UMD Stands By Israel Studies Professor After Hostile Exchange Caught on Camera

Written by Rachel Kohn on . Posted in Community News

An official statement from a University of Maryland, College Park (UMD) spokesperson June 6 expressed the administration’s support for the claim of visiting adjunct professor Pnina Peri that she was “provoked and verbally attacked” in the minutes prior to an altercation in Ben Gurion International Airport that has since gone viral. The statement cited as evidence a second video clip of the incident, taken from another vantage point at the scene and during a part of the exchange not included in the original footage.

However, a review and translation of this second clip, which first aired on the Israeli television show “Hatzaneret” on May 30, did not reveal it to be conclusive evidence.

Peri, an Israeli, specializes in multicultural theories, and was the editor of “Education in Multi-Cultured Society: Pluralism and Congruence Among Cultural Division” (Kotar, 2007 in Hebrew). Her husband, Yoram Peri, is the Jack Kay Chair of Israel Studies and director of the Gildenhorn Institute of Israel Studies at UMD, essentially making him her boss.

According to Gad Kaufman, who posted the original clip on May 28, he was approached by a Chabad rabbi about putting on tefillin and was in the process of doing so when Peri approached. The video shows her repeatedly asking the rabbi why he doesn’t go off to the side rather than conducting this activity in a public space, and mocking him when he quietly tells Kaufman to ignore her.

The viral video provoked outrage among UMD alumni in the Greater Washington area and in Israel as well as the Baltimore-based Coalition for Jewish Values (CJV), an American public policy organization of over 1,000 rabbis.

In their statement released May 30, CJV accused Peri of “unbridled hostility towards religious activity” and questioned whether she could “demonstrate appropriate tolerance and accommodation of religious needs.”

Tefillin are essentially two small black boxes with long leather straps used to affix one box to the crown of the forehead and one to the dominant forearm. The boxes contain parchment inscribed with the words of the Shema prayer, and it is a Torah commandment for Jewish men over 13 to wear them and say a blessing once a day.

According to Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), Chabad’s practice of sending men into public spaces to go lay tefillin, as the ritual is commonly referred to, dates back to the Six Day War in 1967, when the Lubavitcher Rebbe, a giant in Jewish “inreach,” inaugurated the tefillin campaign. “The plan of waiting for unaffiliated Jewish people to stumble upon a synagogue and religious practice hasn’t worked out so well for the last generation,” said Rabbi Shemtov. “Public space outreach has seen irrefutable results.” 

The standard procedure is as follows, he said: “One is politely asked if they’re Jewish, and if they are, are then asked whether they have already laid tefillin that day. If they have not, an offer to easily do the mitzvah [commandment] is offered, even if they can’t read Hebrew or don’t have a background with Jewish experience.”

If someone is confrontational, the usual practice is to ignore them, said Rabbi Shemtov, and “certainly not to allow a confrontation or altercation if at all possible.”

“We don’t do darkness. Rude is dark, confrontational is rude — so we avoid it whenever we can and work to dispel it when we can’t avoid it,” he said.

Multiple media outlets identified the rabbi in the original video as Rabbi Meir Herzl of Pisgat Ze’ev, a suburb of Jerusalem. Peri and Rabbi Herzl have been quoted in various outlets disputing each other’s accounts of what happened at the airport, but the second clip appears to at least clarify contradictions over where the altercation took place (at the seating area by a gate, rather than the atrium where a Chabad stand is located).

In initial reports, the absence of any complaint in the original clip about the hurtful language Peri alleges the rabbi used was thought to undermine her story. (One could argue that the expectation that she would openly express hurt or sadness rather than react with aggressive derision is not only sexist, but also reflects an unfamiliarity with Israeli bravado.)

In the second clip, however, is a man in the vicinity who says Rabbi Herzl looks pained and expresses happiness at his distress. He calls Rabbi Herzl rude for embarrassing a woman, and says the rabbi did it because he’s a lecher.

Still, no explicit wrongdoing by the rabbi was seen or mentioned in either clip. He is seen walking away from Peri, who says “Smile! Smile!” as he goes, and being verbally accosted by the aforementioned man as he passes. This footage appears to capture the tail end of the incident in the first video, not the prior moments in question.

When presented with a translation of the video, University of Maryland Director of Communications Jessica Jennings said the university “has many native Hebrew speakers on staff,” and declined to comment on behalf of the administration as to what within the 27-second clip secured their support for Peri.

University of Maryland Spokesperson Katie Lawson’s June 6 statement described the original video as “truncated” and showing only part of the interaction. “Professor Peri nonetheless deeply regrets her behavior and apologized for how she reacted to this incident. The University’s academic leaders acknowledge her apology and support her ongoing contributions to the institution,” the statement said.

Both Peri and her husband, Yoram Peri, declined via the university’s communications office to be interviewed for this article. Attempts to interview Rabbi Herzl for this article were also unsuccessful: A Chabad colleague in Jerusalem was under the impression Rabbi Herzl was still traveling abroad this week, and calls to his home and cell phone number reached a standard recording saying the owner was unavailable.

“The University of Maryland is committed to its core values of freedom of expression and civility in discourse, values shared by Dr. Peri,” said Lawson in her written statement. “The University appreciates her contributions to academic and educational activities on campus, and is proud of its thriving programs in Israeli studies and Jewish studies, as well as its long history of extensive educational exchanges, joint research, and study abroad programs with many universities, research institutes, and civic organizations in Israel.”

By Rachel Kohn


Rachel Kohn is editor in chief of Kol HaBirah.