Standing up for Palestine at UMass

By Mark Clinton and Elizabeth Clinton

AMHERST, Mass.--Pro-Palestinian activists turned out to counter several hundred Zionists, some of them bused in from New York City and Boston, who occupied the Amherst Common on March 8 in a rally called by the Student Alliance for Israel (SAFI).

Billed as a "Rally for Israel, Rally for Peace," the description of the event on the social networking site Facebook said it was being called as a "response to the growing anti-Israel sentiment in the Pioneer Valley" of Western Massachusetts.

This is a reference to the recent victory for Students for Justice in Palestine at Hampshire College, whose two-year divestment campaign resulted in the college's decision last month to divest from six companies that profit from the Israeli occupation, and the growing movement at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) to divest from Israel's occupation and twin with Birzeit University in the West Bank.

SAFI's name for its rally was only half correct in that it premised "peace" on acceptance of Israel's "right to exist." That, as it turned out, was the only way it could assert, with anything approaching a straight face, that Zionists and supporters of Israel are pro-peace.

Recognizing that this attack on the local movement for justice in Palestine could not go unanswered, the UMass Campus Antiwar Netwrok (CAN), UMass Radical Student Union (RSU) and Amherst branch of the International Socialist Organization organized a counterprotest on short notice, which brought out approximately 70 activists.

Before the SAFI rally, students from various local colleges spoke quite about the history of Zionist oppression in Palestine and the role of U.S. imperialism in supporting that oppression. They punctuated much of the pro-Israel rally with spirited chants, including, "One country! Equal rights!" "When people are occupied, resistance is justified!" and "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!"

Speakers at the SAFI--included representatives for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America--proudly put their support of racism and oppression on display.

Greg Collins, president of the UMass College Republicans, who spoke after the SAFI organizers refused to allow a Palestinian student to speak from their platform. Collins spoke about his year studying abroad in Israel, where he met a high school student from Gaza who, he claimed, he counts among his closest friends.

After noting that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had bombed her school during the latest assault on Gaza, he said that whenever he looked at impoverished Palestinian children, he was glad they had the IDF to protect them from Palestinian extremists.

Dan Keefe, a lead organizer with the local antiracist Justice for Jason campaign who has been the subject of several reactionary reports in the Republicans' The Minuteman campus newspaper, got on the bullhorn following Collins' disgusting remarks to note that the UMass Republicans have belittled the notion that hate crimes exist and supported every oppressive practice on campus.

Virtually all of the Republicans' most prominent members write for The Minuteman, Keefe noted, and the newspaper used homophobic slurs and effectively justified homophobic violence against Keefe for his outspoken support for oppressed people. Keefe called for everyone who truly opposes racism and oppression to join the counterprotest instead.

Activists went home from the counterprotest against the Zionists convinced that we have much work to do to continue building the kind of militant movement that can win victories in the campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions. But we are equally convinced that this campaign, like the one that helped dismantle South Africa's apartheid regime, is on the right side of history.

The UMass Student Government Association is scheduled to vote on pro-Palestinian activists' divestment and twinning resolutions later this month.