Chanan Reitblat, a Lithuanian-born and American-bred post-graduate student at Yeshiva University, went to Scotland’s historic St. Andrews University earlier this year to study chemistry and learned a lesson in contemporary politics. An undergraduate exchange student at the school, he hung in his dormitory room a large Israeli flag — a gift from his brother, who served in the Israeli army's Marva basic training program; in March, a pair of fellow students attacked the flag, one of them rubbing his genitals before wiping his hands on the flag.
That student, 19-year-old Paul Donnachie (a member of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign) was expelled from the university and sentenced to perform 150 hours of community service; afterwards he posted a Facebook notice that “I got into s*** for disrespecting [an Israeli flag]. F*** them.” His partner was suspended for a year — they were, it was ruled, guilty of a racially motivated, rather than a political, crime. The moves by the school preceded by several months the conviction of 10 students at the University of California at Irvine for disorderly conduct for repeatedly interrupting a speech by Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren.
Reitblat, 21, has subsequently left St. Andrews and returned to his studies at Yeshiva University. He said he will donate the nearly $500 he received from Donnachie in compensation on court orders to the Fogel Family Fund, which was established to assist the surviving children in an Israeli family, whose parents and three children were killed in a terrorist attack the same day as Reitblat’s flag was desecrated.
Q: The hostile climate for Israel on U.S. campuses is well known. Did you expect to find this on Scotland?
A: This incident is indicative of a very serious global problem, even at the most prestigious universities in Europe and the U.S. The problem is that people ignore the difference between the right to free speech and the right to violence, incitement and ethnic hatred. The objective of my attacker and his supporters is simple: To delegitimize Israel and anyone connected to Israel, in any way possible and at any cost. Displaying the flag of the Jewish state is, in their mind, a “controversial statement” that immediately warrants intimidation, delegitimization and even physical abuse. Their aim, like [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s in the UN, is to create an atmosphere on college campuses where any association with the Jewish state creates an automatic stigma.
You left Scotland after the anti-Israel incident. Did you sense animosity — or a threat — toward you beyond the incident with the flag?
I stayed with the Jewish community in Glasgow, three hours away from St. Andrews. In the weeks preceding the trial, the SPSC ran an online smear campaign against me targeting my Jewish identity and right to stand up for myself.
Considering I was alone and in a foreign country, I felt very threatened and decided to leave campus until the issue was dealt with by the proper authorities.
Some will say a flag is only a symbol and you were not physically attacked. How do you answer that?
To me, this attack struck a deep chord because in our history, attacks on the Jewish people always began with attacks on Jewish symbols but never stopped there. By way of example, before they killed six million Jews, Nazis started by burning Jewish books — which are symbols of our identity and culture. The Israeli flag and the Star of David is a symbol representing the Jewish state and the Jewish people, and any pretence that attacking it is “political debate” or “free speech” or “defense of Palestinian rights” is a facade.
There are many worthy Israeli and Jewish causes — how did you choose the Fogel fund?
In life, there are no coincidences. We were both attacked because we believe in Jewish self-determination in our historical homeland. In terms of timing, both the initial incident and subsequent sentencing occurred at the same time as the Fogel’s — to the minute. Tamar Fogel’s resilience and courage also gave me the strength to move forward with the case and stand up to my abusers. Finally, my parents taught me that life isn’t always easy and that in order to succeed one must be able to turn negative experiences into positive ones. With that in mind, I decided to donate the compensation money to the Fogel family in order to help them rebuild their lives.
Will you ever go back to Scotland?
Throughout this ordeal, I received a lot of support from both the University of St. Andrews and the Glasgow Jewish community. Despite this incident, I look back to my time in St. Andrews and Scotland with many happy memories and will return in the future.
You’ve not been to Israel yet — when are you going there?
As soon as I find the right girl.