A bittersweet lesson from Rutgers

A bittersweet lesson from Rutgers

An annual report on anti-Semitism, which was released last month by the Jewish Agency for Israel and several government ministries, seems paradoxical. While noting that the number of anti-Semitic incidents worldwide had declined in 2010 compared to 2009, the report indicated that anti-Semitism was becoming “stronger.” Despite the irony, the evidence supports both observations. Surveys show that anti-Semitic attitudes in Europe and elsewhere are on the rise along with efforts to delegitimize Israel as a Jewish state.

Nowhere in the United States has an increase in this reprehensible coupling been more evident than at Rutgers University in New Jersey. By the end of 2010, the university seemed under siege. During a four-week period in November and December, no fewer than six anti-Israel events had been held on or near the university’s New Brunswick campus. They ranged from a fundraiser for “Us-to-Gaza,” an organization seeking to break the blockade of Gaza, to a “Palestine Culture Festival” that included celebration of the Palestinian “legacy of resistance.” The pace resumed in January with three more such events.

The sponsoring organization for most of these happenings was a Rutgers campus group called BAKA: Students United for Middle Eastern Justice. The parade of activities culminated on Jan. 29 with an event described by BAKA and other organizers as purposely scheduled “in the same week in which falls Holocaust Memorial Day.” Titled “Never Again for Anyone,” the program was aimed at stopping the “ethnic cleansing of Palestine,” as if Israel’s treatment of Palestinians were comparable to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews. The explicit linkage ignited a response by Jewish students like none before. And therein lies a lesson for those who have been distressed about the ongoing campaign to defame Israel and the Jewish people.

Rutgers students learned about the program when it was first publicized, on Jan. 24, only five days in advance. Stung by the noxious theme, Hillel’s student president, Sarah Morrison, also found that many of her fellow students were furious. With the support of Hillel’s director, Andrew Getraer, she began to organize a response. She and other students would attend the event, sit respectfully, and at some point during “this abhorrent program,” as she called it, quietly walk out.

Meanwhile, Getraer informed several New Jersey Jewish federations and other community organizations about the impending program. “We are facing a crisis at Rutgers,” he wrote, and encouraged community members to support the students. He invited them to attend the event in the Douglass Campus Center, or to join a peaceful protest nearby. The program, according to advance notice by BAKA, was “free and open to the public.”

When I arrived, a half hour before the 6:30 p.m. starting time, the gathering crowd was lining up in the lobby awaiting entry to the event room. A prominent sign suggested a voluntary contribution of $5 to $20, but also indicated that no payment would be required for admission. As more people began to fill the lobby, the sign disappeared. By the time the program was to begin, 400 people were still waiting in line. About 150 were Rutgers students, many affiliated with Hillel, and most of the rest were supporters of Israel from the general community.

A BAKA representative suddenly announced that the cost of admission would be $5, which, he said, had always been the case. The crowd scoffed in unison, vowed not to give one penny to BAKA, and hoisted fliers containing the free-admission proclamation. No matter. A university representative unaccountably supported the new BAKA demand. Students held up Rutgers I.D. cards, citing their right to free entry. BAKA is funded by the Rutgers student government and therefore cannot charge students for its events. Again, no matter. Neither BAKA nor the university representative would relent. As freshman Jake Binstein observed, “it was only the Jews who had to pay, as anyone else was either a member of BAKA or could quickly become one by signing up at their table.”

The hundred or so people who made it into the room were almost all BAKA supporters. Among the handful who were not, Sam Weiner, a junior, felt compelled to bear witness to the perverse agenda, which included comments from two anti-Israel Holocaust survivors. The program began, he said, with an inadvertent admission that BAKA had already lied. “When 150 Zionists showed up,” the lead-off speaker announced, “we decided to charge them.”

Outside the event room, the excluded hundreds unfurled Israeli flags and burst into song and dance. Neither in word nor action was there a hint of violence. Andrew Getraer grabbed a megaphone and announced to cheers: “We will not put up with using the Holocaust to slander the Jewish people.” The students and supporters had demonstrated that the anti-Israel advocates could be matched by four times the number who rejected their lies.

For Getraer, the evening was a turning point. At previous anti-Israel campus events, the few Jewish students who attended were vastly outnumbered. They often felt defensive and intimidated. Now, he told me, they feel empowered and successful, and they know what they are capable of doing.

The lesson is there for all. Empowerment can come from marshaling the numbers for a just cause. Then, whether telling small lies about admission fees or big ones about “ethnic cleansing,” organizations like BAKA will be exposed. Jewish students, supporters, and others dedicated to truth have the power to curb slander, if only they have the will to do so.

Amid the good feeling among the students that evening was an emblem of sadness. Its message was, after all, what drew us together. A frail elderly man stood off to the side holding a sign in silence. Its handwritten message: “I witnessed the mass graves of 8,000 Jews of my hometown.”

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