Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, activist Linda Sarsour to talk Israel, Palestine at UMass Amherst

  • In this Jan. 9, 2017, file photo Linda Sarsour, right, and Carmen Perez, co-chairs of the Women’s March on Washington, speak during an interview in New York. AP PHOTO/MARK LENNIHAN

  • Musician Roger Waters and his band hold rehearsals with members of the Wounded Warriors Project for the “Stand Up For Heroes” benefit concert presented by the New York Comedy Festival & the Bob Woodruff Foundation at S.I.R. Studios on Monday, Nov. 4, 2013, in New York. EVAN AGOSTINI/INVISION/AP

  • Linda Sarsour signals for quiet as activists opposed to President Donald Trump’s embattled Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, demonstrate before being arrested, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. AP PHOTO/J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE  

Staff Writer
Published: 4/23/2019 2:04:14 PM

AMHERST — Earlier this year, when U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota tweeted “It’s all about the Benjamins baby” in reference to the lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, many Republican and Democratic lawmakers criticized her for using language that they said overlapped with “anti-Semitic tropes.”

In reaction to that backlash, many others, including Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, jumped to Omar’s defense. The charges of anti-Semitism were meant to silence criticisms, Omar’s defenders said.

“Israel, Free Speech, and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights” is the topic of an upcoming event at the University of Massachusetts Amherst that is already drawing its own controversy, including opposition from Anti-Defamation League, or ADL, whose mission is to fight anti-Semitism. The panel, titled “Not Backing Down,” is being put on by the Media Education Foundation and will feature prominent figures who have spoken out against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza. Some of the speakers have been labeled as “anti-Semites.” 

Among the speakers: Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, an outspoken advocate for Palestinian rights who supports a cultural boycott of Israel as part of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, or BDS; Palestinian-American political activist Linda Sarsour, the co-chair of the Women’s March who also supports BDS; Marc Lamont Hill, a professor and political commentator who CNN fired last year for remarks he gave at the United Nations in support of Palestinian rights and a boycott of Israel; and Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation magazine who has been a vocal critic of the Israeli government.

Sut Jhally, a UMass Amherst communications professor and executive director of the Media Education Foundation, is the organizer of the event. Jhally himself has faced backlash over his film “The Occupation of the American Mind,” which “explores how the Israeli government, the U.S. government, and the pro-Israel lobby have joined forces, often with very different motives, to shape American media coverage of the conflict in Israel’s favor,” according to the film’s website.

Jhally said that Hill’s firing sparked the idea for the panel.

“It wasn’t surprising that there was a lot of controversy” around Hill’s comments, Jhally said. “What struck me was the amount of support that he was getting as well.”

Jhally said those expressing legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies are often “smeared” as anti-Semitic, and that such tactics were previously more successful than they are now in stifling debate around Israel and Palestine. 

“What’s interesting now is that people are not backing down from the attacks,” Jhally said, pointing to Omar as well as the panel’s participants as examples.

Following the announcement of the panel, the ADL wrote a letter to UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy criticizing the event for linking the university “with a discredited concept having a singular outcome: the elimination of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people.”

“The program, featuring speakers who engage in rhetoric that demonizes the State of Israel and seeks to marginalize its supporters, has raised significant consternation among Jewish students and many others on campus and in the community, who not only care about Israel, but worry about civility on campus,” wrote Robert Trestan, the ADL’s regional director.

Stephanie Margolis, a junior at UMass Amherst and the president of the university’s Student Alliance for Israel, also expressed concerns about the event. “I think the number one thing that I see wrong with the event is that it isn’t a platform for open dialogue and discussion,” she said. “It kind of feeds into possible incitement on campus.”

The head of Hillel at UMass Amherst, Rabbi Aaron Fine, also weighed in: “The divisive message of the event perpetuates conflict and amplifies polarization through a one-dimensional dogmatic narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Fine wrote in a statement. “We are particularly disconcerted that the event is being co-sponsored by two University departments,” the Department of Communication and the Department of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies. 

But others on campus welcome the panelists’ views. In addition to groups like the local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, the panel is being supported by student groups such as the Black Student Union and Graduate Students of Color, who have lent their names to the poster for the event.

“We’re not really intimidated anymore by this selective outrage,” said Ananya Bhasin, who is part of the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. “This event really is about silencing, so, the more silencing we get, the more it solidifies why this event needs to take place.”

Zirin, who is Jewish, also takes issue with those who have said Sarsour and the other panelists traffic in anti-Semitism. That rhetoric, Zirin said, is an “old tactic that’s meant to silence debate and chill discussion.”

The panel will take place on May 4 at 6:30 p.m. at the UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center and will be moderated by the journalist and historian Vijay Prashad. University spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said that, as with all events, the views of the panelists don’t reflect those of the university.

“UMass Amherst is committed to fostering a community of dignity and respect and rejects all forms of bigotry,” Blaguszewski said. “The campus is also firmly committed to the principles of free speech and academic freedom. As such, and as is required of a public institution under the First Amendment, UMass Amherst applies a content-neutral standard when making facilities available to outside organizations for the purpose of holding events.”

The event is free and open to the public, but tickets are required. Tickets will be available at the Fine Arts Center box office the night of the event, though advanced tickets are suggested and can be found by visiting or calling 413-545-2511.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at
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