Israel’s new consul general to the Mid-Atlantic Region visited Pittsburgh this week amid growing concern over anti-Israel sentiment on the college campuses here.
Daniel Kutner, who has been on the job at the Philadelphia–based consulate for four months, met Tuesday evening with Jewish students and other guests at the Hillel Jewish University Center. He held a Gaza briefing for the community at large Wednesday morning at the Jewish Community Center before meeting with the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which has been highly critical of Israel during its war with Hamas.
Kutner’s visit coincided with the heightened anti-Israel sentiment at the three major universities in the city, Hillel JUC Executive Director Aaron Weil said.
“Each week there’s another [anti-Israel] rally,” Weil said. “[In] five of the last seven issues of the Pitt News, it was the cover story. It’s been pretty intense; we have not seen students pushed back against the wall this hard since five years ago.”
On Saturday pro-Palestinian groups held a “march of dead” in which they carried faux coffins including shoeboxes meant to resemble babies’ coffins. The ZOA on campus organized a counter demonstration that attracted up to 35 participants.
Also, there is a photo exhibit at the Pitt Union of inflammatory shots from Gaza with caption information that Campus ZOA President Samantha Vinokor said was inaccurate and “had no validity.”
Last week, 50 Jewish students from the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and Duquesne University met for three hours to plan a response to the situation.
They have formed a new coalition — its working name is the Coalition of Students for Israel-Pittsburgh — whose four-point mission is to respond quickly to media attacks against the Jewish state, react to anti-Israel campus activity, advocate for Israel and educate about the situation in the Middle East.
“Most students were a little unsure of what reaction they wanted to have and how they felt about the situation,” said Carly Adelmann, president of Pitt Hillel.
Vinokor, a Pitt sophomore from Long Island, said last week’s meeting, and another held Tuesday night, attracted students from the various campus Jewish organizations.
“Everyone had a lot of really great ideas,” she said. “Now, all the organizations can be on the same page; there can be more opportunities for collaboration.”
Speaking to the students Tuesday, Kutner defended Israel’s incursion into Gaza, as well as its decision Saturday to announce a unilateral cease-fire and begin a troop withdrawal.
“The main objectives of the war have been reached,” he said. “This campaign was not to change the face of the Middle East.”
He called early Hamas claims they had won and would continue to arm “pathetic” saying that Hamas has been severely weakened by the fighting and that Israel has understandings with the United States and Egypt to prevent the flow of weapons into Gaza.
“Egypt knows it’s in their interest to stop the weapons smuggling,” Kutner said.
And he reiterated that Hamas continued to fire rockets at Israel during the six-month lull in hostilities and they decided not to renew the lull.
Kutner said that Hamas conducts a reckless form of urban warfare. Its fighters don’t wear uniforms, he said, they live and move among the civilian population and fire from the civilian targets, inviting an Israeli response that the media will pick up.
Israel’s fight is with Hamas, he said, not the Palestinian people.
But he also noted that the alternative to Hamas leadership in Gaza, at least for now, is “not very obvious.” On that point reconstruction in the strip will be key to changing minds on the ground.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)