May 20, 2019

Pro-Israel Organizations Urge UMass to End Departments’ Sponsorship of Anti-Israel Panel

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Eighty pro-Israel organizations wrote an April 23 letter to the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst calling on the university to end all departmental sponsorship of an upcoming anti-Israel panel.

The May 4 panel at the Fine Arts Center, titled “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech, & the Battle for Palestinian Rights,” will feature Women’s March, Inc. co-leader Linda Sarsour, former Pink Floyd bassist Roger Water, Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill and Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation. According to a press release promoting the event, the panelists will convey the message that anti-Semitism is being used to silence criticism of the Israeli government, specifically against Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).

The letter, which was spearheaded by the AMCHA Initiative and has signatories that include the Simon Wiesenthal Center, StandWithUs and the American Jewish Congress, states that the panelists “are all outspoken anti-Israel activists who have engaged in expression deemed anti-Semitic not only by the vast majority of world Jewry, but also by the standards established by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, which has been adopted by dozens of countries including the United States.”

“These activists’ anti-Semitic expressions include charges that Jewish Americans are more loyal to Israel than America, calls for the elimination of the Jewish state, comparisons of Israelis to Nazis, and other false and defamatory accusations about Israel and Israel’s supporters that draw on classic anti-Semitic tropes,” the letter states. “Official departmental sponsorship of this event will provide the appearance of academic legitimacy to the kind of political hatred that will undoubtedly be purveyed by these speakers — hatred that can’t help but encourage open hostility towards Jewish and pro-Israel students on your campus.”

Sarsour has ties to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and accused progressive supporters of Israel of having dual loyalty, Hill was fired by CNN in November after for calling for “free Palestine from the river to the sea” in front of the United Nations, Zirin criticized Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green for visiting the Israel Defense Force in July, and Waters has a long history of pro-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions activism.

The letter also notes that the event is being co-sponsored by the UMass Department of Communication, Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and the Resistance Studies Initiative UMASS. Additionally, the event is being co-sponsored by The Media Education Foundation, an NGO that is directed by Sut Jhally, who chairs the Department of Communication.

“This is not an educational event but a political rally,” the letter states. “Rather than aiming to promote an understanding of a highly contentious and polarizing issue by including speakers with a variety of perspectives, this event includes speakers with only one extremely partisan perspective and clearly aims to promote a political cause and encourage political action. Providing the imprimatur of three academic departments to such a politically motivated and directed event violates the core academic mission of the university, suppresses student expression and impedes the free exchange of ideas so essential for any university.”

The letter concludes by urging the university to “rescind all named university sponsorship of this event and ensure that no academic unit or other university entity is connected to this event in any way” and “provide us with assurances, highlighting relevant university policies and procedures, that UMass faculty will not be permitted to use their academic position or the university’s name or resources to promote a personal, political agenda that compromises the university’s academic mission and imperils the safety and well-being of UMass students.”

Similarly, Anti-Defamation League New England Regional Director Robert Trestan wrote in an April 17 letter to the university that the event is featuring “speakers who engage in rhetoric that demonizes the State of Israel and seeks to marginalize its supporters,” causing “significant consternation among Jewish students and many others on campus and in the community.”

“This event links the university with a discredited concept having a singular outcome: the elimination of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people,” Trestan wrote. “Our experience indicates that programs of this nature are highly divisive, impacting Jewish students’ sense of belonging, as well as their sense of safety and security on campus.”

UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy responded to the AMCHA Initiative with a letter of his own on April 23, which was obtained by the Journal, stating that the event “is being presented by a private foundation.”

“No university or taxpayer funds are being used to support the event,” Subbaswamy’s letter stated. “UMass Amherst is committed to fostering a community of dignity and respect and rejects all forms of bigotry. 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.”

Subbaswamy added in his letter that department sponsorships of events constitute as “academic freedom.”

“Departmental sponsorship of various types of events does not constitute an endorsement of the views expressed at those proceedings, rather it is an endorsement of the exploration of complex and sometimes difficult topics,” Subbasswamy’s letter stated.

His letter concluded by reiterating the university’s opposition to the BDS movement.