Teaneck—A flag of Israel, ripped down the middle, fluttered above the heads of two Israeli students, one formerly in special combat forces in the IDF, on the evening of March 24 as they walked into Jeepers, a student eatery on the Teaneck campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University. Though there are flags of many countries displayed all over the FDU campus representing the countries from which students are attending, the Israeli flag was the only one discovered to be torn.
Rabbi Ely Allen, Hillel Director at FDU, Ramapo College, Bergen Community College and William Paterson University and instructor at Yeshiva University told JLNJ it was an isolated incident and shocking to all the students.
However, JLNJ learned that it was not entirely isolated. Included in a chain of emails sent to JLNJ was this message. “Just to add to the overall picture of bias crimes on campus, last week, I found a swastika drawn on the bulletin board outside my office in Bancroft Hall—yet again.”
JLNJ is withholding the name of the person as FDU has a policy that all information must be dispensed through the Public Relations office.
However, Dina Schipper, head of public relations for FDU told JLNJ “there were two unreported—and as best we can tell, unrelated—incidents of vandalism on campus. An investigation is ongoing.
“The University is committed to fostering an environment of tolerance and inclusion and to that end, hosts nearly 1,300 international students from nearly 20 countries at the Metropolitan Campus and has campus ministries for students of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths.”
These are all recent incidents.
“We’ve had a very positive relationship with Fairleigh Dickinson,” said Rabbi Allen. “I have to say that they’ve done everything that they can possibly do on the various fronts so we don’t have a situation like Rutgers or other places that have a very tense campus experience.”
Asked if there was any way this could have been an accident, Rabbi Allen said that there is an ongoing full scale investigation into how the flag, which hangs from the high ceiling of the eatery, could have been torn.
“There are cameras in Jeepers. There is a video feed. I can’t imagine that if there’s a video feed we’re not going to have some kind of conclusion of what took place.”
Rabbi Allen said he sent the following note to the Dean of Students, Michelle Heins.
“To Our Esteemed President, Provost, Dean, Faculty & Staff,
“We, the members of the Fairleigh Dickinson Hillel, the campus Jewish association, are concerned by the desecration of the Israeli flag in the Jeepers Lounge on March 24, 2015. As students of an institution of higher learning, we are distressed that the perpetrator, who is potentially a fellow student, chose to deface school property in secret rather than entering into open dialogue and preferred to destroy the symbol of the Jewish state rather than engage in constructive debate.
“As Jewish students of FDU, we deeply value the freedom to express a variety of academic and political opinions, and with this act of destruction we feel that this freedom has been compromised. We urge our campus to take this act of vandalization seriously and to investigate this issue in order to appropriately address the situation.
“Thank you in advance for your attention to this matter.”
Rabbi Allen said within minutes he received the following response.
“I am very saddened to hear about the destruction of the Israeli Flag in Jeepers. This is the first I am hearing about the vandalism to the flag. Please be assured that FDU community prides itself on being the Leader in Global Education, and we certainly do not take these things lightly. I have requested a full investigation via Public Safety.
“In the interim, if you would like to discuss outreach or educational programs, I am happy to assist. In the meantime, if you have any questions or additional concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me.”
In a fortuitous happenstance, said Rabbi Allen, for the annual Israel program held on campus the day after the incident, the new Director of the Center for Israel Engagement for the Federation, Danit Sibovits came to speak. Sibovits an attorney formerly implemented a new litigation initiative that focuses on the resurgence of anti-Semitism on universities at the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law.
“It was a perfect alignment, and she was able to guide the students and address their concerns in a professional manner.” He said this is the first time they had someone who specialized in this type of work addressing the students.”
Sibovits provided this statement to JLNJ: “FDU’s Administration is taking this situation very seriously and has begun an investigation. Jewish Federation appreciates their determination to ensure that there is a campus atmosphere where all students of all backgrounds feel safe and comfortable.”
Rabbi Allen said, “We’ve really been very fortunate at Fairleigh Dickinson. I’ve worked with the Imams a number of years ago and we’ve had a lot of joint programming on the similarities of Judaism and Islam on a religious level. We’ve never had anything like this in all the years I’ve been at Fairleigh Dickinson, 14 as a professional and five as a student.
Asked if he had gotten any feel from other students on campus and if they had engaged with the Jewish students about the incident, Rabbi Allen said that the students are very concerned about this because nothing like this had happened before and they are aware of what has been going on at other campuses. “I think they’re a little bit worried that this is going to start possibly a negative situation on campus.”
He said the students were shown the film “Crossing the Line,” which according to its YouTube description “exposes the growing anti-Israel sentiment taking root on college campuses across North America.” He said this is one of the things that the students are very worried about.
“Our challenge is that we have four different campuses and the climate or the social reality on each campus is different and therefore what works on one campus may not work on another campus and thus we try to guide our students based on the situation that they’re experiencing. It’s a very different guidance on William Patterson where the Jewish students are outnumbered one to a thousand by the Arab students, obviously we’re not rocking the boat over there because there’s no way we’re going to win.
“In Fairleigh Dickinson it’s a different situation because you’re in the heart of the biggest Jewish town in northern New Jersey. If there is an incident we’d have 10,000 people surrounding the campus in a circle of peace.”
He said they’ve been guiding their students, on the one hand, to be proud that they’re Jewish and proud of the State of Israel. On the other hand to be very wise in terms of going forward and debating that publicly and being very careful with one’s words so as not to provoke an altercation when it’s not necessary.
He said that there are a few students of other faiths who come to Hillel to visit and he’s received notes of support from his colleagues and from non-Jewish students that he knows and several students have received similar statements that this is not the thing that normally happens.
According to the Forbes magazine website reviewing colleges, the Metropolitan (Teaneck) campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University has a student population of 9,130 with an undergraduate population of 6,775. Of those Rabbi Allen said there are about 15 students who are active in Hillel of the about 250 Jewish students on campus and members of the Hillel Facebook page. He said the Hillel club has existed at FDU since at least the 1970s.
Next year, the FDU Hillel will be transitioning to the Rutgers model where there is much more advocacy training. Also, the FDU Hillel will be under the sponsorship of the Rutgers Jewish Federation.
By Anne Phyllis Pinzow