AMHERST – For the second time this year, high-profile backers of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, known as BDS, spoke at the UMass-Amherst campus, which again sparked controversy over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In response to the Nov. 12 event, UMass Hillel and other student groups that support Israel sponsored their own action, “End Polarization: Promote Peace.” The march attracted more than 100 people. Afterward, a Hillel program included a chance for students to gather socially and talk in small group conversations.
The panel discussion, “Criminalizing Dissent: The Attack on BDS and Pro-Palestinian Speech,” featured Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour; Cornel West, a prominent Harvard professor on race and a proponent of BDS; BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti, who spoke via Skype from Israel, and others.
It was presented by the Media Education Foundation, a private group founded by Sut Jhally, chair of UMass-Amherst’s communications department, a filmmaker and harsh critic of Israel. It was copresented with the Resistance Studies Initiative, a program at UMass.
UMass Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy said in a statement, “When outside organizations come onto our campus and give a high-profile platform for one-sided and divisive political positions that some view as deeply offensive, they are saying to valued members of our community that they don’t belong. This is the antithesis of our commitment to inclusion, and we will not hesitate to speak out against efforts to divide our campus community.”
Hillel, the AMCHA Initiative (a national organization that combats anti-Semitism on college campuses), and other pro-Israel groups spoke against the talk.
“Many students and members of the UMass community feel deeply upset by the scale, tenor, and dogmatic messages of the anti-Israel events,” said Rabbi Aaron Fine, the campus Hillel’s executive director.
Among the student leaders at Hillel who organized the peace march was Benjamin Alvarez-Dobrusin, a junior from Marblehead who is active in with Student Alliance for Israel and Bridge the Divide, a group that reaches out to non-Jewish student leaders, including the Muslim Student Association.
He was excited to see a large number of students who don’t want to see divisive rhetoric on campus.
“It struck me how many people are supporting a message of peace and collaboration,” he said.
The march ended at the Newman Center, where student organizers had set up informational tables, food, and handed out free copies of “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” a book by Yossi Klein Halevi.
Last May, when a similar BDS event took place, a Massachusetts judge refused to ban the event in a legal challenge that argued it was anti-Semitic.
At the time, pro-Israel students did not organize any public event to counter the BDS panel, Alvarez-Dobrusin said. The controversy on campus did galvanize other students, and many more began attending meetings of pro-Israel groups, he said.
This time, working with Hillel leaders, students decided it was very important to respond.
“We want to show there is a whole different community that believes deeply that we can have opposing views,” without demonizing the other side, Alvarez-Dobrusin said before the march.
Alvarez-Dobrusin credited his deep involvement with Israel advocacy to his trip to Israel through the Lappin Foundation. Most noteworthy was that his trip was in the summer of 2014, during the extended conflict with Hamas in Gaza.
“It gave me a deeper insight into the contentious geopolitics of the area,” he said.
At UMass, he got involved with Hillel’s Student Alliance for Israel, which focuses on informational programming.
But it’s his work with Bridging the Divide where the challenging conversations unfold, Alvarez-Dobrusin said. The group reaches out to student leaders in non-Jewish organizations, including the Muslim Student Association and the Arab Cultural Club.
The goal is to build relationships on campus, and the group offers free study trips to Israel, including visits to Ramallah, a Palestinian city in the West Bank, and meetings with organizations that do collaborative work.
“That is the way to build bridges among others who would otherwise feel unwelcome, to build friendships,” Alvarez-Dobrusin said.