UMass rally highlights hostages taken by Hamas; counterprotester arrested for assault

Flyers that were attached to plates during a community event titled Bring Them Home, sponsored by UMass Hillel. Each plate was taped to tables in a symbolic ritual of Shabbat honoring the 240 hostages kidnapped from Israel by Hamas.

Flyers that were attached to plates during a community event titled Bring Them Home, sponsored by UMass Hillel. Each plate was taped to tables in a symbolic ritual of Shabbat honoring the 240 hostages kidnapped from Israel by Hamas. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Iris Berkman walks up the steps with others at UMass during an event sponsored by UMass Hillel called “Bring Them Home.” Berkman holds a plate with a photo of one of her relatives. Participants carried plates with flyers that were attached. Each flyer had a picture of one of the 240 hostages kidnapped from Israel by Hamas. Each plate was then taped to tables in a symbolic ritual of Shabbat honoring the hostages.

Iris Berkman walks up the steps with others at UMass during an event sponsored by UMass Hillel called “Bring Them Home.” Berkman holds a plate with a photo of one of her relatives. Participants carried plates with flyers that were attached. Each flyer had a picture of one of the 240 hostages kidnapped from Israel by Hamas. Each plate was then taped to tables in a symbolic ritual of Shabbat honoring the hostages. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Sarah Rosen tapes plates to tables during an event sponsored by UMass Hillel called “Bring Them Home.”

Sarah Rosen tapes plates to tables during an event sponsored by UMass Hillel called “Bring Them Home.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Flyers that were attached to plates during a community event titled “Bring Them Home,” sponsored by UMass Hillel. Each plate was taped to tables in a symbolic ritual of Shabbat honoring the 240 hostages kidnapped from Israel by Hamas.

Flyers that were attached to plates during a community event titled “Bring Them Home,” sponsored by UMass Hillel. Each plate was taped to tables in a symbolic ritual of Shabbat honoring the 240 hostages kidnapped from Israel by Hamas. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Iris Berkman walks with her son, Nadav Berkman, while holding a plate with a picture of one of her relatives, right, during an event sponsored by UMass Hillel called “Bring Them Home.” Participants carried plates with flyers that were attached. Each flyer had a picture of one of the 240 hostages kidnapped from Israel by Hamas. Each plate was than taped to tables in a symbolic ritual of Shabbat honoring the hostages.

Iris Berkman walks with her son, Nadav Berkman, while holding a plate with a picture of one of her relatives, right, during an event sponsored by UMass Hillel called “Bring Them Home.” Participants carried plates with flyers that were attached. Each flyer had a picture of one of the 240 hostages kidnapped from Israel by Hamas. Each plate was than taped to tables in a symbolic ritual of Shabbat honoring the hostages. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Ina Porth hands out plates with flyers attached to them. Each flyer had a picture of one of the 240 hostages kidnapped from Israel by Hamas. The event, “Bring Them Home,” was sponsored by UMass Hillel. Each plate was taped to tables in a symbolic ritual of Shabbat honoring the hostages.

Ina Porth hands out plates with flyers attached to them. Each flyer had a picture of one of the 240 hostages kidnapped from Israel by Hamas. The event, “Bring Them Home,” was sponsored by UMass Hillel. Each plate was taped to tables in a symbolic ritual of Shabbat honoring the hostages. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Participants during a UMass event sponsored by UMass Hillel. The participants carried plates with flyers attached during a community event titled Bring Them Home. Each plate was taped to tables in a symbolic ritual of Shabbat honoring the 240 hostages kidnapped from Israel by Hamas.

Participants during a UMass event sponsored by UMass Hillel. The participants carried plates with flyers attached during a community event titled Bring Them Home. Each plate was taped to tables in a symbolic ritual of Shabbat honoring the 240 hostages kidnapped from Israel by Hamas. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Iris Berkman holds a plate with a picture of one of her relatives, right, during an event sponsored by UMass Hillel called “Bring Them Home.” Participants carried plates with flyers that were attached. Each flyer had a picture of one of the 240 hostages kidnapped from Israel by Hamas. Each plate was than taped to tables in a symbolic ritual of Shabbat honoring the hostages.

Iris Berkman holds a plate with a picture of one of her relatives, right, during an event sponsored by UMass Hillel called “Bring Them Home.” Participants carried plates with flyers that were attached. Each flyer had a picture of one of the 240 hostages kidnapped from Israel by Hamas. Each plate was than taped to tables in a symbolic ritual of Shabbat honoring the hostages. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Participants during a UMass event sponsored by UMass Hillel. The participants carried plates with flyers attached during a community event titled Bring Them Home. Each plate was taped to tables in a symbolic ritual of Shabbat honoring the 240 hostages kidnapped from Israel by Hamas.

Participants during a UMass event sponsored by UMass Hillel. The participants carried plates with flyers attached during a community event titled Bring Them Home. Each plate was taped to tables in a symbolic ritual of Shabbat honoring the 240 hostages kidnapped from Israel by Hamas. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By Sophie Hauck

For the Gazette

Published: 11-06-2023 6:57 PM

AMHERST — News that Hamas militants kidnapped a member of Iris Berkman’s extended family in early October sent the Amherst resident reeling.

Berkman described 79-year-old Chaim Peri, the father-in-law of her nephew, as “salt of the Earth” and a “peaceful man.” He would transport sick and injured children in Gaza to Israeli hospitals, Berkman said, before Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7 and kidnapped more than 240 civilians, including Peri.

“[It is] just hell, listening to the news,” said Berkman, whose family has yet to receive updates on Peri’s condition. “The fact that there’s no outrage in this country … it’s a Holocaust.”

Berkman joined dozens of students and residents at the University of Massachusetts for what was supposed to be a peaceful demonstration Friday hosted by the Jewish campus organization UMass Hillel to raise awareness of the remaining hostages in Gaza. That peace was shattered when an unnamed male counterprotester punched another student carrying an Israeli flag as the event concluded, Hillel reported in a statement.

“What this student is accused of is reprehensible, illegal, and unacceptable,” wrote university administrator Shelly Perdomo-Ahmed and UMass Police Chief Tyrone Parham in an email to the campus community Sunday evening. “Antisemitism, Islamophobia, or any form of bigotry have no place in our community, and we are committed to ensuring that our community’s engagement with opposing viewpoints is maintained in a respectful manner.”

The rally was intended to be a “peaceful and productive” way to show solidarity with Israel, said Rebekah Steinfeld, assistant director of UMass Hillel.

Participants marched from the Campus Center to the campus pond and carried paper plates that displayed pictures of each hostage, placing them around empty Shabbat tables to represent hundreds of hostages.

“It is very difficult to organize an event because of the balance of wanting to make a statement but wanting to make sure the students feel safe,” said Hadass Novick, a sophomore member of Hillel who recently stopped wearing a necklace depicting her Hebrew name in response to reports of antisemitism on other college campuses.

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“I’m proud to be Jewish, but I’m nervous about somebody walking by me and being able to point out I’m Jewish,” she said.

Novick now leaves the Hillel house on campus with six other students out of fear of walking alone, a tip that Hillel advised students to practice in their statement regarding the student assault.

Steinfeld and Hillel’s Executive Director Rabbi Aaron Fine have asked students not to engage in counterprotests against students advocating for Chancellor Javier Reyes to condemn Israel’s attacks against Gaza. Holding an event that coincided with Shabbat was centered on “stepping back from doing and focusing on being” during an emotional time for Jewish students.

Students supporting Israel shared concern over chants heard at rallies for Palestine, including “Intifada revolution” and “Zionists get out,” which they said expressed antisemitic sentiments.

“Zionism is a core part of many Jewish people’s faith,” said Zach Wald, a junior who is treasurer of the Jewish Student Union. “To hear people dismiss that and almost violently say we don’t belong on campus is very frightening.”

Protesters on both sides should consider the historical context of their remarks, said Maya Cunningham, who is pursuing her doctoral degree in African American studies.

“We can’t take up words that are like verbal missiles against a country without really knowing what you’re talking about,” Cunningham said.

Emotions have run high at UMass since Oct. 7, when Hamas launched attacks against Israel that killed more than 1,400 people. Israel led airstrikes and ground invasions on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip in response that resulted in more than 10,000 deaths, according to the health ministry in Gaza Monday.

Students held multiple rallies on campus in support of Israel or Palestine, including one sit-in at the Whitmore Administration building that resulted in campus police arresting 57 pro-Palestinian protesters for trespassing.

The assault suspect involved in the Hillel-sponsored event last Friday also gestured both his middle fingers toward the small crowd of students and local residents lingering once the demonstration ended, then proceeded to “steal and spit on” the flag held by the person he assaulted, Hillel’s statement read. The suspect was arrested and released on bail “with conditions prohibiting them from returning to campus,” the university’s email said. The student who was assaulted was not injured.