May 15, 2024
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May 15, 2024
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Rutgers President Defends Decision to Negotiate with Protestors

Rutgers President Dr. Jonathan Holloway defended his decision to negotiate an end to the pro-Palestinian encampment and return the New Brunswick campus to a normal course of business.

Holloway has come under withering criticism from legislators and the Jewish community for the university’s decision to agree to eight of the 10 demands made by protestors, who had threatened to disrupt classes on May 9, forcing Rutgers to cancel morning finals. He had already publicly rejected two demands—that Rutgers divest from Israel and that it end its memorandum of understanding with Tel Aviv University establishing the Israeli educational institution as part of the Innovation and Technology Hub under construction in New Brunswick.

He issued a public statement to the university’s Board of Governors and was grilled during a meeting last Thursday of the state Senate and House Budget Committees, where he ended up mostly being asked about the encampment agreement. Holloway has also been called to speak to the House Education and the Workforce Committee on May 23 by its chair, Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina, over his “shocking concessions.”

Holloway’s actions also triggered a long letter about his decision to “acquiesce to several concerning demands made by anti-Israel protesters on campus,” from New Jersey Democratic Congressmen Donald Norcross and Josh Gottheimer.

“At Rutgers we abhor bigotry,” Holloway said in his statement to the board. “Antisemitism is a scourge that we must and will always fight. I feel the same way about Islamophobia, racism and other ideologies that foster hate and seek to divide.”

In the board letter he also criticized the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel and defended the collaboration with the Israeli educational institution.

“We have a policy already in place for investment decisions and we are adhering to it and the process that flows from it,” he said. “We did agree to meet with the students who made the request and nothing more. While it is not within my authority to make a decision regarding divestment, I will reiterate again that I believe the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement is wrong. I think divestment from Israel is wrong. I believe that enlightenment comes from involvement and that lasting progress and peace are the outcomes of diplomacy and discussion.”

Holloway said while protestors asked that the relationship with Tel Aviv University be severed, he stated, “We will not. Period.”

However, in their letter Gottheimer and Norcross noted the dramatic increases in antisemitism at universities nationwide that have left Jewish students fearing for their safety.

“Recent reports of hideous antisemitic threats at Rutgers have already created serious cause for fear about the safety and well-being of Jewish students, and all students, on campus,” they wrote, and added they feared the agreement “incentivized people to act in a lawless and threatening manner by appeasing the demands of violent and hateful agitators while ignoring an analogous set of requests made peacefully to the University.”

They quoted an unnamed Jewish faculty member who said, “We played nice and got little; SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine] broke every rule in the book and got rewarded with amnesty.”

Jewish students have reported that they have been subjected to antisemitic slurs and harassment around the encampment, in dorms and around the campus. Jewish organizations and Jewish federations have demanded the agreement be rescinded.

Although Holloway was addressing the state budget committee about monetary matters, much of his appearance was devoted to legislators from both parties questioning him about why Jewish students weren’t included in the negotiations about ending the encampment, decisions on how future protests will be handled and how to ensure Rutgers remains a safe and respectful environment for its student body, which is one of the most diverse in the nation and has one of the largest Jewish and Muslim student bodies in the country.

Among those questioning him was Assemblyman Gary Schaer of Passaic, who inquired whether the university would be a safe place to send his children.

“Antisemitism has seen an alarming rise on New Jersey college campuses in the past few months,” Schaer said in a statement to The Jewish Link, adding there had been a 103% increase of antisemitic incidents in the state over the prior year, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

“To address this matter, I had the opportunity to question President Holloway of Rutgers University during the Assembly Budget hearing on Higher Education on the recent encampments at their New Brunswick campus,” he added. “Rutgers has seen an unprecedented number of antisemitic sentiments given their recent political climate. Violence by any means will not be tolerated and it is critical that all students on campuses feel safe in their environment.”

Holloway defended his decision as one that would allow final exams to proceed, avoid the violence seen at other universities, encampments and protests and avoid interfering with university business.

“For weeks we have watched universities struggle to respond to unrest and violence on campuses across America,” said Holloway in his letter to the board. “Schools that appear stable one day are overwhelmed the next. My leadership team and I have cautiously believed that Rutgers can be different, indeed that Rutgers is different, and that we can maintain our delicate peace.”

 

He said when it became apparent the otherwise peaceful protest was to become disruptive and the Voorhees Mall, where the encampment was located, had devolved into “an unstable mixture of protestors and counter-protestors,” including some from outside the campus “with their own goals and ambitions,” “it was clear to me that we had to take some action before the situation veered toward violence,” wrote Holloway. “Some people have said I should have engaged police to clear the protest and arrest those who resisted. We were prepared to do so. I am grateful that we did not have to.”

The Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life and Department of Jewish Studies at Rutgers also issued a statement on May 13 declaring that the unrest at Rutgers and other college campuses across the country has been a matter “of great distress” because “as a major hub of Jewish life and learning on campus and for the community, we seek to combat the extreme polarization and divisiveness that can lead to violence against both Muslims and Jews.”

While everyone involved had questions about the negotiations and decisions made in resolving the situation, they recognized Holloway’s goal of making safety and security paramount. The statement said they had been in contact with the administration throughout the year and faculty and staff have made themselves available to students.

“It is critically important that Jewish voices are an integral part of the university’s ongoing conversation about diversity, equity and cultural inclusiveness,” it read.

 

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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