Not Backing Down: Where Free Speech Isn’t Quite Free

by

Wednesday, May 8, 2019


As I sat in the full theater at UMASS Amherst on May 4th, 2019 for the so-called “Not Backing Down-Free Speech” event, I couldn’t help but wonder how it must have felt to be in Germany in 1938 as Hitler stood on the balcony of the Hotel Elephant in Weimar and proclaimed to the Nazis’ his grand vision for the Jews and Germany.

With an audience made up primarily of what felt like a few hundred anti-Israel activists, left-wing, extremely self-critical Jews, a few Zionist students from SAFI UMASS and recent graduates of local schools, one could look in every direction to see our neighbors seething at the idea of the existence of a Jewish State.

At the beginning of the panel, Vijay Prashad, journalist for Democracy Now and the Real News Network introduced what he called the “three strikes rule” for interruptions during the event. “If you choose to interrupt the event, you will be asked to stop. If you choose to interrupt again, you will be asked again politely to stop. The third time, well you don’t want to know what happens the third time.” With the multitude of heavily armed police stationed at every door and on the roof tops, it was clear that, on the third time, a disrupter would be forcibly removed from the audience.

Of course, it didn’t take long for anti-Israel members of the audience to spot what Marc Lamont Hill laughingly called informants sitting in the row next to them. Every time one of these students mumbled under their breath, one particular couple in front of me would wave three fingers in the air calling for the student to be thrown out. This student was visibly harassed by his neighbors, members of the row in front of him and UMASS staff before I viewed him audibly make any sort of interruption to the crowd. As he was being thrown out, he shouted, “Am Yisrael Chai (The People of Israel Live).” In unison, the fascistic crowd chanted, “Free free Palestine” to drown out the voice of the Jewish student. One member of the audience, from my point of view, appeared to take a swing from the row above at the student as he was leaving. Fortunately, he did not appear to hit the student so much for a crowd committed to non-violence.

When the panel finally completed their opening statements, which included Roger Waters giving a 15 minute poem with anti-Semitic tropes throughout, Linda Sarsour claimed she was the greatest ally of the Jewish people and that Jews will never be safe unless they are in an alliance of progressive and intersectional activists. Marc Lamont Hill recited what felt like slam poetry about his emotions related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and David Zirin had stood up proudly to claim he was a self-hating Jew in the spirit of Larry David and proud to be against the government of Israel. Then it was time for the panel to open up for a question and answer period.

Of course, unlike at pro-Israel events where Free Speech is actively encouraged and all questions and debate are welcome, questions for this “Free Speech” event were required to be submitted in writing, allowing for Mr. Prashad to have full ability to determine whether to answer each question.  

After asking questions such as, “Why is BDS so great?” and the like, Prashad found his way to a question seemingly submitted by a pro-Israel student. He introduced it by stating something to the effect of, “Though this panel has generously taken its time to discuss Palestinian rights and the silencing of Free Speech, some member of the audience had the audacity to delegitimize all of this by questioning about the rockets in Israel. With that said, Marc, what do you think about the rockets currently being fired in from Gaza to Israel?” At the end of the question, the audience booed and chanted once more. To his credit, Marc Lamont Hill did attempt to answer the question, but he did so by providing the “context” that it was “problematic” for him to have to denounce Hamas before having a legitimate debate about Israel.

At this point, a second brave student stood up and shouted at the panel to stop demonizing Israel and delegitimizing Israel. This student too was met with fascistic chants of “free Palestine” in an attempt to silence his Freedom of Speech. Again to his credit, Marc Lamont Hill, unlike the other panelists who charged for the student to be thrown out stated, “My brother, I welcome your Free Speech but please allow me to utilize my Free Speech first to answer the question before you disagree.” This was perhaps the most nuanced moment of the event, and that in and of itself is sufficiently disturbing.

My question, regarding how BDS actually harms Palestinians, often costing them their jobs and their ability to provide social mobility to their families by targeting Israeli owned businesses was neither accepted by those collecting questions, nor was it addressed by the panel.

Free Speech cannot be for me but not for thee. No Free Speech should be silenced. Fortunately, at every pro-Israel event I have ever attended, all debate is welcome. I can only hope that the other side will someday realize we all want the same goalpeace in the Middle East.

 

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The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.


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