About a dozen protesters associated with the group Jewish Voice for Peace disrupted an Israel solidarity event at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill on Oct. 27, necessitating the intervention of Pittsburgh police officers, who escorted the protesters out of the auditorium.
The event, which drew a crowd of 300 to hear Yaron Sideman, the Philadelphia-based consul general of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic Region, was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh to brief the community on the current state of affairs in Israel in light of the recent wave of Palestinian terrorism.
Sideman, whose responsibilities include gathering and gauging support for Israel from American Jews and other concerned groups living in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Ohio and West Virginia, stressed the importance of advocacy and educating people about Israel, as well as ensuring the safety of the Jewish state.
Organizers of the event said they had anticipated a potential disturbance, as JVP had put out a call on its Facebook page for its members to come to the JCC to join in protest.
Josh Sayles, the director of the Federation’s Community Relations Council, asked the crowd at the commencement of the event to refrain from causing any disturbance during Sideman’s talk, and assured attendees they would have ample opportunity to submit questions following the consul general’s remarks.
About 10 minutes into Sideman’s talk, and as he spoke about the terrorism rampant in the Jewish state in the last several weeks, pairs of protesters arose in turn, displaying signs with slogans such as “That’s racist” and “Jew against the occupation.” The protesters held their signs out, rotating them to show the crowd. Pittsburgh police officers asked the protesters to sit down, and when they refused, they were escorted out of the hall.
The scenario was repeated several times throughout the evening, creating a continued distraction and interruption for the crowd that had come to hear Sideman speak.
A few audience members began shouting to the protestors, telling them to leave the community event if they insisted on being disruptive. One of the sign-wielding protestors called out, “So much for freedom of speech,” as he was led out of the room.
“Ignore them,” Sideman instructed the crowd, as police escorted the protesters from the building.
JVP formed its Pittsburgh chapter about a year ago. The specifics of the group’s platform include seeking “an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem; security and self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians; a just solution for Palestinian refugees based on principles established in international law; an end to violence against civilians; and peace and justice for all peoples of the Middle East,” according to the JVP Pittsburgh Leadership Committee.
But JVP’s methods have been criticized by other Jewish organizations, most notably the Anti-Defamation League, as being anti-Zionist. JVP has been active in lobbying other groups and organizations, including the Presbyterian Church USA, to engage in boycotts and divestment from Israel.
The tactics JVP employed last week at the Federation event are in line with the actions other JVP chapters use across the country to interfere with the expression of opinions with which they disagree.
For Ilan Troen, the Stoll Family chair in Israel Studies and director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, JVP’s tactics are an attempt “to deny free speech.”
The group has interrupted his talks on two separate occasions, he said in a Chronicle interview last year.
“On both occasions, the meetings had to do with Israel,” Troen recounted. “Jewish Voice for Peace wanted to get across the point that I was a criminal. They placed themselves strategically across the auditorium,” then stood up to protest and posted recordings of the protest online.
Sayles, who succeeded Gregg Roman as director of the CRC in early October, addressed the crowd following Sideman’s talk.
“Listen, on both sides there is no right answer,” Sayles said, “but we all need to sit down and talk it out.”
During the question-and-answer section of the evening, Sideman, with the poise and grace of a veteran politician, answered questions from note cards written by audience members, including questions challenging policies of the Israeli government, and concerning the prosecution of Jews accused of committing violent acts against Palestinians. Sideman swiftly cut down all assumptions about special treatment for Israeli criminals who happen to be Jewish as opposed to Palestinian perpetrators of terror.
“We bring our people to justice. They are not honorable, they are criminals,” Sideman said, citing numerous Israeli citizens who have been jailed for various offenses targeting Palestinians. Sideman countered the question by adding that unfortunately many Palestinians are groomed very young, when they are 3 or 4 years old, to hate Israelis. Young Palestinian boys are given wooden guns and are encouraged by adults to dramatize killing Israelis, Sideman said. Peace is unattainable if you have adults encouraging children to hold hateful views of any people, he emphasized.
Sideman mentioned Martin Luther King Jr. as a peaceful figure whose principles and ideologies he follows. Both a future Palestine and Israel can coexist, he said, but he was skeptical of the Palestinians’ desire for that the occur.
“I imagine a world where both sides can have what they want,” Sideman offered. “But they would not agree.”
At the end of the lecture, Sayles told the crowd that it was unfortunate that the protesters had to be escorted out, and that it seemed they had undermined their own goals, because they did not have the opportunity to hear answers to some of the questions they may have had.
Sayles said he is interested in truly developing dialogue, especially with young adults. There might be an opportunity to work toward a solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even in Pittsburgh, he said, but instances like last week’s protest create obstacles to progress.
Senior staff writer Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jamar Thrasher is a local freelance writer.