Lessons learned

Lessons learned

This is the flier that was being passed out at Pitt by the young man who interrupted Patrick Clawson’s speech and an older woman. (Photo courtesy of Amit Shimshi)
This is the flier that was being passed out at Pitt by the young man who interrupted Patrick Clawson’s speech and an older woman. (Photo courtesy of Amit Shimshi)

A man shouting obscenities disrupted a Panthers 4 Israel event last Thursday night at the University of Pittsburgh, where Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute was speaking to a crowd of 70 about the Iran deal.

After the man, who was in his early 20s, screamed at Clawson “F—-ing warmonger!” the Pitt Police escorted him from the William Pitt Union without further incident.

An older woman who had accompanied the man at the event and who joined him in distributing fliers that read “F—- Patrick Clawson,” stayed for the remainder of Clawson’s presentation but caused no further disturbance.

Most of those who had come to hear Clawson refused to accept the fliers, according to Amit Shimshi, president of Panthers 4 Israel.

The man was not detained, nor identified, according to Pitt’s Interim Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner.

Clawson, a senior fellow and director of research at the Washington Institute and the director of its Iran Security Initiative, has spent more than 35 years studying Middle East politics. He is a widely consulted analyst and media commentator and the author of more than 150 articles about the Middle East and international economics, with a focus on Iran.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh hosted Clawson in Pittsburgh at the end of July to explain the terms and likely consequences of the Iran deal and to suggest ways that Congress might act to perfect and clarify ambiguous provisions in the deal. Panthers 4 Israel brought Clawson to campus to help inform the student population and to develop partnerships with other student groups — including Campus Democrats and Campus Republicans — who were invited to attend an informal dinner with Clawson prior to his talk, according Shimshi.

Shimshi is a campus Israel ambassador, having traveled to Israel this past summer along with nine other student leaders and Gregg Roman, former executive director of the Federation’s Community Relations Council, to learn how to advocate for and educate others about Israel. The newly formed Israel Ambassadors Program is supported by the Federation.

Despite the interruption Thursday night, “it was a tremendously content-rich event, a high-quality, thought-provoking program,” said Dan Marcus, the executive director and CEO of the Hillel Jewish University Center. “But it was a very disrespectful and unpleasant disruption.”

Marcus praised the University’s handling of the situation.

“The University acted swiftly, and escorted the man out immediately,” Marcus said. “We are fortunate that the University takes its Jewish students’ and Hillel’s concerns seriously.”

Pitt is committed to maintaining the security at events hosted by its student groups, and has taken a strong stance against the interference of speakers invited by those groups, according to University officials.

“We expect all students to adhere to our Student Code of Conduct and we work with our student leaders to ensure that their events are safe and civil,” Bonner wrote in an email. “Interfering with the rights of others to host speakers of their choice is not acceptable for students or guests attending Pitt events.”

It was unclear as to whether the disrupting individuals were representing any particular organizations, and no organizations were identified on the fliers.

Panthers 4 Israel notified campus police earlier in the day that the Students for Justice in Palestine had sent an email to its list serve, encouraging its members to come to the event, and charging that the Washington Institute with which Clawson is affiliated “is a rightwing, war-mongering, neoconservative think tank that essentially serves as a front group for AIPAC.”

The SJP email attempted to draw a connection between the Iran deal and the Palestinian cause.

“The Iran Deal has everything to do with the suffering of the Palestinian nation,” the email charged. “It is almost certain that the US will increase their involvement in ($$$) and support for Israeli war crimes and human rights violations as compensation for defying Israel on the Iran Deal.”

While the event was meant to open up a conversation about the Iran deal on campus, Shimshi said, the protestors took things in an inappropriate direction.

“There are students interested in hearing bipartisan opinions,” she said. “But [the protestors] took it to the wrong side of things, and turned it into an ad hominem attack rather than a respectful, civil discussion. There was a question-and-answer session at the end, which was the opportunity to voice concerns.”

While anti-Semitic and anti-Israel activities at Pitt have not been as pronounced as they are at many other universities across the country, Hillel-JUC will continue to be vigilant in protecting its students, according to Marcus.

“I think it’s something we are certainly keeping a cautious eye on,” said Marcus. “We’re closely working with the interim dean and the staff of Student Affairs. There were lessons learned here and lessons learned from last year.”

Last November, masked protesters wielding electronic noisemakers disrupted an event co-sponsored by the Hillel Israel Education Committee at Pitt, necessitating the intervention of campus police and culminating with the removal and citation of one protester while others fled from the scene.

“When programs involve issues of the Middle East, we have to be aware, and we have to be sensible,” Marcus said. “But that is not in any way going to stop us from supporting and guiding Jewish students from having all the events and activities they want to have. Every expression of pro-Israel activity will continue to have the full support of the Hillel-JUC.”

Although Clawson’s speech was interrupted, Shimshi was nonetheless pleased overall with the event.

“It was really a success in terms of stirring up conversation,” she said, “and learning how the Iran deal is going to go now that it has effectively been passed. Panthers 4 Israel are proud of the outcome. We were excited to have an expert on our campus, and we did reach out to a lot of students. Only one was disruptive. The event went really well in reaching our goal of talking to students and helping them learn.”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.

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