Guest column Tom Weiner and Karen Pfeifer: UMass forum gave voice to voiceless movement

Published: 6/21/2019 7:00:32 PM
Modified: 6/21/2019 7:00:20 PM

We write to contest the misleading portrayal in Jay Fleitman’s June 4 column (“UMass conference prompts questions for Jewish community”) of the forum, “Not Backing Down …,” held at a UMass venue under independent sponsorship on May 4.

This forum (it was not a “conference”) aimed to give voice to the too often voiceless movement to support Palestinian civil and human rights.

First, the movement is a critique not of the relationship between Israel and the United States in general, but specifically of Israeli government policies toward the Palestinian population and of the mutually reinforcing negative policies of the Trump and Netanyahu governments.

Trump has single-handedly undermined the peace process with his unilateral decisions to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and to withdraw economically critical aid from the Palestinian people.

Netanyahu’s promotion of expansion of Jewish-only settlements and other key measures, such as home and village demolitions, deliberately marginalize the Palestinian population in the occupied territories.

Second, many participants in this movement to support Palestinian rights advocate the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) program as a tool of nonviolent protest against these policies. BDS does not “damage the state of Israel,” but rather aims to hold the government of Israel accountable for policies that violate international law and human rights, just as was done against the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Third, Fleitman falsely equates universities’ curtailing actual hate speech by right-wing leaders with UMass allowing a forum to defend Palestinian rights. The hate-filled agenda of speakers like Alex Jones or Milo Yiannopoulos is not equivalent to the effort by the “Not Backing Down” speakers to show what life is like for Palestinians living under military occupation.

Fourth, Fleitman conflates the very real threat of anti-Semitism against Jews with legitimate protest of Israeli government policies that thwart progress toward a genuine two-state solution. It is a source of deep anguish to many progressive Jews and their allies in the United States that Jews in power in Israel have lost sight of the dehumanizing effect on the subject Palestinian people, as was historically done to them through pogroms and the Holocaust. To conflate critique of Israeli policy with anti-Semitism not only denies critics their First Amendment right to protest against injustice, but dangerously distracts our attention from those who would do real harm to Jewish people with, for example, violent attacks on synagogues.

Finally, Fleitman attacks the Democratic Party for having in its camp two Muslim congresswomen who have criticized U.S. policy toward Israel and Israeli government policy toward Palestinians. He seems unaware of how U.S. policy is indeed influenced by powerful pro-Israel lobbies such as American Israel Public Affairs Committee in promoting a one-sided approach to Israel/Palestine, regardless of the consequences for the Palestinian people.

The “Not Backing Down” forum was just one small effort to begin to correct this imbalance. Ultimately, the only path to a peaceful resolution in Israel/Palestine is for all involved to recognize and respect the humanity of one another and make the changes needed to guarantee equal rights for all.

Tom Weiner and Karen Pfeifer are members of the Middle East Peace and Justice Coalition of Western Mass.

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