Tensions mount over another BDS panel at UMass

  • Sut Jhally

  • University of Massachusetts Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy speaks at the annual UMass Community Breakfast held at the Campus Center on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019.

Staff Writer
Published: 11/11/2019 10:46:39 PM

AMHERST — Tensions are mounting on the University of Massachusetts campus ahead of a Tuesday event about the “boycott, divestment and sanctions movement,” or BDS, aimed at the Israeli government over its treatment of Palestinians.

Organizers of the panel, titled “Criminalizing Dissent: The Attack on BDS & American Democracy,” have billed it as highlighting “accelerating efforts by U.S. political leaders, pro-Israel lobbying groups, and college and university administrators to silence, smear, and criminalize” BDS supporters.

UMass communications professor Sut Jhally is organizing the event with his Media Education Foundation and the university’s Resistance Studies Initiative. Moderated by Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour, it will feature Harvard professor Cornel West; journalist and activist Shaun King; anti-racism advocate and author Tim Wise; Palestine Legal director Dima Khalidi; and, via Skype, BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti, whom the Trump administration has barred from entering the United States over his support of BDS.

Opponents of BDS have called the movement anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic. On campus, UMass Hillel is promoting “End Polarization, Promote Peace,” described as a “peace walk” that will begin at the same time as Tuesday’s event, with participants marching at 5:30 p.m. from Kendrick Park to the Newman Center on campus for a community gathering.

“In a time of divisive, polarizing events on campus related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, UMass students invite you to affirm the value of dignity and respect for all, and to promote a respectful discourse aimed towards peace and understanding,” an invitation for the peace walk reads.

Ahead of the panel, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy released a statement distancing the university from the event, criticizing it as “polarizing” and stating that UMass is “firmly opposed to BDS.”

Those comments drew the support of UMass Hillel, as well as a group of 84 organizations spearheaded by the nonprofit AMCHA Initiative, which describes itself as “combating anti-Semitism at institutions of higher education in America.”

In April, ahead of another panel organized by Jhally called “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech, and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights,” the AMCHA Initiative successfully lobbied Subbaswamy to urge the university’s Faculty Senate to discuss department sponsorship of such events.

Tuesday’s event has its supporters, including organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace, which in a letter to Subbaswamy said the chancellor’s rhetoric “contributes to the racist and Islamophobic harassment and intimidation that Palestinian students and community members routinely face for speaking out in favor of BDS.”

“To insinuate that BDS is anti-Semitic is to insinuate that Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land, human rights violations, and apartheid are Jewish values,” the letter says. “They are not.”

An open letter criticizing Subbaswamy’s statement as falling “far short of the robust defense of academic freedom … that we expect of our chancellor” has now been signed by some 130 faculty members, Jhally said. The university chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine also has written a letter condemning the chancellor’s remarks, as have academics and activists outside the university — including dissident and linguist Noam Chomsky and University of California professor and activist Angela Davis.

The panel will feature discussion about political efforts to condemn and penalize those who are in favor of BDS, according to an online description of the event.

A bill known as the “Israeli Anti-Boycott Act” was introduced in the U.S. Congress in 2017 and would have punished BDS supporters. The bill drew support from more than 230 members of the U.S. House, including Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, and Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Newton. That bill did not pass amid criticism from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which said it would violate the First Amendment.

The UMass panel on BDS will take place Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. in the Fine Arts Center.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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