At the height of rush hour Wednesday, May 20, motorists had to deal with more than just traffic and pedestrians at the intersection of Forbes and Murray avenues in Squirrel Hill.
In the heart of the only predominantly Jewish neighborhood in the city, demonstrators representing the Pittsburgh Palestine Solidarity Committee and Students for Justice in Palestine among others, held a “mock Israeli checkpoint in commemoration of the Nakba.”
The demonstrators ran into the crosswalk during red lights, handing out literature, carrying signs saying how many pregnant Palestinian women have died at checkpoints, and wearing boxes saying “Israeli Checkpoint Do Not Cross.” A “Free Palestine End Israeli Terrorism” banner flanked the side of the road. “Honk for Palestine” signs were met with about one honk every three-to-five minutes.
This demonstration was similar to one held in Oakland several days ago by the same groups.
While that demonstration went on, members of the Jewish community quietly handed out literature from the United Jewish Federation on the street corner. They also engaged in dialogue with the demonstrators, and made it clear they disagree with their tactics.
“Street theater shows the callousness of this group and pushes peace farther away. This exacerbates the problems,” said Deborah Fidel, executive director of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee.
With groups like this, Fidel said, the best reaction is to do what she and members of other local Jewish groups were doing. “Keep an eye on them, but don’t engage. We have very different goals,” she said.
“We want peace for both Israelis and Palestinians, they want one shared state,” Fidel continued. “They speak of the abuses of checkpoints, but their protest is of checkpoints conceptually. We acknowledge that Israel is imperfect, but they remain 100 percent impervious to the fact that checkpoints were built in order to save Israeli lives.”
Marshall Hershberg, a member of the Public Affairs Council (CPAC) of the United Jewish Federation, was also on hand to “monitor” the mock checkpoint.
“We wanted to make sure the message that when checkpoints were lifted — violence escalated — got across,” he said. “There is one thing to keep in mind: if Palestinians, Arabs and Iran accepted Israel’s right to exist, there would be peace, the Palestinians would have a state, and there would be prosperity for all.”
CPAC Director Jeffrey Cohan, who also was on hand, believes it is important to ensure that there are no conflicts between the activists and the local Jewish community.
“We wanted to ensure they got no mainstream media coverage,” he said. “A guy from a local media source showed up, but we dissuaded him from covering the event.”
“The important thing to recognize is that this was organized by students,” said Aaron Weil, executive director of the Hillel Jewish University Center, who was also there.
“Jewish students are being attacked, and the anti-Israel movement has the upper hand,” Weil added. “If Jewish students come out of this crisis feeling negative about being Jewish and negative about Israel, the whole 5,000-year chain of Jewish continuity is at risk.”
(Derek Kwait can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)