A YouTube video of a University of Maryland, College Park, professor arguing with a Chabad rabbi at Ben-Gurion International Airport in Israel on Monday has raised a second dispute: what really happened between Professor Pnina Peri and Rabbi Meir Herzl.
The video shows Peri, a visiting assistant professor in UMD’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 Monday.
In the video Peri, yelled at them in Hebrew to “move because you are bothering me” and asked rhetorically, “Why are you doing this here? There are people here.” Several people in the terminal asked her to tone down, but instead she became louder.
On Tuesday, Peri released a statement that the men approached her as she was waiting for her flight and began laying tefillin on 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.
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.”
Peri said she apologized for losing her temper, but said she also expected an apology from the two men.
Herzl, in a post on the Chabad news website collive.com, rejected Peri’s account, saying he never spoke to her 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.”
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 Tuesday 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 with Washington Jewish Week, a sister paper of the Baltimore Jewish Times, CJV 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.
Hayim Lapin, who directs the university’s Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Program and Center for Jewish Studies, of which the Gildenhorn Center is a part, wrote in an email to WJW that the center is “looking into the whole matter.”
“We continue to gather information to help us fully understand the nature of this incident, which is only partially shown in the video online,” he wrote. “I emphasize again that we value very highly the right of every person to religious freedom and expression. At the same time, we also value fair and deliberate evaluation and treatment of faculty.”
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.
JTA News and Features contributed to this article.