Students for Justice in Palestine protest IDF soldier speaking at Hillel JUC
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Israel at warRally at the Cathedral of Learning

Students for Justice in Palestine protest IDF soldier speaking at Hillel JUC

“We will not be deterred or intimidated from providing meaningful Jewish and Israeli experiences to our student community." — Daniel Marcus, Hillel JUC executive director

Elya Jacobowitz shows his support for Israel at the Cathedral of Learning, as protesters chant anti-Israel slogans. (Photo by David Rullo)
Elya Jacobowitz shows his support for Israel at the Cathedral of Learning, as protesters chant anti-Israel slogans. (Photo by David Rullo)

On an unseasonably warm day beneath a gray sky and periods of heavy rain, about 100 people gathered at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning on Jan. 24, ostensibly to protest speaker Yadin Gellman, an IDF commando veteran from the Sayeret Matkal Unit and an Israel actor.

Instead, it became an opportunity for members of the protest organizer, Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Pittsburgh, and others to make the same anti-Zionist claims that have been repeated at rallies since Oct. 7, and yell the same antisemitic chants against Israel.

The Gellman event was sponsored by the Student Coalition for Israel at Pitt and held at The Edward and Rose Berman Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh.

The protesters were a mix of Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University students, non-students carrying signs with messages that included “Babies should be born not bombed,” men and women wearing keffiyehs — a popular choice for those aligning with residents of Gaza and the West Bank — and at least one person wearing a shirt that read “Not in our Name” and holding a sign stating, “Jews say stop genocide of Palestinians.”

Police kept the crowd contained on the muddy lawn and puddled sidewalks in front of the building’s Bigelow Boulevard entrance as other students, uninterested in the events taking place outside of the Pittsburgh landmark, entered the building for classes.

Shortly after 4 p.m., using a portable microphone and speaker, an SJP officer led chants of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” “Gaza, Gaza don’t you cry, Palestine will never die,” “Biden, Biden you can’t hide, you’re committing genocide,” and “1-2-3-4, Occupation no more; 5-6-7-8, Israel is a terrorist state.”

“From the river to the sea” has long been a rallying cry of Hamas and its supporters. It is a call for a Palestinian state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, which would mean the end of the Jewish state and include the removal of Jews from their ancestral homeland.

Absent from the calls on the Pitt campus was any mention of Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel on Oct. 7 — which included the murder of babies and sexual assault of women — nor were there any comments about the 130-plus hostages still held in Gaza.

After claiming that Israel stole Palestinian land from her relatives and that SJP had a more difficult time scheduling events than Jewish groups on campus, the speaker addressed comments about SJP’s social media post promoting the rally.

The post said, “Join us tomorrow in protesting an IOF soldier speaking at an event at Hillel JUC building.” At least one social media user pointed out that the “O” in “IOF” should be a “D.” The speaker said the change was purposeful, and that IOF means Israeli Offensive Soldiers, an appropriate name, she said, because the Israeli army has historically raped, arrested and murdered innocent Palestinians.

The protest didn’t only attract the attention of those wishing to express sympathy for the Gaza Strip.

Pittsburgh resident Elya Jacobowitz made his way to the top of the stairs of the Cathedral of Learning and began waving an Israeli flag before police asked him to leave the stairs to keep the area clear for students.

By 4:15 p.m., the protesters were on the move, marching down Forbes Avenue to Hillel JUC. As rally leaders used bullhorns to lead those walking in chants of “Free Palestine,” a passerby yelled, “from Hamas.”

Once at the Hillel-JUC building, the protesters congregated on the sidewalk and street, leaving only a small passage for those entering the building.

The organization sponsoring the IDF speaker, SCIP, is a sub-community of Hillel JUC. Its leaders only learned of the planned protest the evening before the event, said Daniel Marcus, executive director and CEO of Hillel JUC.

He called the protest “shocking” and “unacceptable.”

It was “deeply upsetting and disturbing to students and staff and a very painful experience,” he said.

Hillel worked with Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh Community Security Director Shawn Brokos and campus security to ensure those attending the event would be safe, Marcus said.

“We will not be deterred or intimidated from providing meaningful Jewish and Israeli experiences to our student community,” he said.

Eitan Weinkle, president of SCIP, said that it was important for the organization to give students the chance to hear all perspectives.

But, he said, he wishes that those protesting the event would take the time to discuss the Hamas-Israel conflict rather than just intone antisemitic chants.

“It’s like Yadin said: The people protesting are good people. We wish that they would commit themselves to dialogue and conversation rather than shouting ‘Globalize the intifada’ outside of a building where someone is speaking who watched a bus bombing when the second intifada occurred,” Weinkle said.

SCIP learned of Gellman’s story from a few Oct. 7 survivors the group met last year, according to Weinkle.

“We felt his story was very unique and particularly compelling to tell an Israeli perspective of Oct. 7 and what that was like,” he said.

Ben Koby, co-president of the Jewish Graduate Student Association at CMU, attended the event.

He said that the IDF soldier and his team neutralized dozens of terrorists, saving the lives of many people.

“He explicitly talked about how they came upon a car that was speeding away and they shot out the tires,” Koby said. “They found a terrorist who had two women tied up in the back that he was trying to take into Gaza. He said he took four bullets and had his arm almost completely blown off and almost bled to death.”

Gellman, Koby said, his voice filling with emotion, was a “hero” and “extremely inspiring.”

A University of Pittsburgh spokesperson said that Hillel JUC is an independent nonprofit organization and that its building is privately owned.

“Most of the demonstration occurred on streets owned by the city of Pittsburgh,” the spokesperson, Jared Stonesifer, said. Since the Hillel JUC event and demonstration occurred off-campus and were not sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh, the groups didn’t have to comply with the university’s event planning guidelines.

Weinkle believes that Gellman’s story highlights the tragedy and violence of Hamas’ terrorist attack.

“In order to really understand any of this, personally, I want to hear all perspectives possible, and Yadin’s is an incredibly important one,” he said. “I think that to discount it is incredibly dangerous. His story is very powerful. It painted a very solemn and real picture of what happened on Oct. 7 and that shouldn’t be lost on anyone.” PJC

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

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