| March 11, 2009
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.
Updated: Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Hundreds of students and community members gathered on the Amherst Common yesterday in support of peace in the Middle East – but with two different solutions.
The initial rally, planned by University of Massachusetts organization Student Alliance for Israel (SAFI), supported Israel’s right to be an independent state as well as a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The rally was counteracted by a smaller but equally vocal group of protestors, including members of UMass’ Campus Anti-War Network, calling for an end to alleged oppression of Palestinians.
Originally, a peace rally favoring Israel’s right to exist was the brainchild of Hampshire College freshman Danielle Lubin. After studying and volunteering for a year in Israel, she was shocked at the amount of anti-Israeli sentiment on her campus.
Through a connection with her father, she worked with Rebecca Kahn, campus coordinator for the Jewish National Fund, to get the word out on the other side of the issue of a two-state peace solution, which would involve Jews and Palestinians each having their own country. Lubin enlisted the help of SAFI on the UMass campus, and they did the rest of the work in putting the event together.
“This voice has been silent for a really long time in this area,” Lubin said. “Both sides are important, both sides should be examined. . . . Hopefully this will create more dialogue, and will make people think about the issue a little bit more.”
She continued by providing her views on the issue.
“I don’t think there’s anyone [on either side] who doesn’t want peace,” Lubin said. “Jews need a homeland, a place they can be accepted. Every people are entitled to a land and a place where they can feel at home, at peace and comfortable to express their religion and identity freely.”
Protestors against the cause were vehemently against the rally’s cry for two states.
“The slogan that Israel is for a people without land is not true,” said protestor Mike Firrentino, a second-year student at Holyoke Community College. “It doesn’t acknowledge that Palestinians exist.”
UMass’ International Socialist Organization was also part of the counter protest.
“Socialists are against the oppression of any people and whenever land is forcefully seized,” said International Socialist Organization member Charles Peterson, a junior at UMass. “We are asking for Palestinians to have equal access to land that is historically theirs … personally, I support the intifada, and I am always on the side of the oppressed.”
SAFI President and UMass senior Mike Feder responded to protestors’ arguments with information directly from the country in question.
“[Non-partisan] polls show no one wants one state; both groups of people want to preserve their national identities,” Feder said. “The fact that a state has been offered and extremists demanded more at this point shows that they don’t speak for the general Palestinian population.”
UMass senior Dan Keefe commented that the current situation, as well as a two-state solution, leaves Palestinians without basic human rights.
“They’re trying to make a life for themselves, to regain what’s been lost,” Keefe said.
Many rallying in favor of Israel were motivated by their personal experiences in Israel – both good and bad.
Some SAFI members openly shared experiences they had while visiting Israel, both for family and education.
“When you go there, everyone is so connected,” said UMass junior Josh Lutch, SAFI’s tabling coordinator. “It’s a place where everyone shares a common religion, a common culture. It’s a place where you can live among people and not have to justify what you’re doing.”
Karen Sokolow, a freshman at UMass and SAFI’s public relations coordinator, visits family in Israel every summer but considers both Israel and the U.S. her home. She described situations where she risked her life just to visit family members, and emphasized the pride that Israelis have in their homeland.
“I’ve never seen more pride towards a country,” Sokolow said. “They’re filled with joyous sentiments about how much they love their country.”
She also stressed that yesterday’s rally was a “first step in a long journey” to peace.
Both Keefe and Firrentino of the counter protest, said their motivation in their activism comes from a disagreement with occupation and injustice, which strongly leads in to their views on many issues.
Keefe emphasized that, in his view, any nation that functions as a “mechanism of oppression” needs to be “destroyed.” Destruction, in this sense, refers to a radical change in a country’s government and society.
One of the rally’s speakers, Steven Grossman, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, shared his sentiments toward a group of students working towards Sokolow’s “first step.”
“Today a group of young people committed to a strong Israel and the peaceful national aspirations of another people showed that they believe that these two things can happen simultaneously,” Grossman said. “I hope that dialogue can happen with shared ideals and responsibilities.”
With both sides equally charged, not everyone involved was entirely optimistic.
UMass freshman Elana Sable offered that even though she supports the cry for a two-state solution, it is most likely far into the future.
“We’re both so passionate about it,” Sable said. “It’s a center for both religions. There’s no way either of us will ever let it go.”
--Mike Fox contributed to this article.Lucas Correia can be reached at email@example.com.