|Rutgers students protest the use of the Holocaust to condemn Israel. Natalie Weiss|
Hundreds of students and community members assembled on Saturday at Rutgers University to protest an event sponsored by two non-campus groups that invoked the memory of the Holocaust to criticize Israeli policy towards Palestinians.
The program, sponsored by American Muslims for Palestine and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN), is part of a national effort called the “Never Again for Anyone” tour and features a Holocaust survivor who criticizes Israeli policy. The event, at a hall on the university’s Douglass campus, drew 400 protestors and aroused more student outrage than previous events critical of Israel on campus, according to Sarah Morrison, student president of Rutgers Hillel.
“We are a campus with diverse views on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and all those views [exist] under Hillel; we accommodate everyone,” said Morrison, who helped to organize the protest.
But the comparison of Israel’s handling of the conflict with the Palestinians to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews during the Holocaust offended Jewish students and ultimately “moved us to action,” Morrison said.
Andrew Getraer, executive director of Rutgers Hillel, stressed that he was proud to see Jewish students and community members standing up for Israel against what he characterized as a “well-funded, well-organized effort to delegitimize Israel on college campuses across the country.”
“This event is part of a road show sponsored by non-student organizations, … and students at Rutgers decided, ‘We’ll not stand idly by. We’ll stand up for our people and we’ll stand up for the truth,'” said Getraer.
Controversy intensified at the event when, as documented on video by Rutgers freshman Jake Binstein, an organizer announced that $5 and ID would be required for admission.
These requirements contradicted notices that had appeared on Facebook and Craigslist that advertised the event as “free and open to the public,” and amounted to an impromptu tactic to prevent pro-Israel students from attending the talk, some contend. Pro-Israel students had planned to stage a walkout of the event.
“Twenty to 30 students were going to go into the talk wearing yellow shirts that said, ‘Don’t politicize the Holocaust,'” said Binstein. “We decided we could not walk out on the Holocaust survivors,” but would stage the walkout at another point in the program, he said.
The pro-Israel students and community members sang and danced in the lobby outside the hall. Binstein recorded this musical protest on video and has posted the footage to his blog, www.jakebinstein.com.
Rutgers issued a statement on the event that said, “The organizers had originally advertised a suggested donation of five to twenty dollars upon entry. At the event, the organizers chose to impose a five dollar entrance fee on attendees…. Contrary to published reports, Rutgers University Police did not bar anyone who paid the fee – which was imposed by the organizers who leased the space – from entering the hall.”
But the problem was, that fee was imposed selectively, according to students and community members present at the event, as well as Getraer. (See A bittersweet lesson from Rutgers).
“[Their supporters] were there first; they walked in in a bloc and did not pay,” said Binstein. “Then when organizers saw hundreds of Zionists, they decided we needed to pay.”
“People they knew to be friendly to their cause could get in for free; people they perceived to be pro-Israel had to pay,” said Getraer. “I think that’s a biased action.”
(As of press time the “Never Again for Anyone” website advertised “$5 to $20 suggested donation on entry” for the Rutgers event.)
Binstein thinks organizers started requiring payment because they believed, in most cases correctly, that the pro-Israel demonstrators would not want to monetarily support the “Never Again for Anyone” tour and would therefore be effectively kept out of the event. He added that he found the organizers’ decision to require ID, which he says was only required of students who appeared pro-Israel, to be troubling.
“If they just needed … the money, why would they start requiring IDs from people?” said Binstein.
Sami Jitan, events coordinator for BAKA, Students United for Middle Eastern Justice, the Rutgers student group co-hosting the event, disputed the assertion that only Israel-supporters were required to pay, saying that after a certain time, everyone, regardless of belief or nationality, “including Palestinians,” was required to pay for admission.
The decision to charge people for the event was made by the organizers, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, Jitan said. He added that IJAN made the decision to time the event to the United Nations’ Holocaust Remembrance Week and to bring Holocaust survivors to speak.
“What we were told to do came from IJAN; they paid for the room and they have the legal right to charge people at the door,” said Jitan, a Rutgers senior majoring in cultural anthropology. “It was never our tour, it was never our idea to bring Holocaust survivors to talk. We are not organizers, we are volunteers.”
Asked how his group connected with IJAN, he said BAKA learned about the group through “a friend of a friend.”
He is dismayed that people are not focused on the point of the event, which he claims was not intended to exploit the Holocaust or create moral equivalency, he said.
“What happened in the Holocaust is not the same as what happens in Israel/Palestine,” said Jitan. “But any time there’s discrimination based on identity it should not be tolerated…. No one is talking about what the speakers were saying.”
Rutgers junior and political science major Sam Weiner was among the few pro-Israel students who got in to the event.
The son of Shira and Rabbi Arthur Weiner of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, he was struck by the presentation, which he described as “anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic,” as well as “deplorable” and yet subtly “nuanced.”
Speakers included two Holocaust survivors as well as someone who called himself a survivor of the 1948 battle at the Arab village of Deir Yassin, which some – including Saturday’s speaker – have characterized as a massacre.
“These are real stories, and you can’t feel anything but sympathy,” said Sam Weiner.
Following these testimonies, one individual from American Muslims for Palestine “explained to the entire group, ‘What Jews had done to them in the Holocaust, the Zionists are now doing to the Palestinians,'” according to Weiner.
Other speakers made a point of saying they were not trying to compare the Holocaust “as the Jews experienced it” to today’s Mideast conflict, but that “Jews should have taken lessons” from the Holocaust and that “Zionists are using [the Holocaust] to justify” present actions that are unethical, Weiner said.
“As this national tour moves forward, other campuses need to be warned about it,” he added.
Getraer believes this event and others like it are funded and organized by larger national and possibly international groups with an agenda to delegitimize Israel.
“I don’t know where the funding is coming from, but it’s clearly not from a student group budget,” said Getraer. “Programming at this level – showing films, flying people in nearly every week – that costs serious money.”
Neither American Muslims for Palestine nor the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network has a listed telephone number in New York, New Jersey, or the 1-800 national directory. Organizers did not respond to The Jewish Standard’s repeated e-mails seeking comment via the “Never Again for Anyone” website.
Upcoming stops on the “Never Again for Anyone” tour include Grace Episcopal Church in Chicago and Macalester College in Minneapolis/St. Paul.