An Orthodox Rutgers Law School student who claims the university is conducting a “witch-hunt” against him for allegedly defaming a Palestinian student has attracted the attention of national organizations who have come to his aid.
Yoel Ackerman said the Palestinian student shared an Instagram video with misinformation about Israel with the Student Bar Association (SBA). The incident resulted in the SBA being suspended and then reinstated after it tried to toss Ackerman out and triggered an investigation by the university involving claims and counterclaims from students, including an investigation of Ackerman.
However, he said the university is keeping him in the dark about why he is being targeted and he has since enlisted the legal help of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), an evangelical Christian organization that is strongly pro-Israel.
“We’re extremely dissatisfied with the school’s response,” said Jeff Ballabon, senior counsel for international and government affairs at the ACLJ. “We are demanding further information from the university and if they don’t provide it there will be consequences.”
In a phone interview with The Jewish Link, Ballabon, who described himself as an observant Jew, and Ackerman outlined the issues stemming from the video that had appeared in an SBA group chat contending that Hamas did not commit the atrocities or murder the 1,200 civilians on Oct. 7 and that Israel “staged” the massacre.
“I’m not even sure what they are investigating and they’re not giving me many details,” said Ackerman.” I’ve asked them for documents relating to the investigation of me.” He said he has had two meetings with the school authorities which Ackerman described as “more like interrogations.”
The Rutgers-Newark campus has been the scene of a number of pro-Palestinian demonstrations, led by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), that have been vehemently anti-Israel and antisemitic. Ackerman said there are signs all over campus, including a memorial to Palestinians killed by the IDF.
Peter T. Englot, senior vice chancellor for public affairs and chief of staff for Rutgers-Newark, previously told The Jewish Link that the university could not comment on the various claims among students and student organizations, but if the behavior of any student, staff or faculty is found to have violated university policy, such claims will be “duly investigated.”
“We believe that antisemitism, Islamophobia and all forms of identity-based discrimination are unacceptable wherever and whenever they occur,” he added.
However, Ackerman said antisemitism had become “pervasive” around campus and he had become the target of those “trying to bring equivalency between Islamophobia and what is going on here. They’re trying to use it as a shield against antisemitism.”
Ballabon dismissed the university’s insistence that the matter involved just counterclaims between students. “They are responsible for their own students,” he said, adding Ackerman is facing a possible suspension or expulsion for what he called “a series of show trials.”
Ballabon noted, “They are not giving Yoel the protection he needs. Obviously, it’s not just Yoel because other students at Rutgers Law School are concerned and have written about it.”
Ackerman said he had questioned why the student shared the video in the SBA group chat “if it
had zero to do with the SBA or Rutgers University.” The student replied he was only “clearing up” some misinformation about Palestine and added he had shared the video in several other group chats.
Ackerman said this dust-up occurred simultaneously as the Rutgers-Newark’s SJP chapter was planning activities on Oct. 13 for the Day of Resistance, which called for students at various schools and universities to protest amid a Global Day of Rage. He heeded an email from the Rutgers Law Jewish students group to be careful and vigilant. It requested students take screenshots and make records of antisemitic or anti-Israel harassment or threats.
That prompted Ackerman, a 36-year-old paralegal, to share a screenshot of the Palestinian student who posted the propaganda without identifying the student.
Ackerman said he was shocked at what happened next: the university launched an investigation of him for violating school policy regarding defamation and disorderly conduct based on his message to the Jewish student group. He received a letter from the SBA president informing him that he and another student would be up for impeachment for having violated the Anti-Discrimination Clause of its constitution.
Ackerman then sat for “a three-hour public lynching” against him and the other student where 15 fellow students gave the same “anti-Zionist” testimony.
Ackerman’s problems also prompted a letter from Robert Garson, president of the American Association of Jewish Lawyers & Jurists and signed by its executive board. “Rutgers University needs to respond to the shocking allegations over how it not only failed to support but vilified a student, Yoel Ackerman, for noting some students were actually supporting Hamas and spreading misinformation,” he wrote.
The letter took note of the “hostile environment” that appears to exist on campus where memorial candles for slain Israelis are being kicked over and Jewish students are subject to harassment.
The letter was addressed to Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway and Law School Dean Johanna Bond and copied to administrators.
“And so I write to urge you to take the bull by the horns and remediate this situation,” wrote Garson. “I urge you to reach out to Yoel and his fellows and apologize for the disturbing conduct of students and administration at your school. And I urge you to institute appropriate measures to counter antisemitism on your campus and to restore critical thinking, productive discourse and reasoned inquiry on your campus.”
Ballabon called out the “mobilization and weaponization” against a Jewish student who was only trying to protect himself.
“This is part of the degradation of Yoel,” he said. “Yoel was pilloried and other Jewish students saw it happen. Other Jewish students are now in fear based on what happened to Yoel.”
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.