Local university students grapple with pro-Palestinian messages on campus
Israel at warCMU, Pitt Jewish students ponder security, support

Local university students grapple with pro-Palestinian messages on campus

"Students are very upset that at a time when we need to be standing with Israel, standing against terrorism, standing against Hamas, that this is a slap in the face."

CMU students painted a message on the fence just days after the Hamas terrorist attack in Israel. (Photo by David Rullo)
CMU students painted a message on the fence just days after the Hamas terrorist attack in Israel. (Photo by David Rullo)

The sidewalk leading from Forbes Avenue to “the Fence” on Carnegie Mellon University’s campus is peppered with directions to the “Violins of Hope” exhibit at the school’s Posner Center.

The exhibit tells the story of instruments played by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust. It will be housed at CMU until Nov. 21, and the violins will be played in several local concerts. The “Violins of Hope” project aims “through lessons of the Holocaust, [to] demonstrate humanity’s amazing ability to rebound from even the darkest depravity.”

A message promoting CMU’s exhibition in partnership with the Violins of Hope. (Photo by David Rullo)

But on Oct. 9, just two days after Hamas entered Israel and savagely murdered more than 1,400 Israelis — mostly civilians — and wounded 3,000 more, pro-Palestinian students painted the Fence, a university landmark, with messages that seemed to support terrorists.

“76 years of occupation” was emblazoned along the wall in red, white, green and black paint. The Pan-Arab colors were first adopted by the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1964 to be used for a flag for what it hoped would be a future nation.

The other side of the Fence bore the message “Free Palestine.”

The university does not oversee the painting of the Fence, according to Peter Kerwin, CMU’s director of media relations. Rather, the Fence is “student governed,” he said, with rules applied by the Student Government Graffiti and Poster Policy. Students are allowed to paint messages on the Fence between midnight and 4 a.m. As long as a student stands guard during those hours, no one is allowed to coat the Fence with a new message until the following midnight.

Farida Abdelmoneum, a research assistant in CMU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, told WTAE that she represented a group of Palestinian supporters. She said they wanted to get media attention for what she called “the illegal occupation of Palestine.”

“When people are just like, they reach a breaking point, and they’re going to retaliate, and it’s at a very heavy cost — which is not something we don’t condone at all. It’s extremely sad to see,” she told the television station.

Abdelmoneum did not respond to the Chronicle’s attempts to reach her.

CMU’s fence was painted by students on its back with a second message just days after Hamas’ terrorist attack in Israel. (Photo by David Rullo)

Jewish students had painted “We stand with Israel” two days earlier, after learning of Hamas’ terrorist attack.

Chabad of CMU Rabbi Shlomo Silverman said the students who painted the pro-Palestinian message didn’t paint over the Jewish students’ message; rather, another group had painted an unrelated message between the two.

“Obviously, students are very upset that at a time when we need to be standing with Israel, standing against terrorism, standing against Hamas, that this is a slap in the face and it’s clearly not in the right taste,” he said. “Many students, faculty and staff are definitely not receiving it well.”

After the anti-Israel messages were painted on the Fence, some Jewish students were concerned for their safety and then didn’t feel adequately supported by the administration, Silverman said. He pointed to an Oct. 9 statement from university President Farnam Jahanian, which read in part:

“First and foremost, as a university community, we denounce violence, terrorism and extremism — in all its forms. Events of this magnitude can be overwhelming and impact each person differently. During these moments, our community is at its strongest when we support one another.”

The statement did not mention Hamas.

Silverman said he and Daniel Marcus, executive director and CEO of Hillel Jewish University Center, both work to ensure that each Jewish student feels proud and strong.

“They have a community,” Silverman said. “They have people they can lean on. That’s been our mission the whole time — do good deeds. We want peace and we’re here for you.”

Marcus called the anti-Israel messages on the Fence “deeply disturbing” and said they shocked the Jewish student community and the wider community, as well.

CMU alum Raphael Segal was so disturbed by the anti-Israel messaging that he spoke to the university’s alumni relations office.

“It wasn’t just ‘Free Palestine,’ or ‘We want people to live in dignity,’ or something like that,” he said. “It was ’76 years of occupation,’ which, as someone who has computers do math for me, seems to date back to approximately the 1940s. So, it’s not a question of who’s taking your passport all the way to Gaza City — that’s a message of elimination.”

Segal said that he and another alum told university officials that this wasn’t simply about context — it affected Jewish students’ feelings of security on campus.

“They seemed to get it,” he said.

By Thursday, Oct. 12, Jahanian released a new statement that read, “Terrorism is always and unequivocally unjustifiable and Hamas’s blatant disregard for human life and dignity is abhorrent.”

The dueling Fence messages were just one salvo in what promises to be a long war aimed at the hearts and minds of local university students as Operation Iron Swords continues.

On Oct. 9, more than 125 University of Pittsburgh students rallied in support of Israel at Schenley Plaza. That was followed by a smaller pro-Palestinian rally at the same location.

Eitan Weinkle, president of the Student Coalition for Israel at Pitt, was one of the organizers of the pro-Israel rally.

He said that the atmosphere on Pitt’s campus had been tense, partially because of a message by Chancellor Joan Gabel, which he called “horribly inadequate.”

Gabel’s statement read, in part, that “another wave of darkness has emerged in the violence taking place in Israel and Gaza. These heinous acts are antithetical to our values.” She made no mention of Hamas or terrorism.

Weinkle said that Gabel’s failure to condemn terrorism and antisemitism made “Jewish students feel unsafe on campus. We have seen students at other campuses be targeted for these reasons.”

Like Jahanian, Gabel also disseminated a statement on Thursday, Oct. 12. In it, she referred to “the horrific and heartbreaking scenes resulting from Hamas’ unprecedented terrorist attacks against Israel and the innocent civilians.”

Weinkle said Gabel’s second message was much better and expressed the tone many Jewish students had hoped to hear from the administration.

On Friday, Oct. 13, hundreds gathered for a pro-Palestinian rally at Schenley Plaza.

Deena Eldaour, an organizer with Students for Justice in Palestine at Pitt, told those in attendance that thousands of homes in her Palestinian village were destroyed by bombing, the Tribune-Review reported. The event, Eldaour said, wasn’t intended to be pro-Hamas; rather, it was a call for Israel to stop its military campaign against violence.

Some of the signs held by those in attendance read “Justice for Gaza,” “Free Gaza,” “BDS is Justified” and “End All US Aid to Israel.”

The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, which held a pro-Israel rally on Oct. 8 that was attended by more than 500, will hold a Community Vigil for Israel on Thursday, Oct. 19. Details were not available as of press time but will be available at pittsburghjewishchronicle.org. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

read more: