Lawsuit filed against UMass over Palestinian event

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Lawsuit filed against UMass over Palestinian event

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

By Kathrine Esten, Assistant News Editor

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A Concord, Mass. attorney has filed a lawsuit on behalf of three anonymous University of Massachusetts students, requesting a preliminary injunction to prevent a panel on Palestinian advocacy.

The panel, titled “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech, and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights,” is scheduled for May 4 at 6:30 p.m. in the Fine Arts Center. The event’s primary sponsor is the Media Education Foundation, which is run by Sut Jhally, a UMass professor of communication. The panel plans to address backlash against pro-Palestinian voices.

Attorney Karen Hurvitz filed the suit on April 25 on behalf of plaintiffs John Doe one, two and three. In the suit, the plaintiffs are described as Jewish students who chose not to reveal their names “because it has become increasingly difficult for them to feel comfortable and protected on campus.”

“Allowing this event to be co-sponsored by entire University departments gives the impression, clearly intentional, that all of the faculty within these departments support the BDS [Boycott, Divest, Sanctions] movement,” Hurvitz wrote in a press release.

Hurvitz also pointed to previous anti-Semitic incidents on campus, arguing that Jewish students on campus “will suffer even more hostility and be the subject of more anti-Semitism than they have already suffered if the University sponsors and hosts this event on its campus.”

The University itself is not a sponsor of the program, but two departments – communication and women, gender and sexuality studies – and the Resistance Studies Initiative, a program within the department of sociology, are recognized as co-sponsors, along with several regional advocacy groups. Additionally, four student groups are listed as supporters of the event, including Students for Justice in Palestine.

Mary Dettloff, deputy director of UMass News & Media Relations, said the University does not comment on ongoing litigation. In an April 25 statement, UMass stated the opinions expressed by participants at the event “do not represent the views of the University,” and the University remains “firmly opposed to academic boycotts of any kind, including BDS.”

The featured panelists at the event are Linda Sarsour, a co-founder of the Women’s March, original Pink Floyd member Roger Waters, sportswriter Dave Zirin and Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill. Tricontinental Institute director Vijay Prashad will serve as moderator.

The lawsuit claims the promotion of an event with panelists who “have a publicly known reputation for either being anti-Semitic and/or supporting known anti-Semites” and allowing it to be held on the campus will increase the level of hostility against Jewish students and supporters of Israel.

The lawsuit also charges that the University is violating its anti-bigotry and anti-hatred policies by allowing the panel to be held on campus.

Organizers of the event acknowledged claims of anti-Semitism, incorporating them into promotion for the event.

“The vicious smears these four people have been subjected to are part of 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 despite its ongoing violations of international law and Palestinian human rights,” said Jhally in a promotional flyer for the event. Jhally continued, adding the panel is evidence of the refusal of human rights supporters to be silenced.

SJP member Anna Ben-Hur said her work with New York City’s Jews for Racial and Economic Justice allowed her to see Sarsour speak multiple times, and defended her and other speakers against claims of anti-Semitism.

“There are people who will say that just speaking about Palestine is inciting some form of anti-Semitism. I think that’s really disappointing for me to hear,” Ben-Hur said. “I don’t think that advocating for Palestinian rights equates to anti-Semitism in any sort of way.”

A second criticism of event speakers stems from their positions on the Israel-Palestine conflict; Hurvitz contended the lack of panelists with moderate views prevents attendees from hearing a “balanced, nuanced discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” UMass Hillel similarly expressed concern over the event due to its “divisive message” in a statement issued on their website.

“The divisive message of the event perpetuates conflict and amplifies polarization through a one-dimensional dogmatic narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the statement reads.

Pointing to an event held on campus with former Trump administration official Sean Spicer, Ben-Hur said inviting speakers with differing backgrounds isn’t called for with every event. Ben-Hur emphasized the diversity in the speakers’ professional backgrounds, and said the event isn’t intended to be a debate on the conflict but a panel on advocacy.

“You can’t expect this event to serve every single purpose or solve the Israeli-Palestine conflict,” she said.

While negative feedback from the community can be disheartening, Ben-Hur said there has been positive responses from members of the community, particularly Palestinian students.

“There are people at UMass that are fighting for Palestinian rights, and we’re not backing down,” Ben-Hur said.

A hearing on the preliminary injunction is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Monday, April 29.

Kathrine Esten can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @KathrineEsten.