An Orthodox rabbi in the Cleveland area was sentenced to 10 days in jail and 18 months of probation for stealing a pro-Palestinian banner from a student group at a local university.
The sentence, delivered on Wednesday, caps a charged saga in which students had alleged that the rabbi and pro-Israel activist, Alexander Popivker, had harassed them.
Popivker, a handyman and resident of the suburb of Cleveland Heights, was charged with theft in January for taking the banner from Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, a student group at Cleveland State University.
Popivker’s jail time will be suspended, which generally means he won’t have to serve it until after his probationary period is over, and may see it removed with good behavior. He is also required to attend anger management classes. The university has also barred him from campus for his behavior.
The campus climate and opposing activism
The case represents a rare instance, in the annals of campus debates over Israel, in which legal action has been taken against a pro-Israel activist for aggressive conduct toward pro-Palestinian students. Pro-Israel groups have filed a series of federal complaints alleging that campus groups have fostered a hostile atmosphere for Jews at campuses across the country, and pro-Palestinian students on multiple campuses have faced charges for their activism.
Popivker’s pro-Israel demonstrations at Cleveland State, carried out over the course of months before his ban, at times curdled into standoffs with students. He has frequently compared Palestinians to Nazis, and some students have accused him of targeting visibly Muslim people with harassment, which he denies. He also contacted a law student’s school and employers over her pro-Palestinian views, and made social media posts targeting her — an incident that led the student to file, with the support of a prominent Jewish dean at the university, an order of protection against Popivker.
Cleveland State, whose police force had made the initial arrest of Popivker, declined to comment on the sentence. A university spokesperson had previously told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that Popivker “was not banned for the content of his speech, but how he chose to exercise it.”
The pro-Palestinian student group had previously celebrated the school’s decision to ban Popivker from campus, issuing a statement via the local Council on American-Islamic Relations chapter in February. “We are still deeply disturbed by the events of harassment against the Arab, Muslim, and specifically Palestinian community, but are relieved to know that our students and communities are safe on campus for now,” the group’s board said at the time.
On Wednesday, Popivker told JTA that the sentence was “severe and unreasonable” and was “prompted by false claims by the university that I targeted Muslims for harassment and am Islamophobic.” He added that the ruling against him was a curtailing of his “First Amendment right to advocate at a public university.”
Popivker freely admits to stealing the banner, classifying it as an act of civil disobedience because the flag “erased Israel from the map.” But he otherwise blames his poor campus reputation on “Palestinian organizations, professors and students,” whom he says “are brainwashed with demonizing slander against the state of Israel.”
Local Jewish groups have been slow to comment on Popivker’s case, though after he was charged with the theft of the banner, The Lawfare Project, a pro-Israel legal group, called him “a Jewish civil rights activist.” A spokesperson for The Lawfare Project did not respond to a request for comment on his sentencing.
Popivker used the occasion of his sentencing hearing to attempt to stage a rally pushing the university to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's definition of antisemitism, a document that has spurred controversy for saying certain types of criticism of Israel are antisemitic. Around a dozen people showed up at the courthouse to hand out Israeli flags, mostly friends and family, he said.