Post-Gazette article sparks controversy over Holocaust Remembrance Day event

On April 15, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an opinion piece written by Brian Albert, the mid-atlantic campus coordinator for the Zionist Organization of America. The article had the attention-grabbing headline, “Anti-Semitism 101 at University of Pittsburgh.” The event Albert was bringing attention to was “SJP Holocaust Remembrance Day: Edith Bell on Palestine,” cosponsored by the University of Pittsburgh student group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and the Pittsburgh chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom Hashoah, on April 16.

In his article, Albert primarily criticized the University of Pittsburgh for including the event as one that can be used to acquire Outside the Classroom Curriculum (OCC) credit, which is meant to help students become well rounded and ready for the world beyond college. In his piece, he wrote that the keynote speaker, Edith Bell, was not going to be speaking to, “commemorate the Holocaust but rather to vandalize the day by painting Israelis as modern-day Nazis.”

However, the article unintentionally brought more attention to the event.

“We were initially expecting 50 people but because of the Gazette, we expect more people,” SJP student board member Hadeel Salameh commented.

The event was moved from a smaller room it was originally scheduled for to a larger one at the William Pitt Student Union, and even with the added space there were few open seats. The SJP’s intention was to provide a space for Bell to talk about her experiences in the Holocaust, as well as her life afterward. Bell is well known for being critical of the Israeli government, and the country’s relationship with the Palestinians. It is this notoriety that caught the attention of Albert, and also SJP.

Before the article was published, Hillel JUC–the Jewish student organization that serves primarily Pitt and CMU students–contacted SJP after having students express anxiety over the event.

“Hillel is deeply concerned that SJP has appropriated the holocaust and exploited it for their political purposes. I think that’s what has been most upsetting for a lot of our Jewish students,” said Hillel President and junior Zachary Schaffer when asked about the event. “A day we are meant to commemorate people who were killed, was instead appropriated to attack Israel.”

The event had two halves. During the first half, Edith Bell told her moving story of her experiences during the Holocaust. After, she took questions from the audience and asked that questions be on topic to this part of her story. The audience stayed on target and asked the questions that Bell has undoubtedly heard countless times about the experience, and she provided answers from her perspective. The second part of the event focused on her life experiences after liberation. Her travels took her around the world, going to what would become the state of Israel and later to the United States.

The questions following this portion of the speech entirely revolved around the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Between the two open question portions, the second half yielded a greater number of questions, and they veered away from Bell’s Holocaust survival story and got extremely political with audience members asking for Bell’s opinion on settlements, whether Hammas is a terrorist organization, and the establishment of Israel. As in the previous section, Bell kept her responses to her own personal experiences and made it clear that the opinions she was expressing were solely her own.

Jewish Voice for Peace member Dani Klein, when asked about the article in relationship to the event, said, “This person was criticizing the event before it happened. They didn’t show up, so they don’t know what happened here, it is about honoring a survivor.” In response to the article, both the SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace had letters to the editor published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on April 17.

Schaffer, who attended the event, commented, “The event definitely wasn’t what the article said it would be, the article threw it out of proportion, but there were still concerning aspects.” He added, “It was less the content than the fact they were exploiting Holocaust Remembrance Day–despite the fact they knew Jewish students were offended by this.”

Moving forward, the Jewish student organization is in communication with the staff in charge of the OCC credits.

“The Pitt administration has been a great friend to the Jewish community on campus and listened to us about our concerns about anti-Semitism. We’re very appreciative of the support from the university,” said Schaffer.

When asked how Hillel had responded to the event, Schaffer stated that their primary goal was to reassure the Jewish students that Pitt was still a safe place for them to voice their own concerns.

“It has been hard for people in our community. We haven’t had time to be political,” Schaffer said.

University of Pittsburgh improv group makes a “Ruckus” at Future Tenant

University of Pittsburgh’s improve group “Ruckus” was excited to be invited to perform at the downtown studio Future Tenant. While the event was not as well attended as they hoped, the performers decided that the show must go on!

The performance space was formed in 2002 in a collaborative effort between Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Fine Arts and Master of Arts Management program and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Their mission is to help performers and artists to explore their creativity.

The studio was small, and there were only two rows of chairs set up on high risers.

Future Tenant offered attendees complimentary beer, cider, and soda. The space itself made it very easy to hear everything that was said. Due to the small audience size, the show began with each performer introducing him or herself, after which the group’s president Jamie Bergey asked everyone in the audience to introduce themselves.

The group quickly launched into the first part of the performance they named “Freeze.” Two performers started the game and after a few minutes another member would shout “freeze,” freezing the actors in their positions of that moment. The person who had shouted would then run up, tap one of the performing actors on the stage, and assume the position.

The real treat was the second half of the performance known as, “Long Form.” There were several skits that took place interchangeably.

While all of the sketches were entertaining, only one really struck a chord with the audience. It began with Shane Jordan, Ben Mills, and Isaac Minkoff pretending to stand in line for the release of a new power tool at Home Depot. Jordan then pretended to purchase an extra drill for his wife (played by Elisa Ogot in another scene) from Meghan Ferraro, the monotoned cashier.

The sketch was broken up by the other scenes, but the storyline continued on in a way that really drew the audience in. The storyline managed to tie in two of the other sketches involving a failed attempt at organizing the Olympic Games to be hosted in Louisiana and another dealing with two “mean girls” played by Meghan Ferraro and Lizzie Kanieski.

Photo Credit: Kristen Gigliotti

Photo Credit: Kristen Gigliotti

Ruckus is made up of a variety of students. “The group is by audition only, and we have about two dozen performers in our group. We have both undergraduate and graduate students,” said Bergey. “We do shows twice a week so having more people helps.”

Also, very few of their members are actual theater majors. “We have a little bit of everything,” Jordan explained, “We have a few theater majors but we have everything from mathematics to English.”

The variety does in fact add to the performance. The group as a whole played off of one another well. The vibe from the group was one of familiarity.

Ruckus performs every week alternating between the Studio Theatre and the Henry Heymann theatre. Both spaces are located on the University of Pittsburgh’s Campus in Oakland.

Slutciety feminist publication makes a name for itself at Pitt

On Wednesday nights in room 918 in the William Pitt Lounge, meetings for the University of Pittsburgh’s feminist publication Slutciety come to order. Armed with laptops and covering topics that range from female soldiers in the Middle East to sex education in American schools to the commodification of the female orgasm, Slutciety is making their collective voice heard at the University of Pittsburgh.

Typically, when most people hear the world slut, they do not immediately think of an articulate, empowered woman. Slutciety is pushing back against that. Why such a provocative name?

“It’s a mush together of slut and society,” said Amanda Chan, President of Slutciety, “‘Society’ has a connotation of order and tradition and ‘slut’ brings about feelings of chaos and bitterness and stigma. By mushing these two together, I want people to question why being a promiscuous woman would be so against society.”

“And women are going to get called sluts no matter what, so we’re just reclaiming that word,” Zoe Hannah, Vice President of Slutciety, said.

Slutciety takes an interactive community approach to editing articles. Roundtable style and computers out at meetings, the writers read aloud their work and provide comments, suggestions, and the occasional anecdote. They also do more than just write; in November, Slutciety was responsible for bringing Political Commentator and Activist Zerlina Maxwell to Pitt to speak about rape culture.

Although the writers cover topics that might make some clutch their pearls, the members agree that as a whole they are been well received on their campus.

“If nothing else, people are intrigued by us,” said Hannah.

Understandably so as Slutciety is the only feminist group on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus.

These ladies don’t pull any punches and did not let lack of funding in the earliest days of the paper’s existence stop them from making their voices heard. Before they had a budget, this group at one point in time had to use their collective print budgets to run issues.

Why did these young women go outside of the University of Pittsburgh’s official newspaper? For one, the authors of Slutciety do not consider themselves a journalist source. More so, they enjoy the freedom that having their own paper allows them.

“We create a safe space, where anyone can come and feel comfortable talking to us,” said Hannah.

Slutciety places a special emphasis on intersectionality–the concept of how different identities and forms of discrimination interact and impact one’s life. In the simplest of terms, they are determined to make sure that queer people and women of color are properly represented.

“It’s not real feminism unless it’s intersectional,” Chan said.

With humor, honesty, and a willingness not to shy away from uncomfortable topics, it seems that Slutciety will continue to challenge conventions at Pitt. To see some of Slutciety’s work, look them up on Tumblr at or follow them on Twitter at @slutciety.

Activist Zerlina Maxwell speaks at the University of Pittsburgh

Democratic strategist, writer, commentator, and activist Zerlina Maxwell made an appearance at the University of Pittsburgh to talk to students and interested citizens about rape culture, sexual assault, sexism, and patriarchy.

Invited by the University of Pittsburgh underground feminist publication, “Slutciety,” over the course of one hour, Maxwell gave a presentation titled “How We Can All end Gender Based Violence” in the Pitt Union Ballroom,

In a presentation that included statistics, problematic ads, videos, and at one point even a shirtless picture of rapper Rick Ross, Zerlina Maxwell challenged the audience to stop thinking of rape and gender violence as something inevitable. Most importantly, she said to the audience before she began with the slides, “If you learn nothing else from me when you leave here, if a girl ever comes to you and tells you they’ve been raped you will simply believe them. Because that should be the default answer–not asking them what they were wearing or if they were drinking.”

Taking an educational approach, Maxwell chose to explain and define what many feminists and activists call rape culture is, and with troubling statistics she told the 200 students in attendance some troubling realities that go along with being female–particularly a college-aged female.

“It’s dangerous to come to college as a woman,” she said. She went on to explain that, “Rape culture is a spectrum.” A spectrum that starts with things that, at first glance, may seem harmless, such as rape jokes, street harassment, and violence against women. She noted that things that trivialize such serious crimes contribute to survivors not getting the justice that they deserve.

Maxwell drew from popular culture and current cases unfolding in the media–like Bill Cosby, for example–to discuss the “revictimizaton” and demonizing of women who come forward after they have been raped.

She asked those in attendance to think long and hard about why we live in a world where when rape victims seek justice, they tend to receive more shame and judgment than the men accused of raping them.

Although, the presentation focused mostly on sexual violence against women, men played a role some might not expect. After she was introduced, Maxwell voiced to the audience with obvious delight how great she thought it was that there were so many young men in attendance,“because it’s not just a woman problem.”

In regards to rape prevention, Maxwell–in person and in video form via a clip from Fox News–made it clear that she believes that men can prevent rape and the conversations about “rape prevention” put the burden of prevention on those victimized. She also stated that “toxic masculinity” and narrow expectations of manhood are a part of rape culture.

As opposed to telling women to not drink or wear short skirts or to always carry a gun, she said, “We need to teach boys about consent before they even start having sex.”

“I’ll let you guys in on a little secret: if you ask and communicate with your partners you will have better sex,” she added.

Maxwell received applause; however, when she has previously voiced such views in a debate on The Sean Hannity Show, in the aftermath of the Steubenville Trial last spring, she received a great deal of backlash. Backlash occurred mostly on social media, some of which included rape and death threats that she shared with the audience in her power point.

Maxwell noted that this is a very common occurrence for women involved in social justice movements. There were so many questions from audience members that the event which was intended to only last an hour went over, but in parting remarks she again urged her audience to, when dealing with someone who has been assaulted or raped, always ask not what they were wearing, but if they are okay.

Chatham almuna speaks about the pitfalls of “voluntourism”

On Thursday, November 6, Chatham alumna and current University of Pittsburgh employee Holly Hickling came to Chatham University to share her presentation “Voluntourism: The Pitfalls of Short Term Voluntary Service Overseas and How to Avoid Causing Harm.”

The lecture was held in the Chatham’s Founder’s Room in the James Laughlin Music Hall. The intimate setting served as the perfect venue for the approximately 20 people in attendance, including several professors who taught Hickling during her time at Chatham.

At 11:30 a.m., after some initial technical difficulties, the event began with an introduction from Dr. Jean-Jacques Sène, Global Focus coordinator at Chatham University.

“This is really my honor to introduce Hickling,” he said, as he began to give a background of her accomplishments, including graduating from Chatham with a math major and music minor, spending five years doing public health studies abroad, and currently serving as the Academic Community Engagement Advisor at the University of Pittsburgh Honors College.

“I come from the humanities,” Sène said, “but I bow very low to the fields of STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math].”

After a round of applause Hickling took the floor and quickly endeared herself to the audience by joking about how the last time she spoke at Chatham only three people came to hear her, saying, “I might just have this smile on my face the whole time.”

Quite fittingly, given that this is Chatham’s Global Focus Year of Southern Africa, much of Hickling’s experience in long term international aid work was in the Southern African nation of Zambia.

Hickling began her presentation by speaking about her several years doing long term public health studies there, as well as two short-term volunteer trips she took to Guatemala and Costa Rica.

In regards to her shorter trips, she said that despite having an impact on her, they did not really help the locals in a long term way.

The trips were, “life changing for me…not for the people I was going out there to help.”

She went on to define voluntourism as, “a form of tourism in which travelers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity.”

According to her, short-term volunteer programs abroad often have little impact, and the impact that they do have does not last after the volunteers leave. Also, she addressed the fact that most of the work done by volunteers could be done by locals, which would be more beneficial given that rampant unemployment in developing nations.

“If you take a team of people from America to go build a house in Zambia, you could build 70 houses, or pay a teacher’s salary for a year,” she said.

This became even more apparent when she mentioned that each year there are about 1.6 million volunteer tourists, and they pay a total of about 2 billion dollars to take their volunteer trips.

In addition to simply not being very effective, she went on to say that voluntourism can even be harmful.

“Giving things away can create dependency or hurt local markets,” she said. Also volunteers are often poorly trained, specifically in working with refugees.

Additionally, she pointed out that voluntourism perpetuates an attitude of cultural imperialism.

Above all else, she insisted that people should avoid volunteering at orphanages.  According to her, studies have shown that they are bad for children’s physical and mental health and are, “havens for physical and sexual abuse,” yet people who run orphanages often take children who have parents away from their homes and put them in orphanages that are purposely kept in bad condition in order to make money from volunteers.

“They buy babies,” Sène said, affirming her point.

Finally, she mentioned that international travel in general is bad for the environment, citing the high carbon emissions involved in it.

Towards the end of her presentation, Hickling made the point that if people are still compelled to go abroad, they should do their research, support ongoing efforts that are working well, seek local voices, go with an open mind, recognize privilege and power dynamics, and stay for a longer period of time.

In closing she discussed the fact that many of the problems that are faced in developing nations also exist in America saying, “Do you want to help people? Help people in Pittsburgh!”