The University of Pittsburgh Police restricted last week’s publicly advertised Hillel Jewish University Center-sponsored lecture to students after 30-plus anti-Israel protestors showed up to disrupt the event.
The anti-Israel protestors responded by posting a video of the event on YouTube, which they recorded without permission, and in violation of the speaker’s security directive, according to Aaron Weil, executive director of Hillel JUC.
Sgt. Benjamin Anthony, a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, visited Pitt, Monday, Jan. 31, to speak about the cost of conflict and the values that soldiers share during wartime. The Pittsburgh Israel Public Affairs Committee (PIPAC), College Republicans and Panthers for Israel hosted the event along with Hillel.
While the flyer advertising the lecture said the event was open to the public, the intention of the sponsoring groups was to limit attendance to students only because of space constraints, according to organizers of the event.
“There was a miscommunication,” said Mia Jacobs, president of the Hillel JUC student board. “It should not have said ‘open to the public’ on the flyer.”
A pro-Palestinian group arrived en masse for the lecture.
“The Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) reached out to the wider Pittsburgh community,” Weil said. “Over 30 individuals who were strongly opposed to Sgt. Benjamin Anthony — about half of whom were not students — came prepared to disrupt the event.”
“We had the event in a room that was set up for about 80 people,” said Samantha Vinokor, PIPAC president. “We didn’t expect such a large turnout of students and the public. We never expected that big of a crowd. We meant the event to be for the general student population.”
Campus police viewed the large number of protestors as a security issue, according to Jacobs, who is also a Chronicle blogger.
“The [anti-Israel protestors] showed up with signs and anti-Israel T-shirts,” Jacobs said. “They were ready to create a scene.”
The situation was similar to a program last year when another IDF soldier came to speak at Hillel. At that time, “the students from SJP protested outside the Hillel building, shouting slogans and yelling ‘murderer,’ ” Jacobs said. “They had to be escorted out. With that as a precedent, the Pitt police and Sgt. Anthony’s team decided to play it safe and only allow students in.”
Because Vinokor failed to fill out a campus police security form in advance of the event, officers were not expecting the potential security issue with which they were faced, said Weil.
“Campus police would have had proper security there to head this thing off,” he said.
“These were people known to the police to disrupt events,” Weil said. “The police decided for security reasons to keep this as a student event.”
A spokesperson for the Pitt police said there was no police report on record about the incident. The shift supervisor on duty that night could not be reached for comment.
“We felt comfortable with the decision [to exclude nonstudents] at Hillel,” Weil said. “It was still an open event, though it was not open to the community. Members of the [nonstudent] Jewish community also did not come in, and even those students opposed to the speaker were allowed into the room.”
Once inside the lecture, students from SJP, did, in fact, attempt to disrupt the event.
For security reasons, Anthony had requested that no video cameras be brought into the lecture. Nonetheless, the SJP brought hidden cameras into the lecture, and shot footage. In addition, as soon as they were seated, SJP students put electrical tape across their mouths, and began waving anti-Israel banners.
“About one third of the way into the talk, a leader for the SJP stood up and held up a Palestinian flag and walked out,” Weil said. “Just prior to that, pro-Palestinian community members were at the door shouting, ‘free Palestine,’ to drown out the speaker.”
The SJP students then joined other protestors outside the lecture room, and “were so loud, you couldn’t hear the speaker,” Weil said. “They also took a video camera, and through the glass walls, put it on the speaker. They put the video on YouTube.”
The Pitt police came and removed them.
Weil compared the reaction of the Pitt police to other university police departments, citing the incident last week at Rutgers University, where campus police were accused of barring some 400 Jewish students from attending what was billed as an anti-Zionist gathering.
“The Pitt police worked with the students, and the event went on with propriety,” Weil said. “I was impressed.”
While the University of Pittsburgh is still plagued by anti-Israel incidents, Weil said, Jewish students’ response to those incidents is becoming stronger and more effective.
In previous years, students often assumed a weak and insecure position in defending the Jewish state. Now, according to Weil, they are “going on the offense” and strongly advocating on behalf of Israel.
“The tide is turning,” he said. “In the eight years I’ve been here, I have not seen this large a number of Israel advocates. I think it speaks to the power of the Birthright experience.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)