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Panelists voice support for Israel boycott movement amid campus criticism

  • People protesting a panel on “Criminalizing Dissent,” concerning the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against the Israeli government, circle the UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center on Tuesday. Below, are panelists Cornel West, left, Linda Sarsour and Shaun King. FOR THE GAZETTE/Sabato Visconti

  • Following Tuesday’s march, students and protesters arrive at the Newman Center for a community gathering. FOR THE GAZETTE/Sabato Visconti

  • UMass students Rebeca Dunn, Polina Brodskiy and Shira Almekies gather Tuesday evening at Kendrick Park in Amherst for a march promoting peaceful discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. FOR THE GAZETTE/Sabato Visconti

  • Student organizers Stephanie Margolis and Shira Almekies rally fellow University of Massachusetts students Tuesday for a march promoting peace and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. FOR THE GAZETTE/Sabato Visconti

  • Harvard professor Cornel West speaks at a panel titled "Criminalizing Dissent: The Attack on BDS & American Democracy" at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019.

  • Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour speaks at a panel titled "Criminalizing Dissent: The Attack on BDS & American Democracy" at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019.

  • Activist Shaun King speaks at a panel titled "Criminalizing Dissent: The Attack on BDS & American Democracy" at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019. —DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

  • Harvard professor Cornel West, Palestine Legal director Dima Khalidi, activist Shaun King and anti-racism advocate Tim Wise speak at a panel titled “Criminalizing Dissent: The Attack on BDS & American Democracy” at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

  • Activist Shaun King speaks at a panel titled "Criminalizing Dissent: The Attack on BDS & American Democracy" at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019. —DUSTY CHRISTENSEN



Staff Writer
Saturday, November 16, 2019

AMHERST — Amid tensions on campus, the “boycott, divestment and sanctions” movement aimed at the Israeli government over its treatment of Palestinians took center stage Tuesday at the University of Massachusetts.

A sold-out crowd was on hand at the university’s Fine Arts Center to see a panel titled “Criminalizing Dissent: The Attack on BDS & American Democracy.” Last month, university Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy issued a statement that said BDS, as the movement is known, “fails to acknowledge the humanity on the Israeli side of the conflict and is considered by many as anti-Semitic,” and that the event may alienate Jewish students.

Subbaswamy’s statement was met with praise from groups like the Jewish campus organization UMass Hillel, which promoted a “peace walk” at the same time as the panel. But event organizers, more than 130 faculty and groups including Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine sharply criticized Subbaswamy, saying he failed to support academic freedom and conflated anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.

Anti-racism activist Tim Wise, one of the panelists on Tuesday, had strong words for Subbaswamy.

“I do not need your chancellor, and I do not need anyone else, to tell me what anti-Semitism is,” said Wise, who is Jewish. He said his father’s Jewish community center was bombed in 1957, and that he himself worked against neo-Nazi David Duke’s bid for elected office in Louisiana.

Omar Barghouti, one of the co-founders of the BDS movement, was met with loud applause as his face appeared on the large screen on stage. He was speaking to the crowd via video conference after the Trump administration recently banned him from entering the United States, despite having frequently traveled to the country in the past. He said it is clear to him his ban has to do with his BDS activism.

“They tried to silence my voice but they failed,” he said. “Their McCarthyite repression has failed.”

Barghouti detailed human rights abuses he said the Israeli government has inflicted upon Palestinians, from bombings to creating conditions that will turn Gaza into an unlivable territory by 2020, according to the United Nations. He said that BDS seeks to end Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, to do away with the segregation Palestinians face and to uphold the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.

BDS was inspired by the boycotts against apartheid South Africa and the boycotts African-Americans conducted as part of the civil rights movement, Barghouti said.

“Similarly, Palestinians seek to use peaceful economic and cultural levers to achieve our self-determination,” he said. “BDS targets complicity, not identity.”

The civil rights activist Shaun King, known for his role in the Black Lives Matter movement and his highlighting of police brutality on social media, shared lessons he said he had learned from some of the failures he has experienced organizing for social justice.

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

Dima Khalidi, the founder of the legal aid organization Palestine Legal, detailed what she said have been attacks against those who have spoken up for Palestinian rights, both on college campuses and in state legislatures where lawmakers have tried to pass laws to punish supporters of BDS.

“We’re distracted, we’re intimidated, we’re made examples of,” she said. “Our resources are exhausted and we have to worry more about how what we say affects our oppressors than what is happening in Palestine.”

Harvard professor Cornel West was the last speaker at the panel, which was moderated by Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour. He, like Sarsour, is a prominent supporter of Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president in 2020. He said Sanders has the “strongest position when it comes to the humanity of Palestinians and the humanity of Jews,” though he said he disagrees with Sanders’ opposition to the BDS movement.

During the event, a group of those opposed to the BDS event at the Fine Arts Center took part in a march that they said was meant to end polarization and promote peace.

Rabbi Aaron Fine, the executive director of UMass Hillel, said during remarks at the march that Tuesday’s panel and a series of similar ones, including one in April that drew a lawsuit from students seeking to move it off campus, were polemical and that a “sane middle seems to barely exist.”

“None of this is to say that all critique of Israel is wrong or anti-Semitic, of course not,” he said, according to written remarks he shared with the Gazette. “The problem arises when critique of Israel is used as justification for a call for its demise and the flaws of Israel are treated as the primary problem in the world above all other political and humanitarian challenges.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.