June 2, 2024
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Anti-Israel Posts by Ramapo College Holocaust Center Director Lead to Firing Demands

“This is in response to people dehumanizing Palestinians and Hamas fighters, and other dehumanizing Israeli civilians … Dehumanization is the seedbed of genocide and ethnic war,” read the tweet posted on October 7, the day of the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel.

However, the tweet did not come from a pro-Palestinian supporter, but rather from Dr. Jacob Ari Labendz, director of the Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Ramapo College in Mahwah.

This and a series of other tweets have angered members of the Jewish community, including the Gross family, the primary funders of the center. They have threatened to cut off donations and have asked that their name be removed from the center unless Labendz is fired.

Lauren Gross, the vice chair of its advisory board and daughter of Paul and Gayle Gross, whose “substantial” donation provides almost all of the center’s funding, said her family was shocked that Ramapo, part of the state college system, found no misconduct after its investigation of Labendz.

“No wrongdoing was found and therefore he is not being removed,” she said during a phone interview. “Our response is that we are going to defund the center 100% and we want our name taken off. We do not want our name sullied.”

The Jewish Link was sent a 39-page compilation of screenshots of tweets posted by Labendz under his X name, “Jacob ‘Dr. Lion Swan’ Labendz.” The sender asked to remain anonymous because of their position in the local Jewish community. However, as soon as he learned the tweets were being saved and shared, Labendz made his X account private, according to the source. The posts also prompted the JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly to cancel a program with the center.

Other tweets posted by Labendz include: “You can have a little BDS, as a treat. It’s still kosher” and “Rape is common in ethnic warfare, liberatory or otherwise. These allegations must be investigated, not trusted without proof. This will take time. Whatever the outcome does not justify Israel’s war on Gaza or oppression and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.” Other posts accuse Israel of apartheid. Labendz did not return a request for comment.

The positions of Labendz and the center have also drawn sharp rebuke from the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. CEO Jason Shames said in light of Labendz’s positions during the current climate of antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment, Federation is pausing all programming and interaction in “any shape, way or form” with the center.

“I don’t see the point of including all these other things and I’m quite sure Lauren Gross and her family were not intending for him to take them,” he said. “We take Zionism seriously here, and he crossed the line.”

Shames said Federation had appropriated a small amount of money for specific programming last year and was open to future discussions should the center go in a different direction.

“Quite frankly it goes beyond the posting into some of the programming, which in my opinion is very questionable, and much like other universities, the fact is they are trying to be progressive, which is dangerous for the Jewish community and for Jewish society at large,” he noted.

The center was founded in 1980 as an independent nonprofit organization to educate and interact with the northern New Jersey and Rockland County communities about the Holocaust and other genocides and became part of the college in 2001. In 2014 it was renamed after the Grosses when they took over major funding. Labendz was hired two years ago to replace Michael Riff, who had served as director since 1996.

Lauren Gross, who has served on the center’s board for about 30 years, said that after the last major funders died she recommended that her parents, Bergen County residents who now split their time between New Jersey and Florida, take over. The Gayle and Paul Gross Family Foundation also funds the Gross Family Center for the Study of Antisemitism and the Holocaust in Florida.

She said the family was not consulted before Labendz was hired. However, when they took over the center’s funding they stipulated that 75% of its programming had to be focused on the Holocaust and antisemitism. After Labendz started, Lauren Gross, who also serves as the unpaid director of the Florida center, sent him a helpful list of 100 speakers it had successfully hosted.

“When he began ruling out programs I saw I was not dealing with a pro-Israel Zionist Jew,” she said. “Some things we were not thrilled with but we gave him free reign because he was fresh out of the gate.”

Then came October 7 and the Hamas attacks that left 1,200 Israelis dead and more than 200 kidnapped.

“Jacob Labendz’s response is to tweet about dehumanizing Palestinians and Hamas fighters on the day of the massacre,” said Lauren Gross, who added that he refused her pleas to put something supportive of Israel on the center’s web page and has given “pro-Jihadi” professors a platform.

“He refuses to put a statement out and gave me every reason in the book,” said Lauren Gross. “Then we started sending emails to shut down his emails and social media. How dare he send pro-Palestinian posts?”

A request was also sent to college president Dr. Cindy R. Jebb by Paul and Lauren Gross requesting Labendz be immediately removed. An investigation was launched, but several days later the pair was informed that center activities fell within diversity, equity and inclusion guidelines and Labendz would not be removed.

“While the College cannot comment on personnel matters, we wish to reaffirm that the programming of the Center is more important than ever,” said college spokesperson Brittany Williams-Goldstein in a written statement. “Ramapo College will continue to deliver the Center’s mission to lead students, educators, and the regional public in exploring the histories, legacies, and lessons of the Holocaust and genocide.”

The statement added: “The support of Gayle and Paul Gross over the past decade in particular has made it possible for Ramapo College students, K-12 school districts across New Jersey, as well as communities and individuals in the region to meaningfully engage with the Center through its high-quality Holocaust and genocide programming. We will always be grateful for the Gross’ [sic] leadership and support.”

However, Lauren Gross said her family remains adamant, and reflecting on the decisions said, “We don’t want anything to do with the center as long as Jacob Labendz is running it. It is very sad for the Jewish community of Bergen County and is absolutely shocking to us. Frankly, it is better that it gets shut down because a Holocaust center should not be made to showcase Palestinian and Islamic professors criticizing Israel.”

Debra Rubin has had a long career in journalism writing for secular weekly and daily newspapers and Jewish publications. She most recently served as Middlesex/Monmouth bureau chief for the New Jersey Jewish News. She also worked with the media at several nonprofits, including serving as assistant public relations director of HIAS and assistant director of media relations at Yeshiva University.

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