Masked protesters wielding electronic noisemakers disrupted an event co-sponsored by a pro-Israel student group at the University of Pittsburgh on Monday evening, Nov. 24, necessitating the intervention of campus police and culminating with the removal and citation of one protester while others fled from the scene.
Approximately a half hour into the program — which featured a former medic from the Israel Defense Forces speaking on gender roles during wartime — about a dozen people stormed into the William Pitt Union Ballroom through the side door of the auditorium, throwing loud noisemakers onto the floor and carrying signs reading “Ferguson, Pittsburgh, Gaza, Fight Back,” according to David Katz, assistant director of the Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh.
The masked protesters interrupted the presentation of speaker Rebecca Shimoni Stoil, a former deputy commander of combat medics in the Eshet Battalion of the Armoured Corps. Stoil’s appearance was sponsored by the Jewish National Fund, the Hillel Israel Education Committee and Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, which is affiliated with ROTC. The event also was promoted by several feminist groups on campus, Katz said.
Stoil is pursuing a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and serves as the Washington correspondent for the Times of Israel.
“It was really jarring,” Haley Chizever, a JNF Campus Fellow at Pitt and a student organizer of the event, said of the protesters’ intrusion. “It was sudden. This large group of masked people came in with noisemakers and a large white sheet [used as a protest sign]. It was kind of scary; it was very out of nowhere.”
One of the protesters, Pitt student John Robert Rice, Jr., was given a citation for defiant trespass and removed from the premises, according to Ken Service, vice chancellor for communications at the University of Pittsburgh.
“He will face discipline from the university judicial process,” Service said, adding that Rice’s disruption of the event was a violation of the University’s Student Code of Conduct.
Service said he could not identify Rice as a member of any particular group or organization.
The other protesters who had entered the auditorium with Rice left the event when the police intervened, Katz said.
Stoil’s talk was not focused on Middle East politics, according to Chizever, but instead was concentrated on a subject not frequently examined: the role of gender dynamics in war.
The protest, Chizever said, “was a deliberate attempt to silence her voice and to shut her down. And she wasn’t there to talk about Israel.”
A second group of protesters — several members of the Pittsburgh chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine — also entered the event carrying signs but were not disruptive, according to Katz. They stayed for the duration of the event.
“Our protest consisted of signs which read ‘the IOF (Israel Offensive Force), oppressing and illegally occupying since ‘47’ and ‘Stop U.S. Funding to Israel,’” said a member of SJP who participated in the protest but who asked not to be identified by name.
“Students for Justice in Palestine organized the silent protest which took place in the rear of the venue,” the SJP member wrote in an email. “We are still unsure who was the organizer for the other disruptive demonstration (in which no SJP members participated).”
Earlier on Nov. 24, the Pittsburgh chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace posted on its Facebook page an invitation for people to join in protest against Stoil. The Facebook post stated: “TONIGHT: Join Pitt Students for Justice in Palestine to counter the callous decision by campus groups to invite an IDF soldier to speak at Pitt. The same groups that have pointed fingers at those hosting ‘one-sided discussions on Israel-Palestine’ tonight plan to exalt soldiers of the occupying force and present only their point of view.”
The Pittsburgh chapter of the JVP did not respond to inquiries as to whether its members were in fact part of either protest that evening.
While the subject of the event was gender dynamics in wartime, it turned into a forum to attack Israel, according to Chizever, who said that members of SJP shouted over other students who were trying to ask questions of the speaker during the question-and-answer portion of the program.
“Our group spoke only when addressed by the speaker, sometimes elaborating on each other’s statements, an act which may have been perceived as being loud,” the SJP spokesperson wrote. “The other group was willfully disruptive. Speculatively, the other group was attempting to bring the Palestinian narrative to a shamelessly one-sided event in which no Palestinian community members or activists were asked to speak at.”
Stoil was able to conclude her talk, Katz said, and received a standing ovation from the approximately 40 students in attendance.
Immediately following the event, Dan Marcus, executive director and CEO of Hillel JUC, got in touch with senior university officials regarding the disruption by the masked group with noisemakers, he said.
“I met with Kathy Humphrey, dean of students, who was categorical in sharing her outrage at this disruption,” Marcus said. “She made it absolutely clear to me that the appropriate disciplinary action would be taken against any students involved. She emphasized to me that this kind of disruption will never happen again in the William Pitt Union, and that Jewish students should feel safe in hosting events. Her care and support for Jewish students is without doubt.”
Humphrey, along with an associate dean of students, will be meeting with representatives from both SJP and Hillel JUC “to discuss proper protesting,” according to Service. “They will meet with representatives of both groups.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.