On Saturday, May 4, as Hamas missiles rained down on Israel, five other members of Alliance for Israel and I watched Temple University Professor Marc Lamont-Hill sitting on the stage of the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center and refuse to condemn the attacks. He articulated his position in response to a question from the audience, “What do you say about the rockets that are being fired into Israel?” which the moderator, Vijay Prashad read from an index card.
However, before he communicated his remarkable position, Prashad—in true BDS form— shrewdly warned him to tow the party line. Prior to reading the question, Prashad commented, “It’s extraordinary that anyone would even think to ask about attacks against Israel rather than reflect on the extraordinary structural violence in Palestine.” In turn, to support Prashad’s mockery of the question and its author, panelist Linda Sarsour looked at Lamont-Hill, tilted her head, and smiled.
Charged with answering the question while understanding that he had to frame the missiles reigning down on Israeli children as insignificant, Lamont-Hill paused, and then said, “OK,” communicating his trepidation about how to respond. In turn, Sarsour smiled more widely and the audience laughed.
Prashad anticipated Lamont-Hill’s response by leaning toward him and looking at him with a serious gaze. As if he were making one small concession to the Israeli victims of terror, Lamont-Hill then slowly and deliberately described the attacks on Israel as “an actual fact on the ground.” He proceeded to say, “I think, though, it would be problematic and short-sighted and intellectually dishonest not to look at the full context of that.”
Seemingly relieved and in an apparent attempt to encourage Lamont-Hill, Prashad nodded at him emphatically.
“You can’t just look at one piece,” Lamont-Hill stated, followed by, “I think we need to have a conversation about what constitutes terrorism.” To that, the audience applauded more feverishly.
Needless to say, Lamont-Hill and the other panelists did not look at the “full context” then or at any other time during the evening. They did not utter a word about Hamas’s redirection of foreign aid intended for providing social services to the Palestinians living in Gaza to building tunnels of terror into Israel and to firing missiles into Israeli homes. To them, the “full context” was merely a euphemism for a country that they believe is illegitimate and racist and that must be dismantled.
In addition to witnessing Lamont-Hill’s chilling adherence to the BDS playbook, I listened to lies, to hypocrisy, and to the egregious condemnation of Israel’s existence. I watched a possibly intoxicated and labile Roger Waters accuse artists who perform in Israel as lacking in empathy, followed by his sinister smile as an Israeli member of the audience was thrown out in tears. His tears were a response to Lamont-Hill’s refusal to condemn Hamas’s missiles and were accompanied by an emotional insistence that the missiles were acts of terror and that his family and friends were suffering. Throughout the difficult incident, Waters sat and smiled while Sarsour manipulated the moment to point out that the individual’s emotional outburst had been directed at the only “Black man” on the stage.
Next, I watched Linda Sarsour as she explained that her support for BDS is the result of “a call from Palestinian society,” a common phrase used by BDS proponents but one that is never substantiated. “Which Palestinian society?” I wondered, “and why do they remain silent while a Brooklyn born woman and other affluent BDS leaders earn thousands of dollars each time she speaks about them?”
Toward the end of the evening, I listened in disbelief as Lamont-Hill claimed without provocation, “I am not suggesting that there is a power conspiracy or a cabal of power trying to take people down. That would be antisemitic”; when Sarsour described Congresswoman Omar as “a freedom fighter,” and Elliott Abrams as “a war criminal;” and when Waters promoted the Al-Jazeera “investigative documentary,” called, “The Lobby” as evidence to support Omar’s comment about “the Benjamins.”
While none of us entered the hall with the intention of interjecting, the event proved to be more of a political rally than an academic exchange of ideas as demonstrated by the “panelists” chanting, “Free, free Palestine!” throughout the event while raising their fists in the air and by audience members calling out words of support. In addition, the palpable and gratuitous expressions of Jew-hatred, and the complete disregard for Israeli lives at the same moment that missiles were killing and maiming them in their homes and on their streets were extraordinarily difficult to digest in silence.
For all of these reasons, there were one or two occasions when the audience clapped and raised their fists and some of us booed. At other times, we called out pointed questions, and at the end, when Vijay Prashad referred to Martin Luther King’s quote, “Only in the darkness can you see the stars,” two of our colleagues from Boston IAC held up my Israeli flag to display the blue star of our freedom and self-determination after centuries of persecution.
In all instances, our responses were visceral rather than intellectual and spontaneous rather than orchestrated. In all instances, they demonstrated our anguish and our commitment to bear witness and to expose antisemitic rallies disguised as academic panel discussions.
In conclusion, the evening was a brazen display of anti-intellectualism, of towing the BDS party line, of hypocrisy, and of disregard for Israeli lives. Indeed, dismissal, smiles, and laughter filled the room at the first mention of violence against Israelis. And yet, the members of the panel and the BDS campaign as a whole accuse us of racism and colonialism and militant oppression for refusing to relinquish the one country in the world where Jews can seek refuge.
Those of us who support Israel must continue to bear witness and to disseminate the antisemitism articulated by supporters of the BDS campaign. We must attend events held on campuses and schools, and complain when they prove to be political rallies rather than educational forums. We must hold speakers accountable for their antisemitic statements and we must hold universities accountable for hosting them. Perhaps then, the next time Professor Lamont-Hill claims, “Palestinian freedom doesn’t mean Jewish destruction,” he will also acknowledge the chokehold that Hamas has on freedom for the Palestinians in Gaza, recognize that Hamas is, in fact, trying to destroy Israel, and include those two “actual fact(s) on the ground” in his analysis.
Most importantly, we must come out from the shadows and cease to allow ourselves to be intimidated. If we cannot, how can we expect Jewish students to do the same? And more importantly, how can we expect to interrupt the growth of the BDS campaign?