Pro-Palestinian panel to go on at UMass Amherst

Judge rejects appeal from 3 Jewish students

IN A SIGN of the polarized times, it took a judge’s ruling on Thursday to clear the way for a pro-Palestinian panel discussion this weekend at UMass Amherst.

Three Jewish students anonymously filed a lawsuit attempting to block the discussion, claiming UMass-Amherst was violating their right to a safe environment by allowing an event that may stoke anti-Semitism to take place on campus. Their challenge was rejected on First Amendment grounds.

Sut Jhally, the director and co-founder of Media Education Foundation, which organized the event, said his group had expected the admittedly one-side panel discussion would stir controversy, but he said its focus was necessary to balance a public narrative controlled by pro-Israeli interests.

“We named it ‘Not Backing Down,’” he said of this weekend’s event. “That’s just it, we’re not backing down. If we do, there is no academic freedom, at UMass, anywhere, it’s lost.”

Jhally said his interest in Israel-Palestinian relations grew out of his own academic interests as a UMass professor teaching classes in media, public relations, and propaganda. “It seemed to me this was the textbook case of a successful propaganda campaign,” he said.

Jhally said he asks his students whether Israelis or Palestinians are illegally occupying land in the Middle East. Over half of them, he said, choose the latter. “That is just a factually incorrect statement,” he said, noting that since 1967 Israelis have been illegally occupying Palestinian land and exerting military control over 4 million people. “This is a colonial enterprise. What do you do if you want to set up a land, but there is already a population that’s been living there for generations and generations. What do you do? The answer is expulsion and using terrorist measures against the British and against the Palestinians.”

Israelis, however, have recast the power dynamic in the region, Jhally said. “The story that’s been told is that Israel is the victim, they are the little David and there’s all these Arab countries, all these Goliaths around, totally reversing the reality that they are the third largest military in the world. But that’s the myth, we have to protect ourselves in this dangerous neighborhood.”  

Under Israeli occupation, Jhally said Palestinians have few rights. There are frequent curfews, and their travel is impeded by numerous  checkpoints throughout the West Bank. A large part of the Palestinian male population has been in a prison system, he said, where children as young as 9 years old are detained.

“You can make people believe anything, make people believe the Palestinians are the oppressors. That’s the lesson of propaganda,” Jhally said. The US Congress and media, he said, are complicit in this propaganda campaign, suppressing stories and dialogue that raise issues about the Israeli occupations and human rights abuses.

As the voice of the anonymous plaintiffs, attorney Karen Hurvitz of Concord contends that many of Jhally’s assertions are in themselves evidence of a successful propaganda campaign. “These are the same anti-Semitic tropes that have been used for centuries, that Jews control government and the media and finances, and must be stopped.” It’s basically the same argument that was used by Hitler to gain power, she said.  

Hurvitz argues that Jews are under real threat in the United States and around the world. She cites the rise of anti-Semitic violence and threats on campus and recent terrorist acts in synagogues in Pittsburgh and San Diego. In Israel, she said, Jews are under threat by Muslims. “The Koran talks specifically about killing Jews,” she said. “What other religion talks about and threatens other religions?”  

Jhally acknowledges the reality of anti-Semitism, but he said UMass students are not being forced to attend. He also said it’s wrong to conflate voices supporting Palestinians with anti-Semitism. He said the point of the request for an injunction was not to stop the event. it was never going to be stopped. The goal is to say next time you have an event like this, this is what is going to happen, so is it really worth it? This is intimidation.”   

The full title of the event is “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech and the Battle for Palestinian Rights.” It is scheduled to take place this weekend at the Fine Arts Center on campus. Panel members include well-known advocates for Palestinian rights, including Linda Sarsour, co-founder of the Women’s March; Roger Waters, leader of the rock band Pink Floyd; Marc Lamont Hill, a professor and commentator who was fired from CNN for speaking out against Israel at the UN; and David Zirin, a sports journalist at The Nation.

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