Anti-Israel activists held a panel on the "exploitation of antisemitism" at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (UMass) on Wednesday — the latest effort in a campaign to promote a book on the topic by a fringe Jewish group.
The event — sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and Students for Justice in Palestine, along with multiple departments — featured UMass philosophy professor Joseph Levine and communications professor Sut Jhally, as well as Vijay Prashad, who teaches South Asian history and international studies at Trinity College.
Levine is an active member of JVP, which promotes the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. BDS — described as "the most prominent effort to undermine Israel's existence" by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) — has also been praised by Jhally, who served as the executive producer of the film "The Occupation of the American Mind." The film is promoted as an "analysis of Israel's decades-long battle for the hearts, minds, and tax dollars of the American people."
Prashad is similarly an advisory board member of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, a leading driver behind the call for BDS. During Wednesday's panel he claimed that "the real anti-Semites, namely the fascists, who go by the name alt-right, get a free pass while those who are against anti-Semitism and who are critics of Israeli state policy are labeled anti-Semites," according to a report in the Daily Collegian student newspaper.
Jhally likewise called antisemitism "a very, very effective silencing mechanism," which is used to distract "from what the state of Israel, not Jews, what the state of Israel is doing to the Palestinians."
Levine, in turn, took the opportunity to denounce the premises underlying the State Department's definition of antisemitism — including that "Jewish people constitute a nationality and not a religious group," and that "Palestine is the historical homeland of the people who now call themselves Jews," the Daily Collegianreported.
The panel — the latest in a string of events on college campuses to promote JVP's controversial book "On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice" — drew criticism from some members of UMass' Jewish community.
Jonathan Skolnik, professor of German-Jewish Studies, called JVP's event "provocative and negative" and organized a counter panel to take place concurrently.
Titled "Antisemitism and Islamophobia: Historical Perspectives and Civic Engagement Against Hate in 2017," the event featured Skolnik as well as Jay Berkovitz, chair of UMass' Judaic and Near Eastern Studies department, and Susannah Heschel, professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College.
"I, like many Jewish (and non-Jewish) students and faculty were hurt and upset that five academic departments at a serious university would lend their names and co-sponsorship to a provocative, one-sided panel on 'antisemitism,' co-sponsored by controversial political groups, and featuring three professors with similar radical political views but zero scholars of antisemitism," Skolnik told The Algemeiner.
"In response," he added, "colleagues and I decided to do what I believe is the best thing that universities can do: invite informed researchers and practitioners with diverse perspectives to discuss important subjects, for the benefit of students and the community."
The event was attended by some 50 people, including "students, community members, and also a few members of JVP," Skolnik said. "Jewish students in attendance said afterwards that they were happy and grateful to see someone like Susannah Heschel respond to their questions about how one can engage today as simultaneously a progressive, a feminist, and a Zionist who supports human rights for all and two states for two peoples."
The panels at UMass come on the heels of a high-profile event promoting "On Antisemitism" at The New School in New York on Tuesday, which included Women's March co-organizer Linda Sarsour and leading JVP activists. Smaller renditions of that event — which was condemned by the ADL, Simon Wiesenthal Center, the editorial boards of the New York Post and Jerusalem Post, and a petition signed by over 20,000 people — have been held on multiple campuses, from Stanford University to SOAS University of London.
Kenneth Waltzer — executive director of the anti-BDS Academic Engagement Network, who wrote a critical analysis of JVP's book — told The Algemeinerthat "JVP knows little about anti-Semitism and engages the subject in a bait and switch strategy" in order to claim that it is used "to silence progressive pro-Palestinian voices."
"It is rather the case that forms of left and right anti-Semitism are blossoming in the present and should be causes of growing concern on campus and off," Waltzer observed.
ADL chief Jonathan Greenblatt criticized "On Antisemitism" in an op-ed published Tuesday, and noted that the work "has been accompanied by a nationwide 'tour' of JVP members who are trying to publicize it."
"After reading the 'book,' we want to address one of its core claims: anti-Semitism can never be linked to criticism of Israel," Greenblatt wrote. "This is nonsense. You can dress it up as political theory, but when an ideology is obsessed with denying one group of people the rights that are offered to all others around the world, that is intolerance, plain and simple."