Protesters trespass, encamp on Pitt’s property
Camping for hateAnti-Israel protestors pitch tents with antisemitic designs

Protesters trespass, encamp on Pitt’s property

Demonstrators, not affiliated with university, call for termination of relationship with Hillel

Antisemitic statements are both chanted and hang outside of an anti-Israel encampment at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. (Photo by David Rullo)
Antisemitic statements are both chanted and hang outside of an anti-Israel encampment at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. (Photo by David Rullo)

This story was updated on June 5.

For the second time in less than three months, anti-Israel protesters created an encampment on Sunday at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning.

Upping its rhetoric from previous protests, Pitt Apartheid Divest posted a statement on its Instagram site calling for the university to “Immediately terminate Pitt’s Chapter of Hillel,” “immediately terminate the Student Coalition for Israel at Pitt,” and “Remove the IHRA definition of antisemitism from the DEI website to avoid the false and defamatory conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism.”

The group also threatened that “escalation will continue until the University upholds its purported commitment to justice and equity.”

Those calls were among a litany of demands on Pitt, including divesting investments from Israel, rejecting the normalization of ties with “the Zionist regime,” refusing grants from the US-Israel Binational Science Foundation, supporting Palestinian academics, dropping charges against protesters, demilitarizing the campus police and severing ties with Pittsburgh police.

The group also called on the university to “assure the protection of First Amendment rights and the freedom to speak, assemble and protest,” while demanding that speakers with whom they disagree be banned from campus.

The Hillel Jewish University Center and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh said in a joint statement they were “outraged” by the encampment.

“The calls to terminate Hillel JUC is a reprehensible attempt to target the primary Jewish organization that serves close to 2,200 Jewish students across Pittsburgh area universities,” the statement read, adding that the motivation of the demand was clear: to threaten Jewish safe spaces and to make Jewish students feel unwelcome.

The Hillel/Federation statement said the protesters’ demand to remove the IHRA definition of antisemitism was “an insulting attempt to dictate how Jews can and cannot define bigotry against themselves.”

Daniel Marcus, Hillel JUC executive director, said that 99% of Jewish students are not on campus (the semester ended weeks ago), but those with whom he’s been in contact “are disgusted and deeply disturbed by this encampment and expect the university to deal with it.”

Marcus said he expects that the university will deal with protesters “in a correct and timely manner.”

The latest confrontation between protesters and the university began when demonstrators erected a fence around pitched tents and formed a human chain at the Cathedral of Learning.

Anti-Israel protestors at an encampment located at the Cathedral of Learning show support for Iranian backed Houthis terrorists, who support the terrorist group Hamas and have attacked American and British ships in the region. (Photo by David Rullo)

Jared Stonesifer, Pitt’s communications director, said two demonstrations taking place in Oakland converged on the Cathedral of Learning’s lawn and “quicky erected wooden barricades, fencing and other structures with tents inside.”

The university, he said, was working with the Pittsburgh police, Allegheny County police, Pennsylvania State Police, Carnegie Mellon University and Carlow University to monitor the situation.

As of Monday morning, only one person, Donald Johnson, 33, of Pittsburgh, was arrested and charged with aggravated assault, resisting arrest and obstruction. He is not affiliated with the university.

Despite only one arrest, the chaotic scene included other acts of violence.

Reuben Rochkind, a Pitt student, heard about the encampment from other Jewish students in a group chat. He went to the protest with a few friends, taking an American flag with him. As he stood with his back to the fence separating the encampment from the rest of the cathedral grounds, a masked assailant in the camp grabbed him from behind. He fell to the ground while struggling to break free from the attacker, who clutched the backpack Rochkind was wearing.

“It caught me off guard,” Rochkind said. “I was definitely not expecting that to happen.”

He said that he went to the demonstration to try to engage the protestors in conversation, something the group’s handlers wouldn’t allow to happen.

Rochkind said he thought it would be appropriate to bring an American flag.

“I believe America has a lot of good values, like the freedom of speech and the freedom to protest,” he said. “The protesters are out there and they’re, in my opinion, anti-Western and anti-American.”

Rochkind’s assault didn’t stop him from trying to have conversations with the protesters. He was back Monday morning, and while he didn’t speak with any demonstrators, he did talk with a history professor wearing an “Irish for Palestine” pin. The professor said the conflict in Gaza was a “genocide.” Rochkind said it was a war. The professor walked away saying there was no agreement between their stances.

“That’s a professor,” Rochkind noted, adding that the encampment “is a hostile environment” for Jewish students.

“It’s right in the middle of campus and hard to avoid,” he said. “It makes sense to keep moving and not engage if you want to avoid any kind of trouble.”

In a June 3 statement to the Chronicle, Stonesifer acknowledged that the new encampment was “markedly different from the largely peaceful protest in Schenley Park in April.”

The new protest, he said, included the destruction of property and other actions outside of the university’s foundational principles of peaceful advocacy and open dialogue.

He noted that the protesters’ leaders who were asking for meetings are not students “and their affiliations are with organizations that also have no connection to the university.”

Although those in attendance violated several university policies and failed to follow police directions to disperse, “senior leadership remains committed to meeting with students, faculty and staff to hear their concerns,” Stonesifer said.

In a June 3 message to Pitt students, faculty and staff, Pitt Chancellor Joan Gabel noted that the group protesting is not affiliated with the university and that it defaced the Cathedral of Learning and the exterior of the Frick Fine Arts building, including with “antisemitic graffiti.” Additionally, a weapon was thrown through a window and materials were placed in the revolving doorway of the Cathedral of Learning with “what appeared to be the intent to ignite those materials.”

Several of the protesters also brought young children with them, she said.

“We have no illusions that the efforts of this group last night are directed toward free expression,” she wrote. “What we saw last night, and continue to see, are attempts to destroy property at the historical core of our campus, as well as accompanying action that in no way elevates open inquiry or allows for peaceful advocacy.”

On Monday morning life in Oakland was back to normal. The only disruption was the closure of the Cathedral of Learning and William Pitt Union, along with the closure of the sidewalk on Fifth Avenue between Bigelow Boulevard and Lytton Avenue, in front of the Cathedral of Learning.

Even the antisemitic chants coming from the camp — “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free,” and “There is only one solution, Intifada, Revolution” — were ignored by those passing by the encampment and drowned out by the sound of buses and construction vehicles on the neighborhood’s thoroughfares.

And yet, by Tuesday evening, another group of protestors, egged on by the Instagram accounts of Pitt Apartheid Divest and Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Pittsburgh — who issued pleas for people to come to the encampment and bring creature comforts like energy drinks and paper towels — gathered on the university’s property and clashed with police.

That protest fizzled to an end after conversations with Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey and Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato. They negotiated with a group that included self-identified Pitt students and instructors, as well as someone who Innamorato called “a faith leader inside the encampment,” and some members of the “Jewish and Palestinian” community, Innamorato said.

In a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Gainey said his primary focus is on keeping the city safe, and after hearing about the clashes with police, he reached out to Innamorato and the two worked to deescalate the situation.

At a June 4 press conference, Mayor Ed Gainey discussed his conversation with a group of protestors trespassing at the University of Pittsburgh. (Photo by David Rullo)

“If I can make a difference to ensure that everyone goes home safely, I’m going to do that,” Gainey said.

The negotiations, he said, were not about the group’s demands, which were primarily focused on the university’s policies, but on a way to resolve the conflict.

“Last night we were able to keep the peace in Oakland, which is my primary responsibility as county executive,” Innamorato said.

Addressing the reports of antisemitism at the encampment, Gainey was clear.

“We have seen a rise in antisemitic behavior. Let me say right now, I condemn any antisemitic behavior in this city,” he said. “I’m speaking to directly to everyone in this city when I say that we condemn antisemitic behavior.” PJC

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