Posters publicizing the estimated 240 hostages kidnapped by Hamas terrorists and being held in Gaza were torn down and defaced on both the Carnegie Mellon University and University of Pittsburgh campuses last week, shortly after being hung.
Adding insult to injury, posters with the hostages’ names and faces were replaced this week with parody posters featuring faces of Gaza residents with the claim “Murdered” on top of the placards.
Ben Koby, co-president of the Jewish Graduate Student Association at Carnegie Mellon University, said that his organization followed CMU’s regulations when it hung the hostage posters on public bulletin boards.
“The policy,” he said, “is that you are not allowed to take down these flyers from public bulletins over the course of 30 days, or if it’s for events that have occurred. That’s where we’ve been hanging them. We’ve been making sure to follow all of the regulations.”
The posters were hung on Oct. 23 throughout the campus, Koby said. By Oct. 27, the Jewish group was made aware that many of the posters were torn down.
Some flyers that were not removed were defaced or covered by advertising for other student events.
The JGSA hung a second round of posters, documenting where they were hung so that they would have proof for the university’s administration if they were removed or defaced again.
Chabad of CMU Rabbi Shlomo Silverman is JGSA’s adviser, but the group is student-run. The rabbi has opened the lines of communication with CMU’s administration, Koby said.
“The administration has been receptive; they’ve even been sympathetic,” he said. “The president of the university was at Shlomo’s Shabbat table this past week. He spoke with the students. One of our members brought up the flyers. His response was, ‘Put them back up.’”
While Koby appreciates the sentiment, he said the group would prefer action on the part of CMU’s administration — something that Dean of Students Gina Casalegno said wouldn’t be coming. She met with the group on Nov. 6.
“There is nothing she can do to prevent our flyers from being torn down, and thus, our rights being violated,” he said. “She literally said that she cannot protect us.”
One Jewish student, who asked not to be named out of concern for her safety, said it’s helpful to know who doesn’t like her, but that doesn’t make it feel any less terrible.
She said that some people feel the posters are a provocation.
“At the same time,” she said, “I feel like we’re all connected to the people that were taken hostage. If I were taken hostage, I would want people to see my face and know my name and what happened to me.”
The JGSA, she said, focused its last round of flyers on a friend of her family who is being held in Gaza.
“A quarter of them were torn down or defaced or covered up in 24 hours,” she said. “It was like a punch in the stomach to me. It’s easy to take these hard stances, but they don’t realize that to a lot of us, it feels personal.”
For Silverman, covering the posters of the hostages with posters of Gazan residents has made the situation worse.
He said he’s had conversations with university leaders who appear to be looking at the removal and defacement of the posters as a free speech issue.
“The university,” Silverman said, “has yet to get word from their lawyers as to what is considered protected and hate speech.”
Silverman has not heard what the university’s response will be to the JGSA’s posters being removed and defaced.
One thing university officials have told him is that violence won’t be permitted.
Silverman originally thought the removal of the hostage posters was a grassroots effort, but he now believes it to be coordinated.
He noted that while the JGSA followed the rules and put its organization’s name on the posters, whoever ripped them down, and put up their own, hasn’t obeyed the university’s regulations.
Some students on campus don’t understand that Hamas is a terrorist organization, he said.
“They won’t put a connection with someone screaming ‘Free Palestine’ the day after a terrorist attack, to them supporting Hamas — and I think that’s what they’re missing,” he said. “That’s what they are missing on campuses around the country.”
Peter Kerwin, CMU’s director of media relations, said that the school’s student affairs team received reports of posters being removed against the rules and immediately reported it to the Carnegie Mellon police for investigation. Any violations, he said, would be referred to the student conduct process.
CMU’s leadership and staff, Kerwin said, continue to provide support and resources to Jewish students and others impacted by the Hamas/Israel conflict. The university, he said, is working closely with Hillel JUC and Chabad leadership.
University police are providing enhanced coverage on campus, and CMU is offering outreach to students to help them feel supported and secure.
On Nov. 14, CMU will launch a series dedicated to combatting antisemitism through education and conversation with keynote speaker Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who was held hostage in his Colleyville, Texas, synagogue by a terrorist sympathizer in 2022.
Posters of Israeli hostages have also been torn down on the University of Pittsburgh campus. Some of these instances were caught on video.
Sofia Rubin said that she and a few other Jewish students put up flyers of the hostages on Oct. 31, affixing them on crosswalk poles and other designated areas. The group, she explained, used extra tape, so that it would be difficult to remove them.
“The sad thing is, we had the expectation that these were probably going to get torn down because that’s what we’re seeing at college campuses all over the country,” she said.
By Nov. 1, most of the posters were removed.
But Rubin witnessed someone tearing down a poster as she made her way across campus with a friend and recorded it.
“I was so angry my legs were shaking,” she said. “My friend tried to ask her why she was doing this and is it bad that Jews are being slaughtered. Her response was ‘But what about the Palestinians?’”
The event was repeated last weekend. On Sunday, Rubin said she saw people near another pole appearing to touch the hostages’ face, an action she thought was being done in solidarity with the hostages. She was aghast when she saw that those at the pole were actually tearing down the posters.
“I got out my phone and started to record. I was like, ‘Do you condemn Hamas and their slaughter of Jews,’ and all the guy would say is, ‘I’m against genocide.’”
Several other posters, she said, were defaced with the phrase “Free Palestine.”
Chabad House on Campus Co-Director Sara Weinstein said that the organization has had regular conversations with Pitt’s administration. She called the relationship “crucial.”
“I think they feel like their hands are tied,” Weinstein said. “We’re disappointed they aren’t doing more to prevent negativity and anti-Israel and antisemitic rallies. We are standing up against that. We’ve made certain suggestions, and we will follow up.”
She said it’s unfortunate that Jewish students question their security following these types of incidents.
Jared Stonesifer, a Pitt spokesperson, said that the university has a written policy on temporary signage, and that its officials recognize the elevated concerns of the community.
“The Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and the Division of Student Affairs are both reaching out to various faith communities and ethnic groups — and listening to the issues that different members of our community are raising and sharing information about available resources,” Stonesifer said.
The University’s Office of Public Safety and Emergency Management, he added, has been in regular contact with leaders of religious and cultural organizations to discuss safety and security needs.
“We also maintain a security presence at all demonstrations and rallies, speak regularly with concerned parents and religious and cultural leaders to discuss our safety protocols, and coordinate with local, state and federal law enforcement,” he said.
Dan Marcus, Hillel JUC’s executive director, hasn’t been directly involved with the poster incidents but said he, too, is in talks with the university officials.
“Hillel JUC is constantly supporting and nurturing Jewish students and in communication with senior administrators at CMU and Pitt,” he said.
“We’re here,” Marcus said, stressing that tearing down the posters is unacceptable and that the incidents were reported to the proper authorities.
Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh Security Director Shawn Brokos said universities are situated on private properties, which means the response is different than what it would be on public property, where there would be a police investigation following a vandalism complaint.
She said that the universities are investigating and that, at least at CMU, the university’s police are involved.
It’s important to remain vigilant, Brokos said.
“Walk in pairs, not alone. If you see something, call 911 immediately,” she said. “What we’re seeing on college campuses is escalating faster than what we’re seeing throughout the community.”
Both Silverman and Weinstein are quick to note that despite the recent antisemitic incidents, the best way to battle darkness is to bring more light.
Sofia Rubin agrees.
She is planning an event in Schenley Plaza where an empty Shabbat table of 240 settings was set up last week.
“We’re going to have 1,500 flameless votive candles under the tent and factual signs around the tent to commemorate the memory of the 1,500 Israelis murdered,” she said. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.