AMHERST — More than 1,500 people packed into the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center on Saturday for an event that drew widespread media attention and controversy before it even began.
The panel was titled "Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech, and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights." Late last month, three unnamed University of Massachusetts Amherst students attempted to move it off campus by suing the university, arguing that the speakers and their event were anti-Semitic and a threat to Jewish students on campus. Earlier, Robert Trestan, the regional director of the New England chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, or ADL, wrote in a letter to UMass Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy that the speakers' rhetoric "demonizes the State of Israel and seeks to marginalize its supporters."
But supporters of the event said the opposition was an attempt to censor pro-Palestinian voices. Jewish Voice for Peace Western Mass member Rachel Weber argued in court Thursday that the event's detractors were conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism to silence the panelists. A Suffolk Superior Court judge denied the students an injunction seeking to bar the event from campus on First Amendment grounds.
Speaking Saturday at the event, which had a heavy police presence, organizer Sut Jhally, the executive director of the Northampton-based Media Education Foundation, pointed to one headline from Mondoweiss, a website about Palestine, Israel and the United States, that he said captured the essence of the controversy: "Israel supporters try to shut down UMass forum about efforts by Israel supporters to shut down debate."
"The injunction was not really about stopping this event," Jhally said, adding that it was about "intimidation" and "bullying."
That's how Jhally introduced the panel, which featured former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, an outspoken advocate for Palestinian rights; Palestinian-American political activist Linda Sarsour, the co-chair of the Women's March; Marc Lamont Hill, a professor and political commentator who CNN fired last year for remarks he gave at the United Nations in support of Palestinian rights and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, known as BDS; and Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation magazine who has been a vocal critic of the Israeli government.
Journalist and historian Vijay Prashad moderated the panel. Before introducing the panelists to loud applause, Prashad played a video message of solidarity for the event from the political activist and academic Angela Davis, who supports BDS.
Each speaker took the microphone for around 10 minutes to start the program, with Zirin going first.
"There is nothing anti-Semitic about criticizing the actions of the Israeli state, and it is absurd that I have to say that," he said, defending the panelists on stage as allies in the fight against white nationalism and anti-Semitism.
Zirin, who himself is Jewish, accused the far right of attempting to "weaponize our faith."
Sarsour was next, and she said she believes in the nonviolent ideology of Martin Luther King Jr.
"I believe in the power of nonviolent means to bring about change," she said. "And if BDS was not an impactful and effective movement, they wouldn't be trying to oppose it."
The topic of BDS was raised often in the lead up to Saturday's panel; the lawyer who filed for an injunction against the event on campus referred to it as a "BDS event" in a press release, and the ADL in its letter to the university's administration linked BDS with the "destruction of the State of Israel."
Sarsour, meanwhile, wrote on Facebook after the injunction was denied and before the event was held that "these attempts only embolden us further and refuel us to stand up for the rights and dignity of the Palestinian people. Right Wing Zionists 0 Palestinian Solidarity 1."
She said that, as a U.S. taxpayer, she wants to see her money used to fund programs like Medicare for All, "not to fund and not to use our hard-earned money to fund an illegal occupation."
Sarsour added that those who label her and other critics of Israel as anti-Semites are resorting to ad hominem attacks instead of discussing the morality of Israel's policies. "I will not be silenced, I will not be intimidated," she said.
Responding to criticism
On the subject of backlash, Lamont Hill described how CNN fired him and some called for his job as a media and communications professor at Temple University in Philadelphia because of six words he used in a speech before the United Nations: calling for a free Palestine "from the river to the sea."
Supporters of Israel, including the ADL, said those words were code for the destruction of Israel because they've been used by Hamas and other groups who have called for Israel's destruction. Hill later apologized for his word choice in an essay in the Philadelphia Inquirer, saying that he takes seriously "the voices of so many Jewish brothers and sisters, who have interpreted my remarks as a call to or endorsement of violence ... Although this was the furthest thing from my intent, those particular words clearly caused confusion, anger, fear, and other forms of harm. For that, I am deeply sorry."
On Saturday, he said that "Palestinian freedom does not mean Jewish destruction, it does not mean Jewish marginalization."
Waters was the final speaker, explaining briefly that his support of human rights is what led him to stop playing shows in Israel. He then read his poem "Is This the Life We Really Want?" which criticizes — at times satirically — everything from war to the ruling class.
Throughout the event, attendees applauded and chanted "Free Palestine." Later in the evening, several audience members protested, with some briefly holding signs and shouting out their criticisms from the crowd.
In the final portion of the three-hour panel, the speakers answered questions from notecards passed up by the audience. Most of the questions came from critical audience members, like one who asked "What do you say about the rockets that are being fired into Israel?"
Lamont Hill said that it is important to have a conversation about the topic, adding that he himself is critical of Hamas. But he said that the discussion would be "dishonest" if it didn't also focus on the violence of Israel's blockade of Gaza, pointing to a United Nations report that said Gaza could be "uninhabitable" by 2020.
Toward the end of the event, the panelists addressed the criticism of those who said it was "one-sided," with no supporters of Israel's policies included among the speakers. Prashad suggested that "only certain panels are portrayed as one-sided."
Sarsour said she takes issue with the notion that in order for her "truth to be whole ... it needs to be validated by my oppressor."
"But it's a new day and a new era," she said, "and we will no longer be marginalized."
The university's Department of Communication and Department of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies, as well as the Resistance Studies Initiative UMASS, originally cosponsored the event. Jhally said that after opposition to the event, five other departments signed on as cosponsors, including the anthropology, philosophy and sociology departments.