This week a disgusting lawsuit — that tried to censor a Palestinian human rights panel that in part dealt with how Palestinian voices are censored — was dropped. Three anonymous students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst tried to stop the May event, titled “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech, and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights” from happening on campus because they claimed the event was anti-Semitic.
The event took place on May 4 and was attended by 1,500 people. Featured speakers included Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, an outspoken advocate for Palestinian rights, and Palestinian-American political activist Linda Sarsour, the co-chair of the Women’s March. There was also professor and political commentator Marc Lamont Hill, who CNN unfortunately fired last year after remarks he gave at the United Nations in support of Palestinian rights and the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, known as BDS, targeting Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Israel critic Dave Zirin, who is sports editor at The Nation magazine, also spoke at the panel.
The panel was able to take place after a Suffolk Superior Court judge denied an injunction to prevent it from happening on campus. For those who weren’t able to attend, the entire event is available online on YouTube.
Zirin, who is Jewish, began his speaking time by saying: “There is nothing anti-Semitic about criticizing the actions of the Israeli state, and it is absurd that I have to say that.”
He’s absolutely right. Israel and Palestine have been locked in conflict for generations. Criticizing violence and destructive policies enacted by the Israeli government is not only something that should be allowed, but encouraged. The same is true of criticisms of the violent actions on the Palestinian side.
The state of the debate in the United States over the Israel-Palestine conflict is maddening. Rather than working towards a peaceful solution, hateful bigots try to shut down any speakers who advocate for human rights from a Palestinian point of view claiming them to be anti-Semitic. Meanwhile, right-wing politicians work to enact actual racist policies — including attempts at a Muslim travel ban.
The irony here doesn’t stop at trying to censor a panel about censorship — it’s much deeper and more insidious than just that. Jewish people have for generations been discriminated against and used as scapegoats, but on the Israel-Palestine issue, people trying to discriminate against other groups are using Jews as their justification for doing so.
Rather than being forced to approach the issue as Zirin had to, and as the event itself had to be framed, the most important message was one delivered at the event by Sarsour, the only Palestinian-American panelist at the event. “I am trained in Kingian nonviolence,” she said, referring to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “I believe in the power of nonviolent means to bring about change.” Whether or not we agree with the BDS movement, a nonviolent option, it is important to hear out those who support it.
The students who hid behind their anonymity wished to silence Sarsour’s and others’ words. We should rejoice that our justice system functioned in this case to uphold the University of Massachusetts as a place for an open discourse of ideas.
Last month, UMass Amherst’s chancellor, Kumble Subbaswamy, sought to distance himself and the campus from another panel discussion event on the topic of BDS with a statement saying the event was not university-sponsored and that he was “troubled” that it was taking place on campus. The panel took place as planned, but organizer and communications professor Sut Jhally took issue with Subbaswamy’s statement, believing that the chancellor caved to pressure from pro-Israel groups.
The Israel-Palestine issue is a complicated one that has been with us for more than half a century. Silencing and undermining voices working to seek a nonviolent solution further inflames an already dire conflict. Israeli voices — particularly those seeking a peaceful solution — need to be considered, but they aren’t the only ones vital to hear. I am proud that UMass continues to host events that offer a Palestinian point of view.
Reach Dave Eisenstadter at firstname.lastname@example.org.