Anti-Israel Protesters Force Closure Of UMN Buildings

After a call from an anti-Israel group to “escalate” protests on the University of Minnesota campus, around 200 people showed up on the steps of Coffman Union to protest Israel’s retaliatory attacks on Hamas, and the university not divesting from companies doing business with Israel. Standing behind that group were five members of Students Supporting Israel standing with Israeli flags.

“I’ve had Jewish students and non-Jewish Zionist students talk to me, or I’ve seen on group chats or online saying ‘We’re scared to go to classes if they’re on the mall with all these encampments,’ said Jonathan Greenspan, a UMN student trying to revive the Students Supporting Israel chapter at the school. “And the stuff with students outspokenly supporting terrorism and supporting the killing of Israelis.”

Greenspan was referring to pro-Palestinian graffiti that has appeared on the Coffman Union over that past week that praised “the resistance,” and signs held at a rally on campus read “Intifada is revolution, is armed struggle; glory to the resistance.” The Arabic word Intifada translates to “uprising” or “shaking off,” and has been used to describe periods of Palestinian protest against Israel, mainly in the form of violent terrorism. The First Intifada from 1987-1990 and the Second Intifada from 2000-05. 

Shortly after the protest started, one of the leaders led a chant of “There is only solution; intifada revolution.”

“We’re not here to necessarily counter-protest,” Greenspan said. “We’re here to show that this campus should be a safe space for all students, no matter what we want to support. This shouldn’t be a campus that’s run by a mob where the buildings have to be closed down or allowed to go to their classes without being scared of intimidation or harassment.”

An email was sent to the UMN community from Executive Vice President and Provost Rachel Croson, VP for Human Resources Ken Horstman, and Calvin Phillips, VP for student affairs, that said all buildings along Northrup Mall would be closed at 2 p.m., which was when the chanting and speeches started. There was no visible police presence in the area.

Someone holding a flag of the terrorist group for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. SSI’s Ilan Sinelnikov (holding the Israel flag) is blocked from talking to the person. (Photo by Lonny Goldsmith/TC Jewfolk).

“Protesters are expected to uphold the safety of others, not interfere with normal campus operations, and adhere to student and employee conduct policies,” the statement read. ”We urge everyone who engages to remain nonviolent, peaceful, and follow both state laws and University policies, including restrictions prohibiting tents and encampments on campus. Discriminatory vandalism and defacements such as stickers and graffiti – some of which promote violence – are hurtful to many and violate University and Twin Cities campus policies.

“The University unequivocally condemns vandalism, threatening behavior, and acts of violence, and these will not be tolerated on our campus. Such behavior not only undermines the principles of public discourse and respect for others, but also jeopardizes the safety and wellbeing of our community.”

In a statement, Steve Hunegs, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, was critical of the university and interim president Jeff Ettinger.

“The time for vague statements from the University of Minnesota is over. Given the ongoing incitement, including the waving of terrorist flags, taunting, and even physical violence,” Hunegs said. “President Ettinger has a moral and legal obligation to use his voice to specifically condemn and address campus antisemitism. As we heard from Jewish students at Hillel last Friday, from the quad to the classroom, the escalating intimidation of Jewish students must end.”

Dylan Pekay, a freshman at UMN, was angry at the building closures, which affected his Monday afternoon class schedule.

“I like having class. I pay to go to college,” said Pekay. “The problem with this campus is that they allow certain protesters to be on campus and they don’t cancel classes. But if there are two opposing sides, the campus apparently can’t trust people to have rational disagreements that are non-physical. And I view that as despicable because that’s just saying that we can’t discuss with others without resorting to violence.”

The pro-Israel group attempted to counter the pro-Palestinian chants, but were quickly drowned out. Ilan Sinelnikov, who founded SSI in 2012 when he was a student at UMN, was waving an Israeli flag with Greenspan and a few other students who rotated through the area. He said he would have no problem having a coffee with anyone on the other side of the issue and having a conversation.

“People need to see Israeli supporters as well, even if it’s two of us,” Sinelnikov said. “The majority of the people in this country, Democrats and Republicans alike, do support a state of Israel. 

“I have no problem even if they disagree with me. There’s people that mocked us, made fun of us, showed us the middle finger. This is an academic institution and you should be able to have a proper academic conversation and debate. Even if we disagree with each other.”

The only altercation was a person in a mask, who didn’t identify himself, waving the flag of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a designated terrorist organization by the State Department since 1997. Sinelnikov tried to have a conversation with that person when someone with the PFLP flag-waver tried to take one of the Israeli flags. Sinelnikov was able to hang on to it.

“Students should feel safe on campus and you have this flag,” Sinelnikov said, pointing at the PFLP flag. “This flag needs to go. We have nothing against a Palestinian flag. People can carry a Palestinian flag all day long.”

While Sinelnikov is willing to talk with whomever, it stands in contrast to the announcement made at the start of the rally: “Don’t engage with the Israelis.” That attitude frustrated Sinelnikov.

“How would you ever move forward and try to find any solution if you’re not willing to talk to the opposite side or even to an enemy?” he said. “In order to move forward and to even end wars, enemies need to talk to a degree. We’re here on a university, we’re not fighting in the Middle East. I’d talk to every single one of them. But there are people here who are against normalization, people who will not talk to a Zionist. This is tragic. It’s very unfortunate.”