In its efforts to juggle the competing concern of its large Jewish community and a vocal anti-Israel segment of faculty and students, the administration of Rutgers University often has dropped the ball.
This week, it seems to have fallen flat on its face, as a series of official statements ostensibly condemning prejudice largely confirmed the suspicion, held by many observers, that well-paid university administrators actually don’t know what they’re doing.
Last week, the chancellor of Rutgers University-New Brunswick, Christopher J. Molloy, released a statement condemning anti-Semitism after it spiked across the country during and after the recent fighting in Israel and Gaza.
The statement also condemned “all forms of bigotry, prejudice, discrimination, xenophobia, and oppression, in whatever ways they may be expressed” and told students who have been affected by anti-Semitism or discrimination to contact the university administration.
“We are saddened by and greatly concerned about the sharp rise in hostile sentiments and anti-Semitic violence in the United States,” said the statement, which was also signed by Provost Francine Conway. “Recent incidents of hate directed toward Jewish members of our community again remind us of what history has to teach us.”
This was a reference to an incident in April when eggs were thrown at the Jewish Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity while its 24-hour reading of the names of Holocaust victims to mark Yom HaShoah was underway. (Chancellor Molloy condemned that incident at the time.)
The statement also mentioned “increasing violence between Israeli forces and Hamas in the Middle East leading to the deaths of children and adults and mass displacement of citizens in the Gaza region and the loss of lives in Israel.”
The next day, the school’s Students for Justice in Palestine group released a lengthy statement condemning the chancellor’s statement.
SJP said the statement “conveniently ignores the extent to which Palestinians have been brutalized by Israel’s occupation and bombing of Gaza,” and “cannot be separated from widespread attempts to conflate antizionism with antisemitism and derail Palestinian voices and activism.”
“The statement released by Chancellor Molloy and Provost Conway thus cannot be interpreted as anything other than a deflection from Rutgers University’s role in financially supporting the Israeli state, and thus its human rights abuses and occupation of Palestine, by direct or indirect means,” the SJP statement said.
Later that day, Mr. Molloy and Ms. Conway released a second statement apologizing for the first, and promising to “make sure that our communications going forward are much more sensitive and balanced.”
“In hindsight, it is clear to us that the message failed to communicate support for our Palestinian community members,” the apology said. “We sincerely apologize for the hurt that this message has caused.”
The apology did not satisfy SJP, though; the group released a follow-up statement of its own. SJP said the chancellor’s initial condemnation of anti-Semitism “was unwarranted due to the absence of any publicly reported antisemitic incidents in the Rutgers New Brunswick community that had not already been addressed by the administration.”
The second SJP statement also said that it demanded a condemnation of Israel’s actions, not of Islamophobia.
“While the possibility remains that those martyred were of the Muslim faith, this does not serve as a prerogative for Chancellor Molloy and Provost Conway to address Islamophobia,” the statement said. “Israel’s occupation of Palestine is an egregious injustice which transcends religious conflict.”
On Saturday, after widespread press reports on the second statement, Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway issued another statement, clarifying that the school’s second statement was not an apology for standing against anti-Semitism.
“Rutgers deplores hatred and bigotry in all forms,” Mr. Holloway’s statement, which was posted on the chancellor’s office’s website, said. “We have not, nor would we ever, apologize for standing against anti-Semitism.
“Neither hatred nor bigotry has a place at Rutgers, nor should they have a place anywhere in the world. At Rutgers we believe that anti-Semitism, anti-Hinduism, Islamophobia and all forms of racism, intolerance and xenophobia are unacceptable wherever and whenever they occur.”
A few days before the first statement, the university had announced that Mr. Molloy was stepping down from his post and returning to full-time teaching. Ms. Conway will assume the chancellor’s duties in addition to her responsibilities as provost.
A few years back, the state’s Jewish federations set up a committee to discuss Jewish life on campus, and particularly manifestations of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. That committee met under a different administration, and was not restarted when Mr. Molloy came to the office in 2018.
“I think we are going to have to up our advocacy and education efforts,” Jason Shames, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, said. “At the end of the day, Israel has the moral high ground here. We have to figure out a way to make sure that everyone understands and is aware of it.”
That will mean reaching out to elected officials, he said, and it also will mean building intergroup relationships.
“Federation is looking to hire a new professional to deal with the overall anti-Semitism agenda, to have relationships with other intersectional groups, whether Black groups or Korean groups,” Mr. Shames said. “That’s the strategy.”
He said the federation decided on that strategy about six months ago, in response to “the general climate in America.” The organization is looking to raise $100,000 to pay for the position; “we’re at sixty right now,” Mr. Shames said.
At press time, the Jewish Federations of New Jersey were working on a statement of its own concerning the affair.
Ben Sales of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this story.