A controversy in Amherst about a talk on the plight of Palestine and its 4.8 million citizens illustrates the tension on college campuses between protecting free speech and policies meant to foster inclusiveness and cultural sensitivity. The most troubling aspect may be that critics are calling the panel scheduled for Saturday evening and its participants anti-Semitic in an apparent attempt to shut it down.

This furor at the University of Massachusetts matters in our community for a couple of reasons. For one, it involves the integrity of the state’s flagship university as a forum where ideas are openly shared and challenged. More critically, aggression targeting Jews is dangerous and real, as shown by murderous attacks nationally and smaller incidents closer to home. A controversy that invokes claims of anti-Semitism where it doesn’t exist could impair our ability to see the real thing, and respond to it.

To be sure, the presentation called “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights,” hasn’t happened yet. A line-up of speakers includes Lamont Hill, a Temple University professor; Linda Sarsour, a founder of the Women’s March; Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation magazine; and Vijay Prashad, historian and professor of international studies at Trinity College. Roger Waters, who played bass for Pink Floyd and since has become a political activist, is also involved.

We don't know what the speakers will say, though some in the line-up, particularly Waters, have been criticized in the past for making comments with anti-Jewish undertones.

Among their topics Saturday, especially in light of the recent controversy, is bound to be the idea that it is exceedingly difficult to advocate for Palestinians, and criticize Israel, without being immediately labeled an anti-Semite. “The response to this event is why the panel is needed in the first place,” Sut Jhally, director of the Media Education Foundation, tells the Springfield Republican.

Still, the state Republican Party and Massachusetts Jewish Republican Committee are among groups criticizing the presentation and the university’s apparent support of it. A lawsuit filed on behalf of a handful of Jewish students seeks to force it off campus. For its part, the state’s flagship university calls itself content agnostic. UMass is not sponsoring the panel, a spokesman tells the Springfield newspaper, but just renting space as it would to any other third party organizing an on-campus event. Critics say the university is being coy given the handful of college entities, including the Department of Communications, where Jhally is on faculty, listed as  sponsors.

Regardless, being critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people does not mean one is targeting Jews or buying into a long, destructive history of those who do. How does it relate to the intent of a teenager accused of bringing his rifle to a San Diego synagogue last weekend, killing a congregant and wounding others? Or a man who killed 11 Jews last October at a Pittsburgh synagogue?

Or even those behind less violent but still hateful aggression, such as swastikas carved into desks at Andover High School in late 2017, or scrawled elsewhere in any number of North Shore and Merrimack Valley communities?

The answer is that these things are not related.

Earlier this week the Anti-Defamation League reported a near-record in the number of anti-Semitic incidents it had catalogued across the country last year. Those include vandalism elsewhere in Andover and at Masconomet Regional High School, and a comment attributed to a middle school student in Newburyport.

In all, the group counted 1,879 acts of harassment, vandalism or outright assault on Jews, their places of worship and other institutions in 2018.

Anti-Semitism and its roots should be brought to light. Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement this week: “It’s clear we must remain vigilant in working to counter the threat off violent anti-Semitism and denounce it in all forms, whatever the source and regardless of the political affiliation of its proponents.”

Casting Israel’s critics, even its harshest, as people who hate and would seek to harm Jews undermines the credibility of that important work.

For more about the Anti-Defamation League’s report visit https://www.adl.org/2018-audit-H

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