Guest columnist Rosalie P. Porter: A courageous stand at UMass against tide of anti-Israel protests

UMass students gather outside the chancellor's office in Whitmore during  a walkout and sit-in event on Wednesday to demand that the university cut ties with weapons manufacturers and condemn Israeli actions in Gaza.

UMass students gather outside the chancellor's office in Whitmore during a walkout and sit-in event on Wednesday to demand that the university cut ties with weapons manufacturers and condemn Israeli actions in Gaza. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

More than 300 UMass students protested Israel’s attack on Gaza on Oct. 25, eventually occupying the chancellor’s office.

More than 300 UMass students protested Israel’s attack on Gaza on Oct. 25, eventually occupying the chancellor’s office. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

UMass students gather outside the chancellor’s office in Whitmore Administration Building during a walkout and sit-in event in October to demand that the university cut ties with weapons manufacturers and condemn Israeli actions in Gaza.

UMass students gather outside the chancellor’s office in Whitmore Administration Building during a walkout and sit-in event in October to demand that the university cut ties with weapons manufacturers and condemn Israeli actions in Gaza. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By ROSALIE P. PORTER

Published: 11-09-2023 2:32 PM

My highest compliments to the Daily Hampshire Gazette staff on the fine news coverage and columns published recently. First, the excellent column by Susan Wozniak, “Hannah Arendt, Golda Meir: Truths to be listened to” [Oct. 27]. Second, the coverage of the student protests at the University of Massachusetts. It is rare to find fair and balanced coverage of such an incendiary topic as the Hamas/Israel war.

Hannah Arendt, a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany, grew up in New York and achieved fame as a reporter and writer. She covered the trial of a concentration camp manager, Adolf Eichmann. He ran the camp as if it were a small business, seeing that things worked on time. Arendt presented the stunning notion of “the banality of evil,” that this man responsible for the killing of thousands of Jews believed he was only doing an ordinary job, following orders.

Golda Meir was prime minister of Israel 50 years ago, at the time of the “Yom Kippur War” in 1973, an attack on Israel by Egypt and Syria. That was not a singular event, but one of six wars launched on Israel since its establishment by vote of the United Nations in 1948.

Many attempts have been made to bring a durable peace to Israel and its Arab neighbors: the Camp David Accords under President Jimmy Carter, the Two-State solution, the Abraham Accords more recently. Peaceful coexistence between Jordan and Israel, and between Egypt and Israel, is a reality. The talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel, just days before the Hamas attack, were a strong certainty before they were derailed by war.

These facts are essential background, a lead-up to Oct. 7, for today’s young adults who seem to lack any knowledge of the history.

The explosion of protests in favor of the Palestinians of Gaza and even of Hamas’ terrorist acts brings us to the related point of this essay — the student protests at our own University of Massachusetts.

Not a surprise that protests began so quickly. Yet it hurts to watch the united student condemnation of Israel within days, if not hours, of Hamas’ invasion of Israeli villages near the Gaza border and on a music festival in the border area.

The UMass student protesters invaded Whitmore Hall, mainly occupying the offices of the chancellor. But now a totally unexpected response occurred. At the end of the work day of Thursday, Oct. 26, the chancellor sent word that the protesters must leave the building by 6 p.m. or they would be arrested.

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As a longtime Amherst resident with close connections to UMass, I’ve seen a number of student protests in the administration building, sometimes being tolerated for weeks. This time Chancellor Javier Reyes was firm in having the offices cleared, allowing students to leave peacefully. All but 56 who defied the order were arrested, taken to District Court, booked and released.

Chancellor Reyes met with the protesters the next day for an exchange of views, though the students reportedly were unconvinced. He stated his unequivocal opposition to terrorism against Israel and Jews. It would seem a reasonable reaction to violence against any group, but among today’s students it is unacceptable. Bravo, Chancellor Reyes, for the courage to speak publicly on such a divisive topic.

A similarly courageous stance is taken by University of Massachusetts President Marty Meehan. He signed on as a Coalition Founder, with over 100 college and university chancellors and presidents, to take a stand on the war. Their statement, “We Stand Together with Israel Against Hamas” counters the thousands of protests around the world today supporting Palestinians and excusing Hamas.

Total disclosure: Longevity matters. I took part in anti-Vietnam War protests and in support of civil rights in the 1960s. I was arrested for blocking the entrance to Westover Air Force Base while protesting our bombing of Cambodia. We lived in a Moslem country, Turkey, for several years in our early married life. I returned there several times to give lectures in different cities.

Our right to public speech, to protest, in written or spoken words, is our inalienable right. Viewpoint discrimination has flourished in academia in the past decade. Time for the supposed home of the search for truth and beauty to live up to its mission, not suppression of unwelcome ideas, but open discussion.

Rosalie P. Porter is the author of  “America Challenged: The New Politics of Race, Education and Culture.” She lives in Amherst.