A University of Massachusetts Amherst student accused of punching a Jewish student and spitting on an Israeli flag on Friday after a campus demonstration in support of Israeli hostages, called the student a Zionist and vandalized the flag with a knife, witnesses said.
Efe Ercelik was arraigned Monday in East Hampshire District Court on two counts of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and sole counts of larceny, vandalizing property, assault and battery to intimidate, and disorderly conduct, according to court records.
Ercelik pleaded not guilty Monday and was released on “pretrial conditions,” legal filings show. His lawyer didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ercelik allegedly committed the assault after a demonstration organized by the campus Hillel group. In a letter sent to the campus community on Sunday, university officials condemned his alleged actions without naming him.
In a report, university police said an officer was called to the south side of the Student Union building shortly before 4 p.m. on Friday to respond to an assault. The officer spoke with two alleged victims and a third witness, the report said.
One person said that Ercelik, described as 6 feet 5 inches tall with black curly hair and a beard, had approached him in an aggressive manner after the demonstration ended, according to the report.
Ercelik allegedly called him “a little [expletive] boy,” told him to “go home,” and referred to him as a Zionist, which the report said is “commonly interpreted as a religious slur.”
Ercelik then punched the person in the face, witnesses told police. “This was followed up with a shove and a kick to his stomach area,” the report stated.
Ercelik then took a small Israeli flag the person had been holding and destroyed it,” the report said. He allegedly walked into the Student Union building and stabbed “the remains of the flag” with a chef’s knife, the report said.
Two other people corroborate the person’s account, police said. One of them said Ercelik kicked her hand as she tried to break up the attack.
That person told police she had seen Ercelik “acting aggressively (cruel gestures, flipping the bird) through the entirety of an earlier event” supporting the Israeli hostages taken by Hamas, the report said.
Ercelik was identified as the suspect by a UMass officer who had spoken with him earlier in the day, the report said. Investigators found “no readily available camera footage documenting the incident,” the report said.
University officials had described the demonstration, called “Bring Them Home: Solidarity Walk and Installation,” as a “peaceful event” that featured a Shabbat table with empty seats representing the 240 hostages taken by Hamas since Oct. 7.
“What this student is accused of is reprehensible, illegal, and unacceptable,” university officials said in their letter to the campus community. “Peaceful advocacy and protest must and will be protected on our campus.”
Ercelik “will be subject to the legal consequences” of his actions “as well as the Student Code of Conduct,” the letter stated.
His next court hearing is scheduled for Jan. 16.
Tensions have flared on college campuses in the weeks since Hamas launched a terrorist attack against Israel on Oct. 7, killing more than 1,400 people, mainly civilians, and Israel responded with around-the-clock airstrikes and a ground assault of Gaza. The death toll among Palestinians rose to more than 10,000 as of Monday, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry.
Rabbi Jonah Steinberg, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League New England, said on social media that the incident at UMass is “the latest proof that Jewish students are under attack” and “an example of the disturbing reality for Jewish students on campus right now.”
“It is vital that our campus community model civility, as the Jewish community did on Friday in publicly and peacefully showing solidarity with the 240 hostages,” UMass Hillel said.
Material from the Associated Press and from prior Globe stories was used in this report.