June 13, 2024
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June 13, 2024
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Defund Hillel? Defund Rutgers.

As Jewish students head to campus this month, they will be preoccupied with many of the same concerns shared by undergraduates across the country during these turbulent times. However, many will also be saddled with the burden that has become attending a college or university while identifiably Jewish.

It is difficult to find a school that is free from the growing phenomenon of campus antisemitism. Nonetheless, Rutgers University has earned a reputation for being one of the most hostile environments for Jewish students.

Rutgers administrations come and go, but what never seems to change is the toxic combination of indifference, incompetence and worse that each one brings to the issue of antisemitism. For decades, young Jews have endured hate and discrimination from faculty members, affiliated organizations and fellow students while the university looked on.

The school’s woeful pattern of inaction was well established when the Zionist Organization of America filed a complaint in 2011 with the U.S. Department of Education alleging that Rutgers violated the civil rights of Jewish students. That complaint was driven by multiple incidents, including one involving organizers of a pro-Palestinian campus event who allegedly excluded visibly Jewish students while freely admitting others. Not surprisingly, the Obama administration was unmoved despite the strong evidence to support the allegations.

That same year a Jewish student who voiced pro-Israel views was reportedly subjected to a violent threat on social media by a fellow Rutgers student, and branded a “racist Zionist pig” by an outreach coordinator for the Rutgers Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

In 2016, a swastika was taped to the ceiling of a female Jewish student’s dorm room. The university seems to have treated the incident as a kind of joke gone awry. Even the Anti-Defamation League expressed its disappointment with Rutgers’ failure to take meaningful action.

By 2017, things went from bad to worse as the university’s then-president, Robert Barchi, grossly mishandled a scandal involving reports that three professors had verbally attacked Jews and/or Israel using blatant antisemitic tropes. Instead of taking decisive action to reverse his school’s moral rot, Barchi defended the scholarship of at least one of the culprits and cowardly hid behind a free speech argument that never flies when other minorities are targeted.

At the time, Barchi even condescendingly belittled a Jewish publication that uncovered the story. This incident represents a key element of the antisemitic dynamic at Rutgers. The message conveyed is that faculty members will be allowed to propagandize and poison minds with hate, and to bully and intimidate Jewish students, secure in the knowledge that they will be protected.

There is no indication that Barchi’s successor, Jonathan Holloway, intends to make a course correction. The recent global surge in antisemitism, including that which masquerades as criticism of Israel’s policies, seems to have made little impression on the hardened hearts of Rutgers’ leaders.

In April of this year, the AEPi house was vandalized during a Yom HaShoah vigil. When pogrom-like violence was inflicted upon Jews in the streets of America after Hamas launched its war on Israel in May, the pressure on Jewish students reached alarming levels.

Rutgers apparently concluded that it had to at least say something. The fiasco that followed, however, showed that nothing changed.

A public letter signed by Chancellor Christopher Molloy and Provost Francine Conway expressed sadness and concern over the rise in antisemitic violence nationwide, and acknowledged hate directed at Jewish members of the Rutgers community. And yet they could not refrain from undermining their purported purpose by reflecting woke orthodoxy.

Their statement generalized the unique phenomenon of antisemitism by conflating it with other forms of discrimination and assaults on other groups, including Muslims, at a time when it was Jews who were under siege.

But even this was not enough for the Rutgers chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, who likely sensed weakness and demanded an apology from the university for “dismissing the voices and visibility of Palestinians and allies.” Molloy and Conway promptly complied with a second letter, fittingly titled “An Apology.” This further diluted and undermined their original inadequate attempt to call out antisemitism.

The university’s rapid about-face was so craven that it caused embarrassing headlines around the world. If this debacle was meant to show that Rutgers had changed, it was lost on a variety of people from across the political spectrum.

In June, U.S. Congressman Josh Gottheimer appealed to President Holloway to “send a clear message that all Rutgers students and community members, including those who identify as being Jewish or pro-Israel, will not be singled out, penalized, or made to feel unwelcome at our state’s flagship university.” He was responding to yet another vicious denunciation of Israel, this time from a union of Rutgers part-time lecturers, which itself speaks volumes about what a Jewish student can expect when he or she enters a Rutgers classroom.

Likely emboldened by the earlier appeasement, SJP, along with numerous leftist and pro-Palestinian groups, signed an inflammatory statement that purported to be a response to Gottheimer but went further than the usual diatribe. In so doing, they proved Gottheimer’s point.

The statement contains language that many have interpreted as a call to “defund” Rutgers Hillel, which the signatories single out as a prominent Zionist organization on campus with a “history of falsely conflating Palestine advocacy with antisemitism.” Given the message’s overall content and tone, the record and ideology of the signatories, and the fact that such calls have already been made elsewhere, such an interpretation was reasonable.

A subsequent debate centered on parsing the statement’s awkward verbiage to determine whether or not there was an explicit call to “defund Hillel” misses the point, yet that is what some are focusing on. One can only conclude that when recent events at Rutgers are summed up, they represent an escalation of the isolation and intimidation felt by Jewish students.

In light of its history and lack of leadership, Rutgers will likely continue to sit on its hands. The larger Jewish community must not do so as well while Jewish students face the real prospect of being driven underground.

Far too many Jewish students across the country are already living a kind of forced silence and invisibility when it comes to matters of Jewish identity. To combat this trend, the toolkit employed must be broadened considerably.

When the ZOA filed its complaint in 2011, it was onto something. An even wider, multipronged legal strategy should be part of a comprehensive and invigorated approach to the entire issue of antisemitism.

Rutgers and others must learn that the Jewish community regards this as a civil rights struggle. The university may continue to fail its Jewish students, but it must be made to pay a real price beyond tiresome expressions of disappointment by Jewish groups.

New Jersey’s “flagship” state university has for decades been enriched by the talent, hard work and contributions of countless Jewish students, staff, faculty and donors. It has taken all of this for granted, along with the ongoing presence of a large and vibrant Jewish community itself. Rutgers must be shown that it can no longer afford to do so.

Will a “defund Hillel” movement ever gain traction? Never underestimate what our adversaries are capable of. As this academic year begins, however, what a university that benefits from millions in public funding must be made to understand is that a movement to “defund Rutgers” is a real possibility as well.

Eric Ruskin is an attorney in New Jersey and a member of the board of directors of the Israel Independence Fund.

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