June 6, 2024
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June 6, 2024
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Rutgers Jewish Faculty and Students Pen Letters As a ‘Painful and Difficult’ Year Ends

Rutgers University students and faculty and staff released open letters expressing their frustration and concern about the antisemitic climate on campus as a “painful and difficult school year comes to a close.”

The letters voiced concern about the university agreeing to some of the demands from protesters to dismantle an encampment on the New Brunswick campus. The student letter noted signers were horrified to learn “people we once considered our friends celebrated Hamas’ atrocities.”

The faculty letter, initiated by J-FAS (Jewish Faculty Administrators and Staff), stated, “Not long ago, many of us considered antisemitism to be largely a thing of the past — and certainly not something that regularly interfered with our work, our relationships with colleagues or our daily lives.”

It listed a number of incidents and added, “We have also witnessed and experienced antisemitism ourselves. In the whirl of media coverage, it has been easy for outsiders to lose sight of the sheer number and severity of disruptive and antisemitic incidents.”

Among the incidents cited were: the regular use of university resources for propagandistic lectures and programs that vilify Israel and fail to present a balanced or nuanced view; the harassment, bullying and following of Jews who pass by anti-Israel protests; calls for continued violence through a “globalized intifada, resistance by any means necessary” and other menacing slogans and the heckling and shouting down of a professor when he offered to engage in dialogue following a propagandistic anti-Israel event; and, subsequently, the online targeting of the same professor over that offer to engage in dialogue.

The student letter stated that as students and recent graduates of the university, “We would like to share our experiences of the past academic year in the hope of conveying the hurt, pain and isolation that many of us have suffered and suggesting ways that the entire university community might do better in the future, not just to support its Jewish students, but to create a more tolerant climate for all its members.”

It cited the takeover of university buildings, the shutting down of university events, forced postponement of final exams as examples and stated, “Student groups connected to national organizations quickly mobilized in support of terror, conveying to us that we would not be safe and welcome at the university many of us called home.”

The students said although they were initially shocked by the reaction to the Oct. 7 massacre of 1,200 Israelis and the kidnapping of more than 200 others in the terrorist attack by Hamas they shouldn’t have been.

“Our peers defended this act of ‘resistance’ calling it justified and deserved,” they wrote. “We should have been prepared for this. All throughout Jewish history our slaughter and persecution have been justified. Whether in the name of ‘religion,’ ‘ethnic purity’ or (in our case) ‘decolonization,’ the murder of Jews is always given a ‘reason’ that justifies our deaths. And in the year 2023 (and still in 2024) we, the Jews at Rutgers University, were condemned as ‘colonizers’ or ‘perpetrators of genocide’ deserving of these atrocities.”

A faculty member who signed the letter, who asked that their name not be used, said they thought much of the venom being voiced by colleagues was the result of ignorance.

“I think there are well-meaning staff members who hear it’s about Israel and don’t think it’s antisemitic, but they don’t see why it often is,” they said. “There are a lot of things that Jews follow and know about that others don’t. There is a great level of ignorance when it comes to Israel. They don’t know when it was founded or why it was founded. They hear Jewish state and don’t realize there are also lots of Christians and Muslims. It’s not that people are actively antisemitic, but there are a lot of assumptions and stereotypes put forward by certain activists that they believe, but hopefully they can be educated out of it.”

While the staff member said they expect problems to continue in fall, they said the administration seems to be moving forward on some issues and they expect the university to be better prepared to handle them in September.

Joe Gindi, who was the lead author of the student letter, said he was motivated by faculty members and outsiders who insisted Jewish students had nothing to fear when, in fact, many were terrified by “an encampment set up in the middle of the university preventing me and my friends from taking our finals, when they shout ‘Intifada’ and ‘From the River to the Sea,’” or when they hold posters of known terrorists holding rifles.

Gindi himself is a Brooklyn native, but has been shouted down on the New Brunswick campus for being a “European colonizer” even though he is of Syrian ancestry. He testified before a congressional hearing on antisemitism in March.

Kelly Shapiro, who assisted in drafting the letter, said they were inspired by the Jewish Columbia University students’ letter declaring themselves to be proud Jews and Zionists and admonishing those who co-opted their experiences and criticized their claims of harassment and antisemitism.

“A lot of people are speaking in our name and we wanted to put forward in a clear voice and in a clear message what we are experiencing,” she said. “We’ve had incidents of others, including from Jewish organizations, coming with their own agendas claiming to represent us. We wanted our own voices to be heard.”

Shapiro, a rising senior environmental engineering major from Skokie, Illinois said she had gone to the encampment to have a conversation with protesters only to be screamed at by one female demonstrator that she was a Nazi and “Hitler would have loved you.”

“I would say our Jewish community at Rutgers is strong and we’re not going anywhere,” she said, adding that while Jewish students want to have a normal college experience that has been difficult with protesters chanting ”We don’t want Zionists here.”

“Unfortunately students like myself can’t focus on our own studies when we have to focus on defending ourselves and defending our identity,” said Shapiro.

Gindi, a rising junior majoring in economics and minoring in Jewish studies, history and Arabic, is on the advisory council — formed by Rutgers-New Brunswick Chancellor Dr. Francine Conway to address issues of antisemitism — and has helped initiate a roundtable dialogue between Muslim Palestinian and Jewish students.

In testimony before Congress last month, Rutgers President Dr. Jonathan Holloway said the university was working with the Anti-Defamation League to bring in antisemitism training, a move Gindi believed will move the university in the right direction and it will be in a better position next year to handle protests.

“These are issues that have been sitting in the dark for a long time,” he said. “Oct. 7 really brought these issues to our campus … these are not protesters. They just want to go after Jews and Israel.”

Gindi remained optimistic, adding, “I continue to look forward to ongoing progress and really hope things are better and I think the administration hopes that as well. I hope the administration improves their reaction and makes Rutgers a more welcoming place for all students — Jewish, Israelis, Muslims, all students.”

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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