Judy Frank: WMass Jewish Voice for Peace denounces chancellor’s BDS statement

  • University of Massachusetts Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy speaks at the annual UMass Community Breakfast held at the Campus Center on Aug. 27, 2019.

Saturday, November 09, 2019

Western Mass Jewish Voice for Peace would like to officially extend our full support and solidarity to the Media Education Foundation, directed by UMass Professor of Communication Sut Jhally, to the UMass Chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, to all Palestinian students, faculty and staff on campus.

We denounce the recent statement issued by UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy regarding the upcoming Nov. 12 event, “Criminalizing Dissent: The Attack on BDS and American Democracy.” We are appalled that the chancellor would condemn the event as polarizing and one-dimensional, inciting the very backlash that the movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions for Palestinian rights so often faces.

Chancellor Subbaswamy’s statement does not in fact promote a climate of tolerance and dialogue, but instead contributes to the racist and Islamophobic harassment and intimidation that Palestinian students and community members routinely face for speaking out in favor of BDS.

In his statement, Subbaswamy endorses the false claim that the Palestinian call for BDS is anti-Semitic, and claims that this event will alienate or offend Jewish students. As the Western Mass chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, we strongly disagree. As Jews, we are intimately familiar with anti-Semitism. We live with the trauma and fear caused by anti-Semitism every day.

Accusations that the movement for BDS is anti-Semitic and alienates Jews only serve to trivialize and obscure very real anti-Semitism, which comes from white nationalists, as we have seen with the shootings at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh and the Poway Synagogue in San Diego, and at UMass, where swastikas were found defacing buildings on campus.

It is deeply harmful to the Jewish community when anti-Palestinian activists weaponize our trauma to marginalize BDS advocates and Palestinians. To insinuate that BDS is anti-Semitic is to insinuate that Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land, human rights violations and apartheid are Jewish values. They are not. 

We support BDS — a non-violent, constitutionally-protected and time-honored method of protest called for by Palestinian civil society — because our Jewish values and history have taught us that we cannot be neutral in the face of injustice. It is our duty to stand in solidarity with our Palestinian comrades in their struggle for liberation and peace.

Jews who criticize Israel and its policies harming Palestinians are a key part of the Jewish community at UMass and beyond. We will not allow our voices to be erased as a means of silencing activists for Palestinian rights.

In support of his statement, the chancellor ironically relies on the value of inclusion, a value we wholeheartedly support. Yet, by giving institutional imprimatur to the problematic anti-Palestinian characterizations of BDS, he has spoken loud and clear about who on campus is deemed worthy of support and protection and who is not. 

The chancellor called the event “the antithesis of our commitment to inclusion,” and pointed campus members to support services including the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, the Center for Counseling & Psychological Health, and UMass Hillel. 

Where is the concern for the mental health of Palestinians who are often traumatized from living under occupation? Where are the counseling and support services for Palestinian students, organizers and community members when they are faced with backlash?

For a stark comparison, we note that Benny Morris, known Islamophobe who has openly argued in favor of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel, recently spoke at UMass, at an event sponsored by four UMass departments. Chancellor Subbaswamy made no such ideological condemnation of that event, nor did he clarify that Mr. Morris’ widely criticized viewpoints are not shared by the university, nor did he point Palestinian students to support services on campus.

If UMass truly seeks to establish itself as an inclusive, anti-racist institution, it must welcome and support colonized peoples (such as Palestinians) organizing for their autonomy and dignity, including through non-violent boycotts like BDS. As Jewish members of UMass Amherst and the broader community, we demand nothing less.