June 7, 2024
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NJ University’s Collaboration With West Bank University Draws Fire

William Paterson University’s Joshua Powers, left, shakes hands with Birzeit University’s Talal Shahwan during a visit to the West Bank.

A memorandum of understanding (MOU) between William Paterson University of Wayne, New Jersey and Birzeit University in the West Bank has drawn fire and threats of legal action because of the West Bank educational institution’s support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel and its student governing body’s support of Hamas.

“We perceive this to be a violation of state and federal law and we don’t accept it,” said Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey CEO Jason M. Shames, adding that the federation has been in talks with the local university since just before the summer but got sidetracked by the Israel-Hamas War. “Now we are able to refocus. We think enough time has passed and we are starting to pursue other options.”

The memorandum also drew a January 25 letter from Morton S. Klein and Susan B. Tuchman, the national president and director of the legal center, respectively, of the Zionist Organization of America, demanding that William Paterson University “immediately cut all ties to Birzeit University and make it clear to the university community why it is doing so.”

The letter was addressed to university President Richard J. Helldobler and its board of trustees, with copies sent to Governor Phil Murphy, state Senate President Nicholas Scutari, state Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin and Representatives Bill Pascrell and Josh Gottheimer. William Paterson is part of the state college and university system.

“Please be back to us no later than Thursday, February 1, 2024,” reads the ZOA letter. “And please know that we intend to take all necessary steps to ensure that William Paterson’s state and federal funding is terminated unless the University takes the right and moral step and terminates its relationship with Birzeit University and issues a clear and forceful public statement about why it must do so.”

A 2016 state law prohibits investment of state pension and annuity funds into companies and businesses that engage in boycotts of Israel. The State Department has designated Hamas as a terrorist organization since 1995, making it a violation of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to conduct any financial or business transaction with Hamas, according to the FBI’s website.

Tuchman said although she could not speak as to whether any laws have been violated, “it’s impossible to justify, especially in this time of soaring antisemitism, even one penny of taxpayer money going to support a New Jersey university that’s partnering with an institution that is antisemitic and celebrates terrorism and violence against Jews and Israel.”

William Paterson spokesperson Mary Beth Zeman said the collaboration between the two colleges was signed in September 2022 “with the potential for faculty and student exchanges.” However, she said no exchanges have occurred and there are no plans to move forward at this time.

Shames noted that Birzeit’s student government members must align themselves with a political party. “The idea that they (William Paterson) would partner with a university, an educational institution, where two-thirds of the student government would identify with Hamas is an insult,” he said. “They’re using New Jersey taxpayer money to fund this partnership. If they don’t respond to us in the appropriate amount of time we will seek legal opinion. If they don’t take action on this, others are going to.”

Alana Burman, director of the federation’s Jewish community relations committee, said she had provided extensive documentation at William Paterson’s request following a meeting between federation and university leaders on May 8, 2023, which were outlined in a June 23, 2023 letter from Federation.

In addition to Shames and Burman, others attending the meeting were: lay leader Larry Silverman; Harris Laufer, director of the Jewish Federations of New Jersey; Stuart Goldstein, university vice president for marketing and public relations; William Paterson Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Joshua Powers and Guillermo de Veyga, vice president for strategic initiatives and university relations.

“Birzeit has a dedicated mission to rewriting the history and narrative of Israel and the Jewish people worldwide,” reads the letter. “In addition to harboring and facilitating a welcoming climate for extremism and known terrorist organizations like Hamas, Birzeit’s administration has regularly excused and defended these actions.”

Furthermore, the letter noted that Birzeit refuses to hire Jewish faculty or enroll Jewish students, thus preventing local Jewish students and faculty from participating in any exchange or programming, and would only heighten tensions on campus and put Jewish students and faculty at further risk for their safety and “ability to succeed in an environment directly hostile to them.”

The missive highlighted the university’s “continuous, consistent and conscious problem with discrimination and bias on campus, especially with regards to Jewish and Israeli people, which the administration is not taking proactive, responsive, concrete or thoughtful measures to resolve.”

It said the “only solution” would be for William Paterson to abandon the plan or establish a similar collaboration with an Israeli college or university and engage in a trilateral MOU with all three entities.

Zeman, the university spokesperson, said: “William Paterson University takes seriously the personal safety of everyone in our campus community. It is a top priority and fundamental to a healthy learning, living and working environment. As always, if any member of our campus community has concerns about safety, we want to know, and we always respond appropriately.”

Annette Baron worked 13 years at William Paterson as an instructor in its Cotsakos College of Business and School of Continuing Professional Education and as director of talent acquisition and employee learning and development before retiring in September. She said that the university’s former president, Kathleen Waldron, turned down the MOU twice during her eight-year tenure. However, when Helldobler, its current president, took over in 2018 “the tide completely turned 180 degrees.

“He actually fought very hard and went to great lengths to engage with them,” said Baron, adding that Helldobler sent Powers (the school’s provost) to Birzeit at “great expense” to shake the hand of Birzeit’s Vice President for Academic Affairs Talal Shahwan.

“They spent a little over $9,000 of taxpayer money for this alliance, which was made over the very strong objections of a group of Jewish professors, who strongly and vehemently protested,” she continued. “Their pleas fell on deaf ears.”

Baron said after the October 7 terrorist attack on Israel, Helldobler put out a statement she described as “lame,” and after being pressured, put out another statement that she said “was a little better but not much better.”

Additionally, there have been pro-Palestinian demonstrations on campus by Students for Justice in Palestine, and both the provost and president attended one of its meetings. There have been other incidents over the last several years, including a video of a professor denying the Holocaust, that made Jewish students feel vulnerable and unsafe.

Baron said she herself had never been victimized by antisemitism and agrees with the university’s mission to provide education to underserved communities, but added: “You can’t say you’re for diversity and equality and exclude Jews. They serve a lot of students with potential from underserved communities and they mean well, but not when it comes to Jews. It is a friendly environment for the people who work there, but this antisemitism bubbling under the surface can’t continue. I really want to see them flourish in the way they think they should flourish.”

Another Jewish professor, who asked to remain anonymous because they feared retaliation, said that beyond the issue of partnering with a university that supports Hamas and BDS, plus university administrators attending an SJP function, William Paterson recently instituted a policy of having its curriculum center on decolonization as a university goal beginning next year.

“They now have that as a central part of their mission,” said the professor. “I don’t think anyone knows what the hell it means. If you ask any faculty member, maybe one in 15 has a coherent idea what it means. So now all students are going to start taking a course in decolonization.”

The professor said that nationally, decolonization generally means starting out with an idea of colonial influence, but added: “We don’t have colonies. The world was effectively decolonized by the 1960s so it basically will take the approach of the oppressed and the oppressor, and Israel almost always ends up on the side of the oppressor.”

Those fighting antisemitism, the professor asserted, fear they “will be fighting an uphill battle because of this course, which is essentially promoting propaganda, but they are presenting it as truth to the students.”

To read ZOA’s January 25, 2024 letter to William Paterson University in full, visit https://bit.ly/3ufXIVO.

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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