Campus update

Campus update

Panel will detail Hillel’s efforts to fight anti-Semitism at Rutgers

Talia Schabes, left, and Jenna Kerschenbaum
Talia Schabes, left, and Jenna Kerschenbaum

Andrew Getraer, executive director of Rutgers Hillel, is no alarmist.

Mr. Getraer, who has held that position for some 17 years, said that “in fact, while anti-Semitism has been present for many years among certain groups on campus, what we see are occasional eruptions or incidents that bring it to public knowledge, to a level where the university needs to address it.”

Still, he acknowledged, “What we have seen is that groups are more open about it.” An example: “Every few years, a white supremacist group would put flyers out on campus. It was usually done at night in secret.

“This year, on Rutgers Day, a big event with over 100,000 people from all over the state, there was a white supremacist walking around the campus passing out flyers, and he left one at the Hillel building. That’s new.” The new element, he said, is the “boldness with which they feel comfortable expressing themselves.”

And this, he said, is something we see across the country since the 2016 presidential election campaign. “Whether pro- or anti-Trump, it’s undeniable that the far-right anti-Semitic community feels more comfortable expressing [their hatred] publicly,” Mr. Getraer said. “Look at Charlottesville, and at “fringe congressional candidates who are openly anti-Semitic.”

As he has seen on his own campus, anti-Semitic venom comes from the far left as well as the far right. “Extremists on either end of the spectrum are anti-Jewish,” he said. “Extremism is not a friend of the Jews. As campuses, and the country, become more polarized, it bodes ill for the Jewish community.”

Mr. Getraer, the OU-JLIC (Jewish Learning Initiatives on Campus) rabbi on campus, Rabbi Tzvi Wohlgelerntner, and two Rutgers students from Bergen County will discuss the problem of anti-Semitism on campus and how Hillel is addressing it at Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah on June 11. (See box.)

“Anti-Semitism takes a lot of forms,” Mr. Getraer said. He cited not only “the traditional overt anti-Semitism” but also anti-Israel activities that are motivated either by opposition to the Jewish state or, at their root, by anti-Semitism itself. There is also, he said, “an in-between level in which Jewish concerns and sensitivities are deemed not as relevant or important as those of others.”

That, unfortunately, is something he sees at his university. And the school’s administration has not gone as far as he would like in addressing the recent outburst of anti-Semitic feeling among what he called far-left members of the faculty, Mr. Getraer said.

He cited the recent spate of anti-Semitic statements and writings from three professors this fall. The incidents involved Michael Chikindas, a microbiology professor who published many offensive social media posts; Jasbir Puar, a women’s studies professor whose latest book accuses Israel of injuring Palestinians “in order to control them”; and Mazen Adi, an adjunct professor of international law who accused Israeli officials of trafficking children’s organs as he served as a spokesperson for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“One was fired,” Mr. Getraer said. That was Mazen Adi. “He was not a full-time professor. He was a part-time lecturer but will no longer be teaching. One was a full tenured professor.” That was Michael Chikindas. “His responsibilities were removed. He was not fired but will no longer be allowed to teach required courses.” Hillel, it should be noted, strongly expressed its view that he should be fired as well; although that did not happen, “we are grateful that the administration took serious action.”

“No action was taken whatsoever” against Professor Puar, since the university administration held that her writings are protected under the umbrella of academic freedom. Interestingly, Mr. Getraer added, when the professor delivered a talk at Dartmouth University, including her “blood libel” charge that the IDF harvests the organs of Palestinian children, “the next day the university president and provost came out and repudiated her.”

And yet, Mr. Getraer said, the Rutgers administration considers her “anti-Semitic assertions as part of her academic work, and will not criticize her.” While he does not agree, he said, he understands that the university is dealing with “tenure, union, and faculty. She is very well protected.” It should also be noted that while Rutgers’ President Robert Barchi was urged to speak out, declaring the professor’s statements repugnant, “he didn’t want to do that,” citing academic freedom.

“I’m not happy about it but I understand the university’s position,” Mr. Getraer said. “But what if a professor said something virulent against African Americans or the LGBT community? That’s an open question. I think the sensitivity of the university toward those two communities is much stronger and sharper than it is toward the Jewish community. That’s one of the things we are working to change.

“There’s a lack of sensitivity to anti-Semitism, so we’re working to educate administrators. They don’t see us as an oppressed community.”

He pointed out that despite the large number of verbal attacks on the Jewish community, “we’re still successful. It’s more nuanced and difficult to understand, that you can be successful and threatened. We get it intuitively, but non-Jews don’t get it.”

Despite all this, “I think the Rutgers is a very tolerant community overall,” Mr. Getraer said. He said Hillel is having many more discussions about anti-Semitism with students. “We try to let students know that anything they experience as anti-Semitic, they should report to us.” He added that Rutgers Hillel has “a strong story to tell” about BDS. “At one point we were probably dealing with more anti-Israel activities than any other campus, but we have changed the dynamic on the campus so that it’s not as prominent as it once was and has significantly less impact. We’ve never passed or even voted on a BDS motion. We’ve taken a proactive position regarding this, to prevent it from taking root.”

Talia Schabes, a rising senior from Englewood and a participant in the upcoming program, is a member of Hillel’s Orthodox contingent. An intern with the David Project — a pro-Israel organization that builds strong relationships with a wide array of students on campus to strengthen the pro-Israel community — she said she doesn’t feel anti-Semitism “day to day,” but she was actively involved in speaking out against the three professors.

“We don’t have many protests on campus,” she said, and to see those that do take place, “you have to be at the right place at the right time.” She did note, however, a recent “writing war” in the campus newspaper involving Students for Justice in Palestine and Scarlet Knights for Israel, for whom she plans to write.

Much of her campus activity, Ms. Schabes said, emanates from her involvement with the American Union of Jewish Students, a new group patterned on the model of student unions outside the United States. As part of this effort, she cited “the tactic of tabling” — setting up a table and handing out flyers to students who pass by. “I took a gap year and did Israel training through Jerusalem U. But it’s hard to learn in a vacuum and then apply it. I had to get a feel from the campus,” she said; she plans to make aliyah.

Ms. Schabes said that while the majority of Rutgers students no doubt are opposed to anti-Semitism, “it’s a big campus and it’s difficult to speak up. You don’t know who to direct your opposition to.” She characterized Hillel as “active and visible, inviting all denominations. It’s got a strong presence within the Jewish community.”

Jenna Kershenbaum, a recent Rutgers graduate who lives in Teaneck and like Ms. Schabes is planning to make aliyah, also will be on the upcoming panel. Her experience at Rutgers was, for the most part, “extremely positive,” she said. “A lot of high schools in the New Jersey area prepare you for the worst in terms of dealing with anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activities. But they don’t teach a lot about apathy.”

While she has taken many courses on conflict, and read widely on both sides of the Israel-Palestinian issue, “there’s not much here in terms of rallying.” She remembers a 2014 incident after the war in Gaza when “there was a die-in at the main campus. People had fake blood on them. The Jewish community didn’t really mobilize. They didn’t think it through. We just waved Israeli flags on the other side of the street and it looked like we were celebrating the deaths. It wasn’t well thought out.

“There was really nothing else until this semester,” she said. “I’m very much a fan of the academic process, going through every possible outcome, immersing myself” in an issue. “But what happened here — I was unsettled by this coming from a professor. When you see a tenured professor doing these things, who can have respect for that?”

Ms. Kershenbaum, who had been a member of the Hillel board for three years, said she agrees “100 percent “ with Mr. Getraer about insensitivity to Jewish issues on campus. “It’s hard to disentangle movements,” she added, noting that during his first year on campus, a friend went to a rally co-sponsored by different groups, including Students for Justice in Palestine. While the organizers used “blanket statements to make it sound like we’re all fighting together,” that was clearly not the case. Jewish students “were not comfortable if they had to chant ‘Free Palestine.’ They were caught in the middle. It was a weird situation.”

Who: Congregation Ahavath Torah

What: Will sponsor a panel on anti-Semitism at Rutgers and what Hillel is doing to address it

When: On June 11 at 8:30 p.m.

Where: At the synagogue, 240 Broad Ave., Englewood

For information: Call (201) 906-5840

And also: It’s open to the public.

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