UMass Amherst normalizes antisemitism

This is not about free speech, it is about tolerating and encouraging the glorification of genocidal antisemitic terrorists.

The campus of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Credit: UMass Amherst.
The campus of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Credit: UMass Amherst.
Adam Gordon. Credit: Courtesy.
Adam Gordon
Adam Gordon is a senior campus advisor at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA), where he works with students across the United States and Canada.  

On Oct. 7, the day of the Hamas massacre that left 1,200 Israelis, including women, children and the elderly, brutally murdered, the “Palestine” correspondent for The Nation, Mohammed El-Kurd, responded to the gruesome reports by tweeting, “What is happening in occupied Palestine is a response to weeks and months and years of daily Israeli military invasions into Palestinian towns, killings of Palestinians and the very fact that millions of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are besieged under Israeli blockade.”

El-Kurd has a long history of antisemitism and xenophobia. Yet his “activism” has led to book deals, a career in journalism and numerous speaking tours organized by radical campus organizations and “academics” across the United States. El-Kurd appears to be the “right kind of bigot” who, under the guise of progressivism, falsely accuses Jews and Israelis of “genocide, racism and committing vile atrocities.”

We must understand that the dissemination of such harmful and unsubstantiated tropes is not without its consequences.

A recent study published by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) recorded a 388% increase in antisemitic incidents—including harassment, vandalism and assault—since the start of Israel’s war against Hamas. Among the findings of the study is the prevalence of “radical anti-Zionists harassing Jewish people because of their real or perceived support for the Jewish state.”

El-Kurd’s inflammatory rhetoric certainly fits the bill and his racism is not a surprise. I have previously written about El-Kurd’s documented history of invoking antisemitic tropes, supporting terrorism and dehumanizing Israelis.

On Nov. 13, El-Kurd spoke at the University of Massachusetts Amherst at an event titled “Understanding Israel/Palestine: Dispossession, Resistance & Human Rights” hosted by the UMass chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and UMass Professors Sut Jhally and Stellan Vinthagen.

Jhally has also been a subject of controversy due to his intense racism. Vinthagen is an outspoken supporter of the BDS campaign, a self-evidently racist movement that calls for the boycott and ostracization of Jews and Israelis based on their ethnicity. He has also defended the notion of Palestinian “resistance,” a barely veiled term for violence and terrorism directed at Israeli civilians.

While some SJP chapters nationwide have been suspended for their antisemitic activity in the wake of the Oct. 7 massacre, including open support for Hamas’s genocidal slaughter, UMass SJP continues to spread its hateful ideology. It has called the rape and murder of Israelis, including women, children and the elderly, “Palestinians breaking out of their open-air prison.” It has disrupted events on campus, lionized terrorists and participated in the Hamas-orchestrated “day of resistance”—a threatened pogrom against world Jewry. Clearly, like El-Kurd, UMass SJP supports antisemitic mass murder.

Before the “Understanding Israel/Palestine” event took place, concerned Jewish students wrote to UMass Chancellor Javier Reyes, pleading with him to stop the event from taking place given El-Kurd’s track record of calling for and praising antisemitic violence.

Instead of listening to his Jewish students or working to find a solution, Reyes gave a painfully generic response. He ignored the damning dossier on El-Kurd that had been presented to him and refused to take action. He cited “the free and open exchange of ideas” and asserted “UMass Amherst does not restrict speech or speakers based on their views.”

Reyes then went even further, writing, “In those cases where views expressed on campus run counter to our values or those of any member of our community, we encourage more speech and dialogue rather than electing to suppress that which may be offensive.”

Given the obvious absence of any other groups on campus that support racism and genocide, this is disingenuous at best.

Such an apathetic response is not only upsetting, but also irresponsible. It enables racism and violence. Just 10 days before the El-Kurd event, UMass Hillel organized a vigil for Israel. The event devolved into chaos when an antisemitic UMass student violently assaulted a Jewish student and slashed an Israeli flag with a knife.

Antisemitic incidents on college campuses across the U.S. are on the rise due to the systemic indulgence of or collaboration with antisemitic organizations like SJP. This assault at UMass was not an isolated incident. Thankfully, some administrators have acknowledged the role that groups like SJP play in fomenting antisemitism and violence on campus. Administrators at colleges and universities like George Washington University and Brandeis University have taken action ranging from suspending to outright banning the group from campus. Such moral clarity is very welcome.

This clarity is clearly absent at UMass. Moreover, it is part of a long tradition. Reyes’s predecessor Kumble Subbaswamy, when confronted with dangerous rhetoric emanating from SJP on campus, took the same route.

In March 2022, when SJP hosted a vigil on campus for members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a US-designated terrorist organization, I wrote to then-Chancellor Subbaswamy pointing out the moral depravity inherent in lauding the actions of virulently antisemitic terrorists. I also noted that several university policies made it clear that this pro-terrorist “vigil” did not align with UMass’ academic and community values.

I received this response from Subbaswamy: “The University of Massachusetts Amherst does not tolerate hate speech and condemns all forms of antisemitism and racism.” This was obviously untrue, given the existence of the vigil itself.

Subbaswamy further elaborated, “On a campus that is free and open, no idea should be banned or forbidden. … If we limit ourselves only to ideas and speech with which we agree, we do ourselves a great disservice. To paraphrase Justice [Louis] Brandeis, the best antidote to speech that one finds offensive is more speech.”

But this was not about free speech. It was about tolerating and encouraging the glorification of genocidal antisemitic terrorists. Unfortunately, Subbaswamy’s response made it clear that, under his leadership, support for antisemitic violence was permissible on a campus that billed itself as having “no home for hate.”

With Subbaswamy gone, I was optimistic that Reyes would be an ally of the Jewish community and an enemy of racism. Instead, when confronted with his first test of leadership, Reyes didn’t just fall short. He decided that El-Kurd and SJP, who openly incite violence and Jew-hatred, must be protected and allowed to do so.

Like his predecessor, Reyes is normalizing Jew-hatred on campus. How many more students need to be assaulted before Reyes takes this issue seriously?

UMass is funded by taxpayer dollars. Perhaps it is time for federal and state officials to step in and ensure that, if it wants to continue receiving other people’s money, UMass upholds its commitment to keeping its students safe.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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