- Sut Jhallyprofessor of communication at the University of Massachusetts and founder and executive director of the Media Education Foundation, which organized the event, “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech, and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights.”
- Rachel Weberattorney and member Jewish Voice for Peace, Western Massachusetts chapter.
“Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech, and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights.” That’s the title of an event set to take place Saturday at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. After three anonymous UMass students filed a lawsuit to stop the event, a judge ruled Thursday the event can proceed, saying, “There’s nothing that comes even close to a threat of harm or incitement to violence or lawlessness.” We get an update from Sut Jhally, event organizer and professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts, and Rachel Weber, attorney and member Jewish Voice for Peace, Western Massachusetts chapter.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Western Massachusetts, where a judge ruled Thursday a panel on Palestinian rights can move forward. “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech, and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights.” That’s the title of the event set to take place Saturday at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Three anonymous UMass students filed a lawsuit to stop the event, claiming they will, quote, “suffer irreparable harm” if it takes place. But Judge Robert Ullmann ruled Thursday the event can proceed, saying, quote, “There’s nothing that comes even close to a threat of harm or incitement to violence or lawlessness,” he said. Meanwhile, the university has backed the event despite the protests, saying it’s committed to the principles of free speech and academic freedom.
The event is co-sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace. Group member and attorney Rachel—a group member and attorney responded to Thursday’s decision, saying, quote, “The judge ruled that to shut down this event would be to violate the First Amendment. But we also challenged the false premise that criticism of Israel is somehow inherently antisemitic. We have every right to criticize Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights. As members of JVP, and as Jews, we stand in solidarity with the event and with the panelists,” Rachel Weber said.
Saturday’s event will include several high-profile speakers, including Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour, who has faced death threats for her outspokenness, and Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill, who was recently fired from CNN for speaking up for Palestinian rights.
It will also include our guest today, who’s joining us in our New York studio: Pink Floyd founder Roger Waters, co-founder of the group Pink Floyd. Also joining us, Rachel Weber, attorney and member of Jewish Voice for Peace of Western Massachusetts. And from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, we’re joined by Sut Jhally, professor of communication at the university and founder and executive director of the Media Education Foundation, which organized the event.
We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Sut Jhally, let’s begin with you. Thanks for joining us from your school, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Can you explain what has taken place since the announcement of this panel for May 4th?
SUT JHALLY: Yeah. Good morning, Amy. Yeah, it’s been a firestorm of criticism since we announced the panel. I know that the chancellor and the administration have received scores of telephone calls protesting the event. The Massachusetts Republican Party has protested the event and wants it to be canceled. There was a letter written by 80 organizations, 80 right-wing organizations, demanding that the event be canceled and that the university disassociate itself from anything to do with the event. And, of course, as you just mentioned, there was this lawsuit that was filed by this right-wing organization on this spurious notion that somehow talking about Israel-Palestine was going to cause harm to Jewish students.
AMY GOODMAN: What was the organization that you—
SUT JHALLY: And so there’s just been this firestorm of criticism.
AMY GOODMAN: What was the organization you understood brought the suit? I mean, it was brought on behalf of three anonymous University of Massachusetts students.
SUT JHALLY: Yeah, that was just—I think that was just a scam. The lawsuit was brought by a group called Americans for Peace and Prosperity, which is a right-wing, really hate-filled group of reactionaries and bigots. And they started this about four weeks ago, when they first got—they first heard about the panel. They then, I think, found some students at UMass to kind of front the injunction. But this is not—this is not a suit that’s been brought by the students. This is a suit that has been brought by an external organization trying to shut down any kind of critical speech around Israel-Palestine. And I’m very happy that the university and the chancellor has held so firm to the principle of academic freedom and has not at all interfered with our planning for the event.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk more about the university standing up to the protest, saying the panel would move forward. And then, of course, you have the judge hearing this case yesterday, and we’ll talk about that.
SUT JHALLY: Yeah, as I said, I’ve been very—the university has been steadfast in its defense of academic freedom. They try to take what they call a kind of content-neutral approach, saying this is not about this particular issue, but this is about the ability of the university and faculty to sponsor events that talk to the main issues of the day, as controversial as they may be. And the university has not budged from that at all. I have to tell you, I have not even heard from the chancellor, you know, with any kind of concerns whatsoever. And I think that is a great credit to the university.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn right now to Rachel Weber, who is joining us from Western Massachusetts. She’s an attorney and member of Jewish Voice for Peace of Western Massachusetts chapter. Can you talk about your involvement in the court case yesterday, Rachel?
RACHEL WEBER: I’m sorry, can you—
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your involvement in the court case yesterday, what Jewish Voice for Peace, one of the co-sponsors of this event that is set to take place tomorrow—what you said to the court?
RACHEL WEBER: Certainly. So, we intervened as defendants in the case, because we wanted to make sure that the judge and the court was able to hear our concerns contesting the plaintiffs’ use of a definition of anti-Semitism that conflates anti-Semitism with any criticism of Israel. And so, we argued to the court, first of all, that allowing the injunction absolutely would have been a prior restraint on free speech, which is impermissible according to the First Amendment. And the judge was very clear on that. And then we also argued to the judge, both in front of—in open court and also with our filings, that the plaintiffs’ use of a definition of anti-Semitism which includes any criticism of Israel and any advocacy for Palestinians is both incorrect, inflammatory and offensive to Jews, Jewish communities, and also historically inaccurate.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break. And when we come back from our break, we’re going to turn to Roger Waters, the legendary musician, co-founder of Pink Floyd. He is one of the panelists set to speak on Saturday. Stay with us. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Roger Waters performing “We Shall Overcome,” accompanied by Alexander Rohatyn on cello, in the Democracy Now! studios. “We Shall Overcome.” It is Pete Seeger’s—well, the 100th anniversary of the late great folk singer and songwriter.