Prof rips chancellor’s criticism of BDS event

  • University of Massachusetts Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy is seen at the annual UMass Community Breakfast on Aug. 27.

Staff Writer
Published: 10/26/2019 2:30:08 PM

AMHERST — A University of Massachusetts Amherst professor is criticizing university Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy for a statement expressing opposition to a panel on the silencing of pro-Palestinian voices. 

The panel, titled “Criminalizing Dissent: The Attack on BDS & American Democracy,” will “address accelerating efforts by U.S. political leaders, pro-Israel lobbying groups, and college and university administrators to silence, smear, and criminalize” supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, according to an announcement on the Massachusetts Peace Action website.

The event is being organized by UMass communications professor Sut Jhally, and will feature Harvard professor and author Cornel West; journalist and activist Shaun King; anti-racism advocate and author Tim Wise; Palestine Legal founder and director Dima Khalidi; and BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti, who the Trump administration banned from entering the U.S., via Skype. The panel is slated for Nov. 12 at 6:30 p.m. in the UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center.

On Monday, Subbaswamy said in a statement posted to the UMass website that the university harbors concerns about the panel, and said the event “is being presented by a private foundation — not by the university.”

The university will not attempt to prohibit the event due to First Amendment and academic freedom principles, Subbaswamy wrote, but remains concerned about the panel “based on its title and past statements by its panelists” and is “firmly opposed to BDS and to academic boycotts of any kind.”

Subbaswamy also wrote that “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,” he wrote. “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.”

Jhally objected to this criticism of the panel as one-sided, adding that many events — including pro-Israel ones — do not have a diversity of opinions.

“You have one pro-Palestinian event … and all hell breaks loose,” Jhally said.

In an email obtained by the Gazette, Subbaswamy also wrote to Jhally asking him to include a disclaimer stating that ‘Opinions expressed by the speakers at the event are their own, and not of those of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst’ on any promotional materials for the event.

In an interview with the Gazette on Friday, Jhally called Subbaswamy’s statement “deeply disturbing” and “a direct attack on me” that also threatens the campus environment.

“There’s nothing whatsoever about Jewish students who are pro-BDS,” Jhally said. “There are no statements about Palestinian students, there are no statements about Muslim students … He seems to care a great deal about one group of people and not another group of people.”

Jhally also objected to Subbaswamy’s statement that the panel is being organized by a group separate from the university — according to Jhally, this rhetoric characterizes Jhally’s organization, the Media Education Foundation, as a “sinister” outside organization.

Jhally believes that Subbaswamy’s response is a result of the chancellor caving to pressure from groups such as the pro-Israel Center for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting. In September and October, the organization posted on its website that Jhally “has used the classroom to further his own political and ideological agenda” and called upon Subbaswamy to “admonish UMass Amherst faculty against using the classroom to promote their own political and ideological agendas.”

Jhally pointed out that the university has not released similar statements for speakers such as Benny Morris, an Israeli historian slated to speak at the university Monday, who has stated that “there are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing” when speaking about the 1948 Palestinian exodus.

A university spokesman did not make Subbaswamy available for an interview Friday.

An ongoing debate

Subbaswamy also faced opposition last spring semester, when three students anonymously filed a lawsuit against UMass in an attempt to stop a different panel Jhally organized, titled “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech, and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights.” The panel featured Palestinian rights activists, including former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters; Palestinian-American political activist Linda Sarsour; professor and political commentator Marc Lamont; and Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation magazine, who is Jewish himself.

The student plaintiffs argued that the event and its speakers would promote anti-Semitism on campus, but a judge denied the injunction, ruling that it would violate the First Amendment.

In response to last May’s panel, leaders from organizations including the New England chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, UMass Hillel, and the Student Alliance for Israel expressed concerns that the event would encourage division and anti-Semitism on campus.

But Rachel Weber, a Northampton attorney and member of Jewish Voice for Peace, said these ideas stem from a false “general conflation that a criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.”

“For me as a Jew, it’s incredibly problematic when anyone suggests that criticizing Israel via supporting the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions is anti-Semitic,” Weber said. “Because there’s real anti-Semitism, and it comes at the hands of white supremacists.

“There are many Jews who support the movement for BDS, and who see themselves in solidarity with Palestinians who are just struggling to live and survive, and have self-determination and peace,” she said.

Faculty supporting Jhally have begun circulating an open letter to the chancellor, which had 29 signatures as of Friday at 5:30 p.m., according to UMass philosophy professor Joseph Levine, who helped to write the letter.

“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,” the letter reads.

“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,” it continues.

Jhally said that he hopes to see Subbaswamy retract his statement “and welcome this discussion on campus.”

College campuses are “the last place in society where there is some diversity of opinion on this,” Jhally said of the Israel-Palestine conflict. “You can’t have this debate anywhere else.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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