Pro-Israel Students Hope To Shame Mahmoud Abbas With Empty Seats

Jewish student groups are planning protests against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at a speech in New York City this Monday night — including a push to create swaths of empty seats at the event.

The students, who say that Abbas often sugarcoats his anti-Israel rhetoric when addressing English-speaking audiences, hope to reserve seats for the event at the Cooper Union, then not show up.

Ruthie Lehmann, a Jewish senior at New York University, called Abbas’s planned speech a “disgrace,” especially given the large Jewish student population at Cooper Union, a design school in Manhattan’s East Village.

The Zionist Organization of America students group is also protesting the speech, according to Zach Stern, the group’s Northeast campus coordinator who provided educational pamphlets for the protest.

The New York University Orthodox club, which is a branch of the Hillel, announced the protest in its weekly pre-Shabbat email to members.

The letter said organizers “regret to inform you” that Abbas would be addressing the student body. They called for Jewish students to reserve tickets so they could either attend the speech themselves, or so that the auditorium would be half-empty.

“Our goal is to book these spots and fill the auditorium so that others will not be able to book spots and attend Abbas’ speech,” the message reads.

The protest announcement, which has been circulated among the NYU and Cooper Union Jewish communities, claims that this act would “help the Jewish community,” without elaborating.

Organizers said they had a waiting list for those who want to attend the event, suggesting that the protesters’ strategy might not result in empty seats in the 960-seat Great Hall.

“We respect students rights to protest as long as they don’t disrupt the event,” said Justin Harmon, vice president of communications for Cooper Union.

The speech is hosted by Cooper Union in cooperation with Churches for Middle East Peace, a non-partisan coalition of national church groups that advocates for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Abbas, who is visiting New York for the United Nations General Assembly, is anticipated to speak about his vision for peace between the Israel and the Palestinian people following the collapse of the recent U.S.-brokered peace talks.

From the world’s stage, Abbas is anticipated to discuss the suffering of the Palestinan people during this summer’s war in Gaza and may mount a new push for recognition of a Palestinian state.

At Cooper Union, Abbas is expected to share his vision for religious co-existence in Israel and a future Palestinian state, and may appeal directly to the American people for support.

Most of the available seating is expected be reserved for students of Cooper Union and other local universities, as well as members of local churches, synagogues, and mosques.

Sophie Landau, a senior at Cooper Union, identified herself as a leader of the protest, but declined to comment about the methods of protest.

Landau pointed out that the speech is not sponsored by any student group, which she believes should rule out Abbas from speaking at Cooper Union.

Stern, on behalf of the ZOA, said students were offended and worried about the fact that Abbas was speaking on their campus.

Not all Jewish students oppose Abbas’ appearance in their backyard.

Zach Shwartzbaum, president of the NYU Hillel board, said he welcomed the opportunity to hear Abbas.

“We support diversity of opinion and mutual understanding and engagement with other people’s narratives,” said Shwartzbaum, speaking on behalf of Hillel.

Contact Rachel Benaim at benaim@forward.com

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Pro-Israel Students Hope To Shame Mahmoud Abbas With Empty Seats

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