Like we said, we’re not backing down

The panel is about free speech


(Collegian file photo)

By Anna Ben-Hur, Collegian Contributor

A recent letter to the editor by Aviva Slomich Rosenchein was published by the Massachusetts Daily Collegian addressing the upcoming event on the University of Massachusetts campus titled “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech, and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights,” wherein the author questions the character of the panelists as well as the morality of the panel itself. The author discredits the panel members and claims the event “lacks a diverse viewpoint [in which] attendants will only hear arguments against the Israeli government’s policies without any scholars to defend those ideas.” The article also poses the question: “Has UMass lost its moral compass?

The hypocrisy of these words is astounding. Just two weeks ago, Dennis Ross was hosted on campus and there was no question of ensuring varied viewpoints at the talk. Ross is a self-described Zionist who revealed directly where he stands on the issue when he stated at a synagogue in New York, “Plenty of others have been advocates for the Palestinians. We don’t need to be advocates for Palestinians. We need to be advocates for Israel.” It is clear that an event where he was the only speaker definitely “lacks a diverse viewpoint” as well, yet it is not called “political propaganda.”

Fiery opinion articles leading up to a panel centered around Palestinian rights unjustly draw attention to any criticism of Israel as a “one-sided debate” or “propaganda. But the panel event on May 4 is not about the Israel/Palestine conflict at large; rather, it is specifically a panel about the backlash and silencing faced by those who openly criticize Israel’s violation of human rights. It is ironic that a panel addressing these pressures is met with outrage over “lack of diverse viewpoints.” Let’s be clear, this outrage is likely about ensuring this ongoing silencing continues. But college campuses across the nation are increasingly refusing to put up with this hypocrisy.

The author of the opinion article specifically focuses on describing Linda Sarsour and Marc Lamont Hill as anti-Semitic by using the words of an entirely different person who they have associated with. Bringing up Louis Farrakhan as a buzzword to accuse other people of anti-Semitism co-opts real allegations of anti-Semitism against those who actively work to suppress Jewish people. Farrakhan is an anti-Semite and his views must be rejected, but it is important to note that Sarsour has clarified her allyship with the Jewish community through both her words and actions. As for Lamont Hill, the United Nations speech that is brought up to label him as anti-Semitic has a full transcript available to anyone who wishes to explore his words further and understand his message: one of freedom and equality for Palestinians which resulted in censorship and his firing from CNN.

The author’s focus on just these two panel members (both people of color) is telling, as it reveals the author had no intention of addressing the true purpose and content of the panel event, which also includes speakers such as Roger Waters, Dave Zirin, Patrisse Cullors and Vijay Prashad. The event is about censorship and free speech, issues all of these individuals have faced due to their vocal support for Palestinian rights.

The author also claims Sarsour has created “purported analogies between the Black and Palestinian communities” to promote her views. However, the struggle for Palestinian human rights has long been linked with both anti-apartheid activists in South Africa as well as African-American rights activists from the U.S. This is by no means a new connection, as the author claimed, and does not serve to selectively advance Palestinians over others. Thus, the growing solidarity between UMass Students for Justice in Palestine and other student groups on campus such as the Black Student Union, Prison Abolition Coalition and Graduate Students of Color, who are all supporting the upcoming event, is no coincidence. For many students on campus who refuse to back down, the constant attempts to discredit the panelists and the event itself is simply an attempt at stifling criticism of Israel’s policies. Anti-Zionism is constantly equated with anti-Semitism to undercut this discussion.

To quote UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy in an article he wrote about the importance of free speech for the Boston Globe, “Freedom of expression and the exploration of new and varied ideas are at the heart of what it means to be on a university campus.” For many students on this campus, it is about time the same is applied to the discussions around Palestine. This event and those organizing and supporting it refuse to back down and be silenced.

Anna Ben-Hur is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at [email protected]

Editor’s note: A sentence that was removed from this article in the editing process was added back post-publication due to it being deemed crucial to the argument.