More than 100 Carnegie Mellon University and University of Pittsburgh students gathered at CMU’s “Walking to the Sky” statue to chant “From the river to the sea” and “From the Philippines to the Gaza, globalize the intifada.”
The rally, which started as a classroom walk-out promoted on social media by Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Pittsburgh, occurred on the 85th commemoration of Kristallnacht. It was billed as a call for a ceasefire in Gaza but became a gathering place for students to shout antisemitic, anti-Zionist and anti-capitalist tropes.
After several minutes of chants, a student who identified himself as Muhammad Ali took aim at Hillel JUC, expressing disappointment with the group’s statement on Instagram that cautioned Jewish students about the walk-out. The speaker also criticized a group of Jewish students who raised money for IDF soldiers in response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attack in Israel that killed 1,400 people and kidnapped another 240. The crowd appeared to agree with his sentiment, shouting “Shame!” in response.
The fundraiser, the speaker said, “coincided with statements from U.S. officials condemning pro-Hamas Palestinian groups on campus.” He did not mention the fact that Hamas has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, European Union, United Kingdom and other countries.
Several of the speakers mentioned 10,000 Gazan citizens who, they claimed, have been killed since the beginning of the conflict. The figure has been reported by the Hamas-controlled health ministry but has not been verified by outside sources. The students made liberal use of the number without mentioning those killed or kidnapped by Hamas. In fact, sympathy for Israel or the victims of Hamas’ attack was in short order, with most of the crowd repeating chants calling for end to Israel’s “imperialism,” while screaming accusations of genocide against the Jewish state.
Philosophy major Leo Deng, co-founder of the group Carnegie Mellon College Progressives, conflated the issue of Israeli-Palestinian relations with what he called his group’s “common fight to end capitalism.” He said this even though he is a student at the seventh-most expensive college in Pennsylvania, according to collegecalc.org. Several speakers addressed the receptive crowd, many wearing Palestinian keffiyehs, or scarves, and carrying signs in support of a ceasefire and the Palestinian cause. Among the speakers was a student from Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that bills itself as the largest progressive Jewish anti-Zionist organization in the world. On Oct. 7, the day Hamas savagely attacked Israel, JVP released a statement claiming that “the source of all this violence” was “Israeli apartheid and occupation — and United States complicity in that oppression,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.
The rally was not without protest. Before the event began, one student walking through the field where the event would take place, hollered, “Why don’t you go back to Gaza?” Another individual, the university said was not a student, shouted, “Return the hostages!” in response to the crowd screaming, “From the river to the sea!” Campus security interceded, the male said, telling him that he had to stop because the university didn’t want to create a problem on campus.
The administration disputes the individual’s version of the events, telling the Chronicle in an emailed statement that the person was permitted to talk and that security personnel simply asked him to step down from a wall where he was standing for safety purposes.
Nearly an hour before the rally began, CMU issued a statement on X, formerly Twitter, saying that the university requires a CMU community sponsor in order to hold a demonstration on campus. No student group, it wrote, was willing to serve in that role.
“As such, the rally is not approved to take place on our campus. As always, University Police, coordinating with other campus partners, will work to promote safety and security,” CMU officials wrote.
Peter Kerwin, the university’s director of media relations, reiterated that statement.
“Carnegie Mellon public safety and student affairs staff attempted to reach a campus organizer for this event, but were unsuccessful. We made clear in messages to those promoting the event that it was not authorized without a university sponsor, as outlined in our Freedom of Expression policy,” he told the Chronicle in an emailed statement.
Chabad of Carnegie Mellon University Rabbi Shlomo Silverman said that he reached out to CMU’s administration and was awaiting a response.
“We will do whatever we can to push the administration,” he said. “I have been meeting the president — it’s not like we’re not connected. They’re listening to us and say they feel bad…. They’re saying they don’t know what the response is going to be.”
The rabbi said that students calling for intifada should be held accountable, whether they understand the implications of their chants or not.
“If you are saying things that are openly calling for violence against the Jewish people, you can’t say things and then go, ‘I didn’t realize.’ I think that’s something people should be responsible for. Do a little research.”
Silverman said that some Jewish students believe are not supported by the university.
“They feel like no one is listening,” he said. “They’re done dealing with the administration. The main focus is on the Jewish community and doing things together.”
Chabad at Pitt Rabbi Shmuli Rothstein said that he isn’t surprised by what he’s seen.
“In every generation, people are going to hate us,” he said. “It’s people showing their true colors.”
He said that there has always been antisemitism present in academia.
Rothstein said that he supported academic freedom of expression, but it has to be tempered by honesty. He noted that often what gets reported doesn’t tell the whole story.
“It’s a false narrative they’ve been selling for years,” Rothstein said. “So, academia and inappropriate journalism had created a monster that’s going to threaten people globally and kill people.”
Despite the problems, Rothstein said that Pittsburgh’s campuses are better for Jewish students than some others in the Northeast.
“There are a lot of people who do support us, a lot of awesome people,” he said.
Hillel JUC Executive Director and CEO Dan Marcus said that he is in conversation with senior administrators at the university to advocate and support students.
Ben Koby, co-president of the Jewish Graduate Student Association at CMU attended the rally. He said because of the rally, and the university’s inaction when vandals tore down posters of the Israeli hostages that his group put up, students feel abandoned by the administration.
“The students have almost no confidence in the administration at the moment,” he said.
Koby said that many Jewish students are upset that a non-sponsored rally was allowed to occur The rally was held shortly after the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi had an Israeli flag torn from its building and learned that the fraternity was criticized in a meeting of administrators for hanging a banner that read “AE Pi stands with Israel,” according to two students who requested anonymity.
Koby said his group has spoken over the last month with university officials, warning that the situation would escalate.
“They continue to do nothing,” he said.
CMU President Farnam Jahanian issued a prepared statement late Friday, Nov. 10, saying that Jewish students had been subjected to “hateful phrases and slurs.” He specifically referenced the chant “from the river to the sea.”
“I condemn speech that advocates the eradication of any group of people,” he wrote.
He also said that he had “heard accounts” of members of the Arab and Muslim community being called called “terrorists,” “degenerates” and “animals.”
“Slurs dehumanize, divide and deeply hurt members of our community. Such rhetoric is antithetical to our values, fostering neither the intellectual rigor nor the inclusive environment we work tirelessly to cultivate,” he said.
“I need to call out the deep pain and fear that these words and phrases can cause,” Jahanian wrote. “Even when language may be protected under our policy on free speech, it still has the power to create fear of antagonism and violence. Let me be clear, I condemn speech that advocates for the eradication of any group or dehumanizes others. I strongly urge all members of this community to refrain from using language that targets a particular group and causes hurt and fear in friends, classmates or colleagues.”
The university, Jahanian continued, is committed to “meaningful dialogue” on campus “through the lens of respect and responsibility.”
“We are all part of one CMU community, and we share the responsibility to show care and concern for one another,” he wrote. “Words have power. Let’s be respectful and intentional in how we express our views.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.