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U. panel on race, liberation, Palestinian movement proceeds amid calls for cancellation

Noura Erakat, an associate professor in the Department of Africana Studies at Rutgers—New Brunswick, Marc Lamont Hill, a presidential professor at City University of New York Graduate Center and Nick Estes, an assistant professor in the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota, headlined a Sawyer Seminar on Thursday from Douglass campus. – Photo by New America, Way180 / Wikimedia & @nickwestes / X

On Thursday evening, despite appeals to cancel the event from Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-5) and others, the University's Sawyer Seminar, "The Afterlives of Liberation," hosted "Race, Liberation and Palestine: A Conversation with Noura Erakat, Nick Estes and Marc Lamont Hill" to discuss the ongoing Israel-Hamas War.

During Thursday's event, the panel discussed the intersectionality of Black, Palestinian and Indigenous struggles, how students can navigate this issue on campus and the impact the current war has had on Palestinians in the region.

The event was live-streamed online and held in person at the Loree Classroom Building on Douglass campus and was attended by more than 100 people.

Prior to the event, on Tuesday, Gottheimer issued a press release condemning the event and the panelists, saying they deny Israel's right to exist.

Gottheimer called the event "antisemitic, anti-Israel and hate-filled" in the release and asked the University to take action against the panel.

"Students deserve to feel safe on their campuses, and allowing these speakers to present their antisemitic, anti-Israel views will promote hate speech and exacerbate the potential for violence and attacks toward Rutgers' Jewish students," he said.

Last week, the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ issued a press release from Dov Ben-Shimon, the organization's chief executive officer, criticizing the event and including a sample letter they urged concerned individuals to send to University President Jonathan Holloway.

Holloway said in a Board of Trustees meeting earlier on Thursday that his administration received more than 12,000 emails during a 10-day period in response to the speaker series.

A University spokesperson who provided a statement to The Daily Targum said Rutgers recognizes the concerns raised but would still allow the event to proceed.

"Rutgers University has a longstanding policy protecting academic freedom, which allows our faculty members, in the discharge of their duties and within the bounds of the law and University policy, to express their ideas and to challenge the ideas of others without fear of retribution," the University statement read.

The University spokesperson also reiterated the importance of dialogue and discourse on campus and confirmed to the Targum that the Mellon Foundation provided the funding for the event.

"This includes the expression of viewpoints that others within the University community may not share and, in fact, may vigorously oppose — as many do in this case. Rutgers is a community of diverse ideas. We value academic freedom's protections that allow our faculty and invited guest lecturers to state their views and engage in lively discourse," the University statement continued.

The University received a $225,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation to support this and other Sawyer Seminars during the Spring 2023, Fall 2023 and Spring 2024 semesters under the series "The Afterlives of Liberation."

Sylvia Chan-Malik, associate professor in the Department of American Studies who moderated the event, acknowledged at the beginning that the University administration had received thousands of messages and petitions asking to cancel the panel.

"I want to share that our seminar email and registration has been filled with hateful comments and threats for weeks on end," Chan-Malik said. "I want to share that there has been vicious smear and remarks directed at our speakers, both statements that are patently and verifiably false."

She said it was the responsibility of academics in the U.S. to defend academic freedom and amplify underrepresented voices so students could receive different perspectives.

Chan-Malik said this specific seminar was a part of a larger project that was created by the Black, Indigenous and People of Color Faculty Caucus after the killing of George Floyd in 2020.

The series aims to educate students on the topic of racial justice, and Thursday's event had been planned since early September of this year, she said.

"Today's program perfectly encapsulates our seminar's aim, which is precisely why our team put it back together in early September this year, long before the crisis we currently find ourselves in, but wholly in the midst of a 75-year occupation of Palestine," Chan-Malik said.

Noura Erakat, an associate professor in the Department of Africana Studies at Rutgers—New Brunswick, said that holding discussions about Palestine had been severely stunted due to the recent rhetoric surrounding Palestinians.

She said focusing on Hamas allows people to avoid engaging in discussion about the loss of civilian lives in Gaza.

"I can tell you about 6,000 children who have been killed, and the response will be, 'But Hamas,'" she said.

Nick Estes, an assistant professor in the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota, said severed familial ties and ties to Native land are a connection between the Indigenous and Palestinian struggle.

While answering a question about student organizing, Estes said attempting to reform university administrations can be extremely difficult due to administrations delegitimizing student concerns due to their short-term presence in universities. He said that despite this, students can focus on getting involved beyond campus organizations.

"Bring that struggle into the community," Estes said. "Take the tools that you learn here from our wonderful professors, who are sharing the stage with me, and apply them in your community work."

Marc Lamont Hill, a presidential professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center, said educating oneself is valuable for getting involved as a student. The political movements discussed in the panel had a central motivation from political education, he said.

"You need to have the vocabulary, the depth of insight and knowledge, the inspiration to make these connections," he said.

Hill said he was trying to unpack the tragic events on an emotional and intellectual level while dehumanizing rhetoric was being used in reference to Gazans. He said he was unsurprised about the global reaction to the conflict.

On Thursday, several hours before the event, Rutgers—New Brunswick Chancellor Francine Conway sent out a University-wide email about actions and policies the University has undertaken to address the rising tensions on campus since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas War.

Conway provided a guide in the email on how Rutgers—New Brunswick has and will continue to respond to the ongoing situation on campus. The guide mentioned University-wide emails and campus events as continuous elements of its response.

Additionally, the document announced that Rutgers will be increasing and improving its diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and clarifying the University's stance on antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Further actions include creating an advisory council for University leadership and tinkering with rules and the student code of conduct.

Editor's note: A previous version of the headline stated "U. panel on Palestine proceeds amid calls for cancellation."

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