UMASS protects propagandist from scrutiny

Not only have administrators failed to hold communications professor Sut Jhally accountable for acts of deception in his research, they have enabled him to protect his work at the school from public review.

The campus of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Credit: UMass Amherst.
The campus of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Credit: UMass Amherst.
Dexter Van Zile
Dexter Van Zile is Managing Editor at the Middle East Forum.

Next year, Massachusetts taxpayers will pay almost $370 million to support the operations of UMASS Amherst, the flagship school of the UMASS system. Massachusetts families who send their children to the school have to shell out nearly $30,000 a year to cover tuition and room and board. That’s $120,000 for a four-year degree—a few multiples of what most students can expect to earn annually after graduating.

Given their dependence on public funds and the likelihood that most families will have to borrow significant amounts to put their children through school, it would behoove the university’s administrators to be transparent as possible in their dealings with the general public in the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts. But for some reason, administrators at UMASS Amherst aren’t all that interested in transparency or accountability.

Not only have they failed to hold communications professor Sut Jhally accountable for acts of deception in his research, they have enabled him to protect his work at the school from public scrutiny.

They do this by allowing him to decide which documents will be released in response to a public-records request regarding his involvement with the anti-Israel event that took place last May. At this event, the horror of Israeli deaths at the hand of Palestinian terrorists was downplayed, pro-Israel Jews were summarily ejected from the venue, and the aging rock star Roger Waters read a poem that obliquely referred to Jews sitting in bomb shelters while they act as aggressors. The poem concludes with the immortal line “F*** them/Enough/They’ve had their time/A new day dawns/And we will not be swaddled in their grime.”

It was all pretty ugly stuff that raises questions about the decisions made by event organizer Sut Jhally.

The campus of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Credit: UMass Amherst.

In response to a public-records request submitted by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA), officials at UMASS have declared that the documents in question will be chosen and redacted by none other than Sut Jhally himself—the person whose work at UMASS is under analysis.

Talk about a conflict of interest!

CAMERA filed an appeal asking that someone other than Jhally be put in charge of sorting and redacting the documents in question, but the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s office has said that any appeal on this matter can only be filed after Jhally hands over the documents in question to CAMERA for inspection, as if the documents Jhally chooses to hand over will provide some insight into what he might be obscuring from public view. Logically, it doesn’t make any sense.

The controversy is rooted in the failure of administrators at UMASS Amherst to hold Jhally accountable for his use of fabricated and manipulated quotes in “The Occupation of the American Mind,” a film he produced through the Media Education Foundation and shows to students in his communication classes at the school.

In it, Jhally shows a group of Palestinians carrying a victim of an Israeli rocket attack into a hospital on a stretcher. As the scene plays out, a reporter from NBC News is quoted as saying: “Israeli helicopter gunships deliberately fired a missile into a crowd of civilians last night, killing seven Palestinians and wounding 70 more.” But what Jhally leaves out is that the reporter began the sentence with three crucial words: “Palestinians charged that … ”

By deleting these words, Jhally took an unproven (and credibly disputed) allegation made by Palestinians—that Israel intentionally fired a rocket into a crowd—and presented it as fact to the viewers of his movie, which is a clear violation of academic and journalistic standards that a professor of communications should not make. CAMERA filed a complaint to the administrators of UMASS Amherst in January 2018, and they ruled that there was not the requisite intent to mislead to justify a finding of misconduct.

Apparently emboldened by the failure of UMASS administrators to hold him accountable, Jhally organized the previously described anti-Israel event titled “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech and the Battle for Palestinian Rights,” which was held on May 4. Speakers at the conference comprised a veritable who’s who of anti-Israel agitators including well-known anti-Semite Roger Waters, Linda Sarsour (who once denied the legitimacy of a young Jew’s question because he was a white male) and Marc Lamont Hill, who lost his gig with CNN after he repeated Hamas’s call for Israel’s destruction (“From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free”) at an event at the United Nations.

After the conference, CAMERA made a public-records request, asking to see the emails associated with CAMERA’s complaints about his movie and into the organization of the conference himself. After some wrangling, UMASS said it would give CAMERA the emails—at a cost of nearly $2,400. There was a catch, however: The person who would be responsible for determining which emails to hand over to CAMERA would be Sut Jhally himself! Jhally would have to go through the emails and erase (or redact) private information about his students before handing them over to CAMERA. This detail was what prompted CAMERA to ask that someone else other than Jhally select and redact the emails in question with the illogical results described above.

Given the failure of UMASS Amherst to hold Jhally accountable for manipulating the historical record in “The Occupation of the American Mind,” what confidence can we have that Jhally will not keep unflattering emails that expose his bias?

The public has a compelling interest in having these emails being made public. UMASS Amherst was established under federal “Land-Grant” legislation passed in the 1860s to promote “liberal and practical” education in the United States.

That is not what Jhally has been doing. Instead, he has been leaving his students worse off by using his status as a professor at UMASS Amherst to promote hostility towards Israel and American Jews. In the words of Hannah Arendt, he is “repurposing” or “perverting” the purpose of the university, and the administrators at the school are protecting him in this endeavor. Writing in the early 1970s, Arendt lauded the protest movement’s ability to confront the Vietnam war, but warned the movement could “very quickly come to ruin if it actually succeeded in destroying the universities, something I consider possible.”

It’s one thing to ask families to impoverish themselves to educate their children; it’s another thing altogether to ask them to fund the transformation of institutions of higher learning into fronts of dishonest and hateful propaganda.

Dexter Van Zile is a researcher at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA).

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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