April 16, 2024
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Rutgers President’s Hamas Critique Triggers Response

Statements from Rutgers President Dr. Jonathan Holloway have triggered responses from university staff on both sides of the Hamas-Israel conflict amid continued turmoil and calls for the university to establish a method to investigate antisemitism on campus.

The university, which has one of the largest populations of both Jewish and Muslim students in the country, is a microcosm of what is playing out at universities and their administrations and faculty across the country.

“I have poured my entire adult life into higher education only to see it collapse overnight,” said Rebecca Cypess, a professor of music, associate dean for academic affairs at the university’s Mason Gross School of the Arts and co-chair of JFAS (Jewish Faculty, Administrators and Staff), which initiated one of the open letters. “It’s not just Rutgers. It is about academia across the country and world.”

She questioned “how so many academics have worked themselves into a place where they can’t understand that terrorism is a bad thing? I think we all have a lot of work to do.”

The JFAS letter, which has already been signed by about 300 Jewish and non-Jewish faculty, administrators and staff from the university’s three campuses in New Brunswick, Camden and Newark, requested the “Rutgers community to stand against the murderous regime of Hamas and to recognize the right of both the Palestinian people and the Israeli people to live in safety within secure borders.”

In addition to requesting the university administration formulate a comprehensive plan to address antisemitism specifically, it also asked colleagues “to commit to fostering open, honest inquiry, free of hate and demonization, on the Israeli-Hamas conflict and all other related issues at our university.”

Holloway released two public statements, the first in the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack in which he wrote, “Watching the news of the horrific attacks and tragic loss of life in Israel and Gaza has been heart-wrenching” and encouraged the community to “operate from a place of compassion and empathy.”

That was followed by another letter in which he stated that: “What Hamas did in brutally murdering, torturing and holding hostage innocent Israeli victims of all ages was unconscionable and an act of terrorism” and added, “[that] Hamas has reportedly threatened to murder the hostages one by one, and show them on film, only reinforces their brutality and terrorism.”

The letter additionally addressed the “suffering pain, anguish, and fear” of the Jewish community at Rutgers and mentioned that the president had attended vigils organized by the campus Jewish community.

However, it also expressed “concern for members of the university community with family and friends in Gaza.”

That prompted a letter from about 200 faculty accusing him of making “one-sided statements” that “failed to even acknowledge Palestine, Palestinians, or the death of Gazans who are suffering an unprecedented bombardment by Israeli forces.”

The letter said the signatories felt ”compelled to express our shock, dismay, and disappointment” while also denouncing violence against all innocent civilians and mourning the loss of all lives.

Cypess said she found Holloway’s letter to be very reasonable and added: “Unfortunately in academia, among the loudest voices there are those who are supporting and even excusing Hamas terrorism.”

She pointed out his letter specifically called out Hamas and not Palestinians or Muslims.

The JAFS letter stated that its signatories “strongly condemn the many recent expressions of antisemitism on our campuses and call on the entire community to reject antisemitism in all its forms.”

Rutgers, like campuses across the country, has seen an uptick in antisemitism both on social media and in incidents. At Rutgers’ main New Brunswick campus Matthew Skorny, 19, was arrested by Rutgers Police and charged with bias intimidation, terroristic threats and false public alarm after posting a threat against a student at the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi on the social media site YikYak, which said, “Palestinian protesters, there is an Israeli at AEPi go kill him.” Skorny is scheduled to appear in Middlesex County Superior Court on Jan. 2 on the charges.

Additionally, posters of Israeli kidnapping victims have been torn down and student groups, particularly Students for Justice in Palestine, have held rallies that have justified the massacre of Jews in Israel.

“Many Jews and Israelis on our campuses feel betrayed and alienated by colleagues and peers, who, consciously or not, repeat age-old antisemitic tropes, such as the notions that Jews are overly powerful, bloodthirsty, or vengeful,” read the JAFS letter.

It also condemned expressions of anti-Arab or anti-Muslim harassment or intimidation and affirmed the right of all members of the Rutgers community to walk the campuses without fear, to engage in a free and open exchange and a refusal to “yield the public discourse at our university to those who promote dishonest narratives, engage in vilification and slander in lieu of reasoned debate, or support, excuse, or remain silent about terror or antisemitism.”

Cypess said the university was fortunate to have organizations, such as Hillel and Chabad, as support for students, and that Holloway has been empathetic toward students, faculty and staff. She was dismayed to see signs being held up at pro-Palestinian rallies on campus accusing him of perpetrating genocide because of his second letter.

“He is under attack for showing some humanity,” she said.

Lost in the noise and emotion, said Cypess, is the reality that there are families and individuals involved on all sides.

“Rutgers has many Palestinian students and I know for a fact some have lost family in this war. I know of Jewish and Israeli students and faculty members who have lost family members. It is absolutely tragic. We as a university community need to focus on supporting them, not on fomenting more hate.”

“Rutgers stands against hate in all its forms, including Islamophobia and antisemitism,” said Dory Devlin, assistant vice president for news and media relations at Rutgers in a statement to the Jewish Link. “It is our aim to ensure that Rutgers is a safe place where students and others enjoy the right to voice their opinions without fear of retribution and where every member of our community is free from intimidation. When individual claims of bias are reported, the offices of student affairs on each campus review and consider all allegations and the unique specifics of each and every case that is brought before them. In the event that the behavior of students, faculty, or staff violates university policies, claims regarding violations will be duly investigated.”

She added: “The Rutgers University Police Department is closely monitoring social media and collaborating with multiple law enforcement agencies to ensure that there is no imminent threat to the safety of the Rutgers community. The university has increased RUPD patrol units and security units specifically in the areas of affiliated religious properties. Additionally, the RUPD remains informed of any planned events on campus so that sufficient personnel and security are available to ensure a safe environment.”


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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