June 17, 2024
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Anti-Israel Programs Cause Concern at Rutgers

Rutgers president, Jonathan Holloway.

Despite the decision by Rutgers University to suspend Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) for its weeks of disruptive behavior on both the Newark and New Brunswick campuses, concerns remain over recent university programs featuring speakers who have been criticized for past antisemitic and anti-Israel remarks.

On Dec. 7, a program was held on the Cook/Douglass Campus in New Brunswick, “Race, Liberation and Palestine,” with Noura Erakat, Nick Estes and Marc Lamont Hill. On Dec. 4, a virtual program, “The West, Israel and the Settler-Colonization of Palestine,” featuring Dr. Joseph Massad, was sponsored by the Rutgers Center for Security, Race and Rights, a faculty-led center under the auspices of Rutgers Law School on the Newark campus.

The Dec. 7 program drew calls for it to be canceled by Rutgers President Dr. Jonathan Holloway, who received more than 12,000 emails, prompting him to complain about the “online harassment.” He later apologized for that characterization.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) wrote to Holloway to express his “strong concerns” about the program, noting: “At a time when antisemitic acts and violence have been increasing precipitously across the country, especially on college campuses, including at Rutgers, providing these notorious antisemites a space to further promote their well-known, extreme views will further spread hate speech and increase the possibility of violence and harassment on campus.”

That program discussed “the ongoing assault on Gaza,” addressed “how anti-blackness and settler-colonialism shape our current discourse on Palestine,” and highlighted the long histories of solidarity between Black, Indigenous and Palestinian struggles.

Hill, a professor of urban education at the City University of New York Graduate Center, was fired as a commentator by CNN in 2018 for his anti-Israel comments at a United Nations International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, where he called for “a free Palestine from the river to the sea,” terminology used by Hamas and viewed as calling for the destruction of Israel and killing its Jewish inhabitants.

Hill was previously a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, which had condemned him for speech that “promoted violence” against Jews for language threatening the existence of Israel.

Estes, an assistant professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota, has openly denounced Israel’s right to exist and has called Israel’s residents “Zionist settlers.” The Anti-Defamation League said Estes has engaged in long-standing troupes of antisemitism, regularly “injecting the bigotry and antisemitic conspiracy theories into the discourse on the conflict.”

Erakat is a human rights attorney and associate professor of Africana studies and the program of criminal justice at Rutgers and served as national organizer of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. She has also produced video documentaries, including “Gaza in Context” and “Black Palestinian Solidarity.”

Massad, the speaker at the Dec. 14 program, is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University. Among the topics discussed at the program was the contextualization of “Israel’s current war against the Palestinian people and the history of Western racism which enables that support.”

Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ CEO Dov Ben-Shimon called out Rutgers for the program, noting Massad is “infamous for his long standing antagonism to Israel and antisemitic remarks.” Ben-Shimon said that Massad recently praised the Oct. 7 massacre by Hamas terrorists as being “awesome and incredible” and “a stunning victory.”

The director of the sponsoring Center for Security, Race and Rights is Sahar Aziz, also a distinguished professor of law and Chancellor’s Social Justice Scholar at Rutgers Law School. She is also a member of the Westfield Board of Education who had a complaint filed against her by a local resident for her alleged antisemitism dismissed on Dec. 19 by the state School Ethics Commission. The commission acknowledged her remarks, which cited the “racial supremacy of Jewish-Zionist nationals” and referred to Israel as “apartheid,” were “controversial” and likely to be perceived as “offensive and hurtful” by the district’s Jewish community. However, they didn’t violate ethics rules because they did not relate to the school district and were made on a private social media page.

Linda Scherzer, the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the MetroWest Federation, called the center “a stridently anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian think tank.” She said among the “outrageous and deplorable” points made by Massad during the program was that the Oct. 7 atrocities never happened, at least not to the extent described by Israel, and that the IDF killed many of their own Israeli civilians that day.

Scherzer said that the federation had already brought its concerns about the center to university officials some time ago. Those concerns also extended to the frightening atmosphere created by SJP.

“We had been growing increasingly concerned and we had urged our community constituents to send a letter to the president, and what is interesting, is that a number of people who wrote had a strong connection to the university as alumni or major donors or had been advisors or faculty,” said Scherzer, adding that Holloway ultimately had four or five Zoom sessions with community members. She believes he also had such meetings with community members from other catchment areas.

Scherzer added that just as community members were urged to write about the threatening behavior of SJP, she now urged them to write to Holloway thanking him for its suspension. She said Federation had written to him applauding the decision.

“We have heard stories that students were being harassed and bullied,” she said. “We heard stories of students who were afraid of leaving their dorm rooms for fear of passing angry protesters. This is not the college experience parents were paying for.”

On the same day as the suspension of SJP was announced the federal Department of Education launched an investigation of Rutgers for a Title VI violation of the Civil rights Act for alleged failure to protect Jewish students from harassment.

Scherzer acknowledged that Rutgers, like other universities, has to take into account First Amendment issues and academic freedom and the Hamas-Israel War has made the situation “complex, nuanced and fraught.”

Those difficulties in balancing those rights were demonstrated in conversations The Jewish Link had with Jewish faculty who did not want to be named. One said Holloway was “being raked over the coals” by pro-Palestinian supporters for a statement released shortly after the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks that expressed sympathy for any loss of civilian life and specifically criticized Hamas for its attack.

Another said amid criticism about the university’s continued collaborations with Israeli educational institutions during virtual meetings with faculty Holloway staunchly defended the partnerships and said they would continue because “this is a diverse university.”

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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