UMass Chancellor Applauded Over BDS Criticism, University President Urged to Act
The president of the University of Massachusetts system is being urged to condemn academic boycotts of Israeli universities, after the chancellor of the Amherst campus faced criticism for acknowledging that such boycotts damage academic freedom.
In a letter sent to President Martin Meehan last month, the heads of the Academic Engagement Network and the AMCHA Initiative — both of which oppose the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign in academia — applauded Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy of UMass Amherst for an October 21 statement condemning a “one-dimensional” and “polarizing” BDS panel that was set to take place on campus on November 12.
The event, which came on the heels of another major pro-BDS panel on the Amherst campus in May, exclusively featured supporters of the BDS campaign, which has been criticized by Jewish groups worldwide for denying the Jewish people’s right to self-determination and advancing antisemitic tropes. Among the participants was BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti, who has rejected the notion that Jewish people have a right to self-determination by claiming that they are not a nation, as well as activist Linda Sarsour, who has spoken at a rally hosted by antisemitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and recently claimed that Israel “is built on the idea that Jews are supreme to everyone else.”
The lack of ideological diversity on the panel, Subbaswamy noted at the time, would do “little to increase the understanding of such a complex topic like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
“Furthermore, because the BDS position in general fails to acknowledge the humanity on the Israeli side of the conflict and is considered by many as anti-Semitic, the upcoming event could very well alienate many of our Jewish students and other members of our campus community,” the chancellor added.
Subbaswamy’s comments were opposed in an open letter by some 130 UMass faculty members, though they drew support from groups including AEN, which counts more than 700 US faculty members, administrators, and staff in its ranks.
In light of the faculty criticism, AEN and AMCHA urged President Meehan in their letter “to issue a system-wide statement clarifying that the University is opposed to academic boycotts of Israeli universities.”
They noted that dozens of UMass Boston faculty members — including some in prominent positions — have endorsed an academic boycott of Israel, many by pledging support for the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI).
The official USACBI guidelines call on conforming academics “to boycott and/or work towards the cancellation or annulment of events, activities, agreements, or projects involving Israeli academic institutes or that otherwise promote the normalization of Israel in the global academy.”
If UMass faculty members abide by these guidelines, AEN and AMCHA noted, “they would be engaging in activities that directly and substantively harm their own students and fellow faculty” — including by undermining collaborative research with Israeli academics or torpedoing campus events that feature Israeli peers.
It is crucial, the groups argued, “for faculty members themselves to understand that treating one’s own students or faculty colleagues as collateral damage to a political agenda is wrong and violates the principles of collegiality and academic integrity that are central to the university.”