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February 15, 2022 4:31 pm
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University Lecture by Israeli Chemist Latest Target of Antisemitic ‘Zoombombing’ at Campus Events

avatar by Dion J. Pierre

University of California, Davis. Photo: Daderot / Wikimedia Commons

A virtual university talk by an Israeli chemist was interrupted last week with antisemitic messages, in the latest example of the so-called “Zoombombing” phenomenon that has targeted Israel- and Jewish-related campus events throughout the pandemic.

The Feb. 10 lecture by Professor Sason Shaik of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was part of a virtual “Theoretical Physical Organic Chemistry” (TPOC) symposium, organized by faculty from the University of Houston and University of California, Davis.

Shaik’s talk on his career as a chemist was subjected to an antisemitic “Zoom attack,” organizer Judy Wu of the University of Houston explained.

“Suddenly, lots of people jumped into the Zoom, playing background sounds of fighting and very offensive language,” Wu told The Algemeiner. There were robotic sounds saying ‘Heil Hitler,’ which was very unpleasant.”

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Shaik said he learned of the disturbance only after the event, as his meeting settings had muted the audience, but denounced the hateful interruption of an intellectual exchange.

“Scientific talks are highly cherished by scientists, and are held with esteem as a major intellectual medium of exchanging knowledge and insight,” he told The Algemeiner on Monday. “Any hacking of any scientific talk is deplorable.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an explosion of the abusive disruption of virtual events, as professional, educational, and religious meetings have migrated online.

In 2020, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) recorded at least 114 Zoombombings that targeted synagogues, Jewish community centers, Jewish schools — making up over a third of the incidents of harassment affecting Jewish institutions that year.

University of California, Davis spokesperson Andy Fell told The Algemeiner on Monday that while the school was not aware of the TPOC Zoombombing, the remarks as described would be “vile, sickening and cowardly.”

Dmitry Eremin, a University of Southern California (USC) postdoctoral chemistry student who attended Shaik’s lecture, said the trolls had also sent hateful messages in the event’s group chat.

“Antisemitism is a big problem, which is unfortunately understated these days,” he told The Algemeiner on Friday. “I don’t really know why, but that’s how things are and sometimes people like me don’t feel comfortable and safe in certain circumstances. After what happened, I wasn’t in the mood for anything.”

Antisemitic rhetoric was already too prevalent on campus, Eremin said, noting a recent incident at USC in which a student said she wanted to “kill” all Zionists.

Miriam Elman of the Academic Engagement Network, an educational nonprofit, argued that incidents like the disruption at the UC Davis event result from a normalization of antisemitism on college campuses.

“We do know that within the anti-Israel movement there is often hateful expression that crosses the line from legitimate and warranted criticism of Israel to frank antisemitism,” she said. “In the past, we’ve seen virulent anti-Israel activists and students saying ugly things like ‘Hitler should have finished the job.’ You find this kind of demonizing of Jews and de-platforming of Israelis on the far left and far right.”

Virtual university events have also sometimes been drawn into heated debates and activism around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In one 2021 episode condemned by the ADL, student activists turned a social work class at New York’s Hunter College into an “anti-Israel hate fest,” the organization said at the time.

In a separate recent controversy, a virtual training on campus antisemitism at the University of Rochester was ended prematurely by its presenter after a group of students attempted to divert the discussion to a “different agenda,” the school’s Hillel director told The Algemeiner.

“They attacked the material and me, both orally and through the chat, often using the biased, hateful language the training was designed to discuss,” Joy Getnick, Executive Director of Hillel at the University of Rochester, told The Algemeiner about the episode, which was reported by the school’s Campus Times outlet.

The planned event had drawn “concerns” in advance from the school’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, the student paper reported, which encouraged its members to attend and “set the record straight that anti-Israel isn’t antisemitism.”

Getnick told The Algemeiner that “a key part of the training was to focus on understanding the intersection and divergence of antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiments, and the boundaries between legitimate criticisms of Israel and anti-Israel/anti-Zionist/antisemitic behavior.”

“As one of our students eloquently stated afterwards: ‘We were meant to learn when and where the line between real dialogue and hate is drawn; instead those who came insisted there is no line,'” she continued.

The event has stoked debate on campus, with critics of how the event was handled complaining of having been “shut down,” and others seeing it as affirming why antisemitism training is needed.

“I am terrified every time someone tries to create a forum to discuss antisemitism, because I know it is a coin flip away from turning into another room full of anti-Zionists yelling that they aren’t antisemitic bookended by comments that make my stomach turn,” one student wrote in a Sunday op-ed for the Campus Times.

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