U-Md. backs professor in airport argument

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The University of Maryland’s administration is supporting Israel studies professor Pnina Peri one week after a video surfaced showing her arguing with a Chabad rabbi at Ben-Gurion International Airport in Israel.

The video shows Peri, a visiting assistant professor in U-Md.’s Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, laughing and shouting in Hebrew at Rabbi Meir Herzl, the director of a Chabad house in the Jerusalem suburb of Pisgat Zeev, as he put tefillin on businessman Gad Kaufman. Kaufman posted the video on Facebook on May 28 and has since removed it.


In a statement, Peri said that the men approached her as she was waiting for a flight and began laying tefillin “right on top of” her. Tefillin are the leather straps and boxes containing scripture used in Jewish morning prayer.

“I asked them as politely as possible that with all the respect I have for the laying of tefillin and other Jewish rituals, if they could allow me my personal space,” she wrote.

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Peri, who is Israeli, wrote that the men then cursed at her and said it was “too bad Hitler didn’t kill you and your entire family.” This, she wrote, caused her to react strongly because “it was made by a member of my own people in Israel.”

In a June 4 statement, university spokeswoman Katie Lawson wrote that Senior Vice President Mary Ann Rankin along with Bonnie Thornton Dill, the dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, had concluded that Peri’s account was accurate based on a second video of the incident. That video shows Herzl speaking in Hebrew as he walks away from Peri. It is unclear whether the video was taken before or after the confrontation.


“Professor Peri nonetheless deeply regrets her behavior and apologized for how she reacted to this incident,” Lawson wrote. “The university’s academic leaders acknowledge her apology and support her ongoing contributions to the institution.”

Herzl gave a conflicting account last week, writing on the Chabad news website collive.com that he never spoke to Peri before her outburst.

“It is a total lie that anyone provoked her, cursed her or her family,” he said. “This wasn’t done before her frenzied outburst or during her horrifying display, which went on for a few minutes.”

According to Herzl, after Peri’s comments, he said something to the effect of “your behavior was so bad that it is hard for me to believe that even the Nazis would do that.”

Peri, who formerly taught at Israel’s Sapir Academic College, is an expert in multicultural theories. Her husband, Yoram Peri, served as president of the New Israel Fund, which supports left-wing causes, from 1999 to 2001 and is the director of Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland.

She did not respond to numerous requests by WJW for comment.

The Coalition for Jewish Values, an Orthodox Jewish advocacy group based in Baltimore, sent a letter to University System of Maryland Chancellor Robert Caret on May 29, asking for him to “immediately review the course load assigned to Professor Peri for the upcoming semester in light of her public display of intolerance.”

In an interview Managing Director Yaakov Menken said the purpose of the letter was to ask the university to mandate diversity training for Peri to “help her get past being offended by public personal displays of religion.”

“In this particular case it might involve a Shabbat dinner or two at her local Chabad,” he said

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JTA News and Features contributed to this article.

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