contractually, he is not in the faculty unit that enjoys full academic freedom. He is supposed to discharge his duties in a politically neutral manner. He should not be organizing one-sided political events. He should not have committed his own academic department to sponsoring the BDS rally, as he did last May – which is an obvious form of political self-dealing.
There is more. On October 11, the Algemeiner reported how Jhally requires students to compare Israel to German fascism in a multiple-choice test. Jhally shows propaganda films that he has made himself. They contain errors of fact and are framed in a biased manner against Israel. Then he tests students on the films. The Algemeiner reported that at a gathering in Beirut in 2017, Jhally declared, “Students have to watch … If a professor says, ‘We’re gonna watch this, we’re gonna talk about it and it’s on the test,’ they have to watch. We want to make use of that captive audience.”
The majority of professors at UMass do not treat students as a “captive audience” for their political prejudices. But a small number of professors, with their commitment to indoctrination rather than education, can compromise the educational atmosphere of UMass – especially when their courses are part of the required General Education curriculum, as Jhally’s courses are.
Chancellor Subbaswamy has made a principled and encouraging statement. Many students, faculty, staff, including of course the staff at UMass’s vibrant Hillel and Chabad houses, agree with the Chancellor. We are taking action. Action does not mean trying to silence all critics of Israel.
There is a need to affirm the traditional duties of a university professor. Today, UMass Amherst is beginning to do so. The Faculty Senate has appointed a special committee to look into how departments sponsor events, and to suggest some guiding principles. As of the time I am writing this, no academic departments have sponsored the upcoming BDS rally. The only academic sponsor is the “Resistance Studies Initiative” – a single endowed professorship funded by an anonymous donor. Finally, unlike last May, the fliers for the upcoming BDS rally contain a disclaimer saying that the speakers do not represent the views of the university.
Those of us who work at UMass cannot solve the intractable Palestinian issue. It is not our job to solve the Middle East’s problems. Professors can try to save the world on their own time but not in their classes, and not by organizing rallies on campus. Our job is to maintain standards of academic excellence and integrity here, at our state-funded university. The Chancellor’s words are encouraging for academics such as myself, who have strong political views but do not propagate them in the classroom.
Those who agree with the Chancellor are beginning to group together to counter the zeal of a relatively small number of professors gone haywire; these fanatical activists who recognize no limits on the expression of their prejudices on a university campus. Time will tell how this disagreement will play out, but UMass Amherst is not caving in to the Dark Side.
Daniel Gordon is a professor of History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.