Panelists at the May 4 “Not Backing Down” event.

UMass Amherst to host second pro-BDS panel this year; Chancellor voices disapproval

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UMass Amherst to host second pro-BDS panel this year; Chancellor voices disapproval

Panelists at the May 4 “Not Backing Down” event.

AMHERST – For the second time this year, UMass Amherst will host a panel featuring various activists in favor of the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Moderated this time by pro-BDS activist and former Women’s March co-chair Linda Sarsour, “Criminalizing Dissent: The Attack on BDS and Pro-Palestinian Speech” will take place on November 12 at 6:30 p.m. at the UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center. It will be free and open to the public.

The event is sponsored by the Media Education Foundation, the nonprofit run by Sut Jhally, chair of the UMass Amherst Department of Communication, that organized the “Not Backing Down” panel in May. It is co-sponsored by the UMass Amherst Resistance Studies Initiative, an academic program studying protest movements.

According to the event website, it aims to “address accelerating efforts by US political leaders, pro-Israel lobbying groups and college and university administrators to silence, smear and criminalize supporters of BDS, a nonviolent movement that aims to hold Israel accountable for its ongoing human rights abuses and its illegal 50-year occupation of Palestinian land.”

This event is billed as a follow-up to the May event and will feature a different crop of panelists.
In addition to Sarsour, the event will feature Harvard professor Cornel West, who has dismissed Jewish historical connections to the Land of Israel, labeled it an apartheid state and equated the actions of the IDF with Hamas; and Omar Bhargouti, a co-founder of the BDS movement and founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

The event is not sponsored or endorsed by the university, which said in a statement by Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy that it is permitting the event on campus because “as a public institution, UMass is bound by the First Amendment to the Constitution to apply a content-neutral standard when making facilities available to outside organizations.”

The statement continued: “It is troubling that such a one-dimensional, polarizing event should take place on our campus. A panel discussion where only one perspective is shared does little to increase the understanding of such a complex topic like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Furthermore, because the BDS position in general fails to acknowledge the humanity on the Israeli side of the conflict and is considered by many as anti-Semitic, the upcoming event could very well alienate many of our Jewish students and other members of our campus community.”

Many Jewish organizations have praised Subbaswamy’s comments, but 132 faculty members published an open letter criticizing them, writing: “While we appreciate the chancellor’s stated commitment to freedom of speech and his refusal to cancel either this event or the equally controversial event that occurred on May 4, his recent statement falls far short of the robust defense of academic freedom and the integrity of the campus community that we expect of our chancellor. Indeed, whether wittingly or not, his statement lends credence and legitimacy to the claims of those who have been fighting to silence criticism of Israeli violations of human rights, and to vilify those who publicly press these criticisms, including students, faculty and staff on this campus.”

On the other hand, many Jewish organizations praised the statement.

“We are grateful for Chan­cellor Subbaswamy’s statement about the upcoming event,” wrote UMass Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Aaron Fine in a statement.

“Recent anti-Israel events on campus have promoted dogmatic narratives and sentiment which convey a reductionist and dehumanizing portrait of Israel,” Fine continued. “Student questions have been belittled and it has been made clear there is no room for alternative viewpoints, all in the name of justice and intersectionality. It is a reality that many Jewish students and other members of our campus community feel less safe to express their identity as a result of the tenor, scale and messages of these events.”

The New England Anti-Defamation League echoed these sentiments. In a statement, Executive Director Robert Trestan praised Subbaswamy’s remarks and noted: “Our experience indicates that programs of this nature are highly divisive and polarizing, impacting Jewish students’ sense of belonging, as well as their sense of safety and security on campus.”

Stephanie Margolis, a native of Acton who is active with the Student Alliance for Israel (SAFI), Hillel and other Jewish and pro-Israel groups on campus, has said events like these make her question her place at the university.

“It definitely makes me a feel a little unwelcome, and it makes me aware that there are spaces on this campus where I am not welcome at all,” she said.

Margolis attended the event in May and said that she and other pro-Israel students were ridiculed by panelists when they tried to present opposing viewpoints.

“I attend these events to try to understand their point of view and see if I can meet them halfway, and instead of answering and having a discussion with me, it’s always grandstand and escalate the situation to a point where there is no dialogue and they don’t see me as a human,” she said.

After the May event, Margolis and other members of SAFI organized “Dare2Discuss.” They set up a table and poster-board on campus and invited students to talk to them and post a variety of viewpoints and questions so long as they affirmed Israel’s basic right to exist and were not blatantly anti-Semitic.

Margolis said the table was an encouraging success, and that she and her SAFI peers had decided that instead of attending the panel like they did last time, they’ll once again set up a table and listen.

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