Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

BDS event draws high profile speakers despite Chancellor’s criticism

Event follows similar one in May
(Nina Walat/Daily Collegian)

The Media Education Foundation and the Resistance Studies Initiative co-hosted an event titled “Criminalizing Dissent: The Attack on BDS and Pro-Palestinian Speech” on Tuesday night at the University of Massachusetts.

The highly anticipated event, the second of its kind at the University in recent months, brought a cast of high-profile speakers to the Fine Arts Center to discuss the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” movement, which aims to politically pressure Israel to end its role in Palestine. The event specifically sought to address perceived suppression of pro-BDS points of view in American culture.

Lead by activist Linda Sarsour, the panel included fellow activists Tim Wise and Shaun King, Harvard professor Cornel West, Palestine Legal founder Dima Khalidi and founding member of BDS Omar Barghouti, who appeared over Skype. Barghouti’s travel to the United States was denied this spring.

During the three-plus hour event, the speakers took roughly 20 minutes each for their statements, followed by a brief question-and-answer session moderated by Sarsour.

While the speakers’ points generally followed a pro-Palestinian point of view, they expressed a wide variety of opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on the BDS movement and on activism itself.

Capping the group’s speakers was West, who gave an energetic, 15-minute, sermon-style speech which touched on a variety of subjects relating to general activism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and various movements for peace and equality.

West bounced from topic to topic, boldly making his point and tying his themes together, his voice booming into the back rows of the FAC Concert Hall.

He opened with a direct criticism of UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, whose Oct. 21 statement condemning the event left him open to criticism from the event’s organizers and speakers. Many of the speakers made similar criticisms in their speeches.

West connected different instances of struggling people around the planet, saying, “I don’t care if they’re Palestinians, I don’t care if they’re in Kashmir… I don’t care if they’re white folks in Appalachia.”

He also attempted to contextualize the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying that one of the difficulties in this situation is that Jews, who have been “hated, despised, devalued, oppressed [and] attacked for two thousand years with underdog mentality,” now find themselves in a powerful position. Israel has lost sight of its underdog status in its dealing with Palestinians, West said, “who are just as precious as the Jewish brothers and sisters.”

Toward the end of his speech, West said that the BDS movement is not about identity. BDS focuses on an Israeli occupation of Palestinians, he stated, adding that if the reverse were true and there was a Palestinian occupation of Israelis, there would be a mass BDS-style movement, and he would be a part of it.

Opening the event was co-organizer and UMass professor and chair of the department of communications Sut Jhally, who heads the Media Education Foundation. He lambasted the Chancellor in his remarks, notably Subbaswamy’s characterization of his foundation as a “sinister” outside group.

“I’ve only been teaching here for the last 35 years,” he said.

Subbaswamy’s statement criticized what the Chancellor felt was a one-sided lineup of speakers. The event, he said, “does little to increase the understanding of such a complex topic like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Disagreement with the BDS movement is largely born out of its focus. Critics say that the movement portrays the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one-sided. Disagreement also centers on why Israel, a country that provides full rights to non-Jewish citizens and has Arab members of government, receives heavy disapproval from the international community given the significant human rights issues in other countries in the region.

Jhally’s statement was followed by remarks from fellow co-organizer Stellan Vinthagen, head of UMass’ Resistance Studies Initiative, and a brief video message from Pink Floyd front man Roger Waters, who appeared at a similar event at the University in May.

“When I get up in the morning and I breathe, I’m controversial,” Sarsour said in her opening statement. She was introduced as a founder of the Women’s March, a group she left amidst allegations of anti-Semitism.

Sarsour described her activism and mentioned her support of presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, including his belief that the fight for Palestinian rights is akin to the fight against anti-Semitism.

“Someday we’ll have a new president, who will be the first Jewish-American president this country has ever seen,” Sarsour said as she concluded her statement.

Following Sarsour’s statement, Barghouti spoke from Gaza on a video screen behind the stage. He said that his organization was “strongly influenced by the South African anti-apartheid movement and the American civil rights movement.”

At the conclusion of Barghouti’s statement, Tim Wise took the stage as the in-person panel’s first speaker. He spoke from his experience as a Jewish man growing up in Nashville and cited specific discriminatory instances he has faced in contrast to the labeling of BDS as anti-Semitic.

“To suggest that this is an anti-Semitic movement… when there are actual people out there who would hunt us and hate us, is an obscenity,” Wise pressed.

He pushed the idea that it is acceptable for Jews to question their general community when discussing Israel and its policies. Diversity in thought has a long history in Judaism, Wise noted, citing the Talmud, which are the writings on Jewish law, and the variety of opinions rabbis included in it.

King’s portion of time, following Wise, centered on activism and lessons he has learned in his career in the field. He hardly mentioned Israel, Palestine or BDS, instead focusing on four central ideas in activism.

“You need to be energized, organized, with sophisticated plans, and we have to find ways to fund them,” King said.

Avoiding talking specifically about BDS or Israel, King gave advice to the student attendees on how to successfully make change. “Being right is never enough, being energized is never enough,” he said, as he pointed to 2018 midterm candidates Beto O’Rourke, Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum, all of whom lost despite generating vocal followings.

A notable moment in King’s speech came in his criticism of solely online-based activism.

“Tweets are not votes. Angry faced emojis are not votes. Your best intentioned Instagram post is not votes,” he said.

The event was nearly disruption free. One party was removed toward its conclusion, his calls about “America First” and “Antifa” drowned out by loud chants from the audience.

As attendees left the auditorium, Vinthagen called the event “fantastic” and said it was “encouraging to see so many serious academics throwing their support” behind the cause.

In a dozen different interviews, audience members expressed generally pro-Palestinian views. West and Sarsour were cited by nearly all attendees when they were asked before the event who they were most looking forward to seeing.

“I would hope that people hear a little bit about what’s happening to the Palestinians, and I think that’s the crux of the problem that’s evolved over time,” said Jake Edmunds, 73, of Amherst. He said that he thinks people don’t understand the historical context that led up to the current situation.

“I came because I think it’s important to hear both sides of the story,” said Edmunds. “It’s a big story, it’s been around a long time and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere positive.”

Will Katcher can be reached at [email protected].

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