Jewish UMass student speaks out about assault at Hillel event

Dylan Jacobs questions university response, as his attacker faces charges of assault and battery

Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Amherst, MA - October 25: UMASS Amherst Provost Mike Malone meets with students inside the Chancellor's office in the Whitmore Administrative Building as they arrived to present their demands to the Chancellor to end what they called, "UMass Amherst's ties with war profiteers and call for a ceasefire and end of the blockade on Gaza."

Administrators at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst released a statement denouncing “Antisemitism, Islamophobia, or any form of bigotry” after a student carrying a Palestinian flag was arrested for assaulting a Jewish student holding an Israeli flag.

The incident took place on Friday night at the end of a vigil organized by UMass Hillel calling for the release of the 240 hostages held captive in Gaza by Hamas. The event included symbolic Shabbat tables with empty seats representing each hostage kidnapped during the Oct. 7 attack in Israel.  

JI was the first publication to speak with Dylan Jacobs, a senior studying economics and math, following the on-campus assault. “We were setting up Shabbat tables for the [hostages] and this guy showed up and started giving people the middle finger,” Jacobs recalled. 

“Then he left and went into the student union and kept doing it from inside the window. Then, maybe an hour later, I was with a friend getting up to leave the event when we see he made a cardboard sign saying ‘from the river to the sea’ and hung it on the window,” referencing the slogan that is widely believed to be a call for the destruction of Israel.

Jacobs said that the suspect then started waving a Palestinian flag, leading him to respond by waving an Israeli flag. “Then he charged out of the building and punched me in the head several times.”   

“I put my hands up to protect my face and he grabbed the flag and kicked me in the chest several times and shoved me,” Jacobs, who was left with a “slight cut” on his lip, said. “That’s when a Hillel staff member got between us.” 

The suspect briefly left and returned with a “foot-long knife,” according to Jacobs. “He kept stabbing the Israeli flag until it was completely destroyed.” 

Both the Hillel staff member who intervened and UMass Hillel’s executive director declined to speak with JI but pointed to a statement, which said, “UMass Hillel continues to maintain an active line of communication with the UMPD, Amherst Police, the UMass administration, and partners at the Secure Communities Network. While there is no indication of any ongoing security threat, Hillel will continue to maintain increased security out of an abundance of caution, and as always, we encourage students at this time to follow common sense best practices such as walking in groups at night and not engaging in counterprotest activities.” 

UMass police investigated the incident and arrested the suspect, identified in court records as Efe Ercelik, on Friday night. Ercelik, a UMass Amherst student, was released on bail, but was prohibited from returning to campus. On Monday, he pleaded not guilty to two counts of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon; larceny; vandalism; assault and battery; assault and battery with intent to intimidate; and disorderly conduct. 

“What this student is accused of is reprehensible, illegal, and unacceptable,” Shelley Perdomo-Ahmed, UMass Amherst’s interim vice chancellor for student affairs and campus life, and Assistant Vice Chancellor and Chief of Police Tyrone Parham said in a joint statement. 

“Let us be clear, these were the actions of an individual who did not speak for nor act on behalf of a group or anyone other than themselves. Peaceful advocacy and protest must and will be protected on our campus… Antisemitism, Islamophobia, or any form of bigotry have no place in our community, and we are committed to ensuring that our community’s engagement with opposing viewpoints is maintained in a respectful manner.

Jacobs said he doesn’t “understand why they mentioned Islamophobia in their statement.”

“It had nothing to do with this incident, and I’m not aware of any recent incidents on campus that could be characterized as Islamophobic.” 

On Friday, the school’s senior associate dean of students, Gretchen LaBonte, sent an email to Jacobs, a copy of which was obtained by JI. “My goal in reaching out to you this evening is to ensure you know that CCPH [Center for Counseling and Psychological Health] is available to you should you wish to speak with someone over the weekend… the other student involved in the incident is restricted from being present on university premises,” she wrote. LaBonte did not respond to JI’s request for comment. 

Still, Jacobs said he “doesn’t know what to think.” 

“I know a lot of people are scared,” he continued, “We’ve had a lot of pretty big SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine] rallies. But nothing like this had happened before Friday.” 

Last month, Jacobs challenged an anti-Israel professor who was debating students at a pro-Israel rally. He asked her: “You’re a professor. Will you condemn terrorism? It’s a yes or no question.”

“It’s not a yes or no question,” the professor,  who Jacobs said has participated in SJP rallies on campus, responded.

On Oct. 25, more than 200 UMass students involved in SJP and similar groups participated in a “Free Palestine” protest from 2 p.m. to around 1:35 a.m, the university’s student-run magazine Amherst Wire reported. Fifty-six of the students were reportedly arrested after the student union building where they were protesting closed. 

The students demanded “UMass divest and cut ties from war profiteers which arm Israel’s genocide in Gaza,” and that “UMass replace war profiteers and offer better job opportunities to students by partnering with groups working towards a sustainable and demilitarized future,” in addition to calling on the chancellor to “make a statement condemning Israel’s genocide in Gaza.” 

Friday’s violent incident at UMass comes a week after pro-Palestinian protestors assaulted several Jewish students at Tulane University. Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel has triggered a wave of antisemitism on college campuses across America. The Secure Community Network tracked 240 events, including protests, demonstrations and vigils on campuses nationwide in October. It also received 77 incident reports for antisemitic events on those campuses. 

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