newsBoycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS)

UMass-sponsored event featuring anti-Israel speakers lacks ‘range of perspectives’

“These departments bill the event as a defense of free speech, and yet they plan to silence pro-Israel voices by not including them,” says CAMERA’s Hali Haber. “The event is really nothing more than ugly political theater pretending to be liberal and academic for reasons of public relations.”

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

An Israel educational organization, CAMERA on Campus, is calling on the University of Massachusetts in Amherst to remove its official backing of “a one-sided panel discussion” featuring “well-known activists of the boycott, divestment and sanctions [BDS] campaign against the Jewish state.”

The May 4 event, titled “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech & the Battle for Palestinian Rights,” includes anti-Israel activists such as Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, Women’s March leader Linda Sarsour, and Temple University professor and former CNN commentator Marc Lamont Hill, all of whom have been accused of making anti-Semitic comments.

The event is being organized by the UMass Department of Communication, the UMass Department of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and the Resistance Studies Initiative UMASS.

No pro-Israel voices are included on the panel to provide balance and viewpoint diversity. This omission violates the university’s values of diversity and inclusion, according to CAMERA.

“The University of Massachusetts is committed to fostering diversity and inclusion in the classroom,” says the UMass website. “This means integrating diversity into the curriculum in a systematic way and also preparing students and instructors to manage diverse perspectives when dealing with the unexpected.”

That’s the problem with the event, according to CAMERA.

“The panel doesn’t offer students a range of perspectives, as a good higher education should. It just brings together an echo chamber of Israel-bashers,” says CAMERA’s Hali Haber. “These departments bill the event as a defense of free speech, and yet they plan to silence pro-Israel voices by not including them on the panel. Because of that, I think the event is really nothing more than ugly political theater pretending to be liberal and academic for reasons of public relations.”

According to the anti-Israel website Mondoweiss, chair of the communication department Sut Jhally believes this event to be similar to when “Israel advocate Dennis Ross (Jews ‘need to be advocates for Israel’) spoke on campus with the sponsorship of many mainstream groups and there was no balance, and no one tried to shut that down.”

“The Dennis Ross event was sponsored by outside groups, not academic departments,” responds Haber. “There is a clear difference. Professor Jhally is abusing his position of authority by hosting the one-sided event and, now, obfuscating the facts about it by comparing it to a privately sponsored pro-Israel event.”

“Free speech allows these people to address interested spectators, but free speech does not compel UMass, a state-funded university, to endorse this one-sided event,” recently wrote CAMERA’s Aviva Rosenschein, a UMass alum, in the school’s paper. “A University-backed lecture should consist of various viewpoints, providing students with a means to better educate themselves and learn how to dialogue and debate with one another respectfully. This upcoming panel will be doing the exact opposite.”

According to a press release issued by Jhally, his department’s event will address “recent attacks on Rep. Ilhan Omar and other progressives who have spoken out against Israel’s 50-year military occupation of Palestinian land and criticized pro-Israel pressure groups for conflating legitimate criticism of Israeli government policies with ‘anti-Semitism.’ ”

Haber says that Jhally’s statement “distorts reality.”

Omar didn’t offer “legitimate criticism of Israeli government policies,” says Haber. “She was criticized for her repeated use of anti-Semitic tropes against American Jews.”

Jhally further said in the press release that the panelists have been subjected to “vicious smears” in a “systematic effort to change the subject and deflect attention away from the billions of dollars in financial and military aid the U.S. continues to give Israel.”

“Actually, Professor Jhally’s own words are hateful,” asserts Haber. “We are not deflecting. Waters, Sarsour and Hill were legitimately criticized for their invective against Jews and the world’s only Jewish-majority country.”

“If UMass included opposing viewpoints on the panel, students would see that Jhally is grossly mischaracterizing critics of Sarsour, Waters and Hill,” says Haber. “Maybe that’s why Jhally is barring these differing voices from appearing at his department’s lopsided event.”

CAMERA on Campus said in a statement that they deplore the university’s indefensible decision to lend its name and prestige to the event, and the group is urging the Chancellor to live up to the university’s stated values of inclusion and diversity.

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