Three months ago, Jason Shames, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, met with Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway in the wake of a series of statements by university leaders condemning anti-Semitism and then seemingly apologizing for the condemnation.
This was the first opportunity for Dr. Holloway to meet with the state’s Jewish leaders since assuming the post a year earlier, in July 2020. Mr. Shames was part of a delegation that included representatives from the state’s other Jewish federations; that same day, Dr. Holloway visited the Rutgers Chabad House and met with its rabbis and administrators.
“It was a positive conversation,” Mr. Shames said at the time.
He is less enthusiastic now, after his latest back-and-forth with the university president.
On September 15, Mr. Shames wrote to Dr. Holloway to protest a program held on September 11 and co-sponsored by the Rutgers Center for Security, Race and Rights, a program with the Rutgers Law School that describes its mission on its web site as “research, education, and advocacy on law and policy that adversely impact the civil and human rights of America’s diverse Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities.” The program, led by the Manhattan-based People’s Forum and whose other co-sponsors included the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights and Jewish Voice for Peace chapters in New York City and the Bay Area, was entitled “Whose Narrative? 20 Years Since 9/11/2001.”
The program, Mr. Shames said, “reignites my concern for the safety and wellbeing of Jewish lives on campus and elsewhere. As you are aware, several of the panelists featured have direct links to organizations designated by the United States as foreign terrorist organizations like the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). According to the esteemed Council on Foreign Relations, PIJ actively advocates the destruction of Israel through violent means; it approaches the Arab Israeli conflict as an ideological war, not a territorial dispute. PIJ members see violence as the only way to remove Israel from the Middle East and reject any two-state arrangement in which Israel and Palestine coexist.”
Further, Mr. Shames wrote, “This panel does not appear to contain any academic integrity. Instead, it is a co-opted attempt by those who seek to delegitimize Israel and to push their antisemitic agenda into a mainstream discourse. Using the horrific events of September 11, 2001, as a platform is simply unacceptable.
“As a community leader who met with you with the hope of ensuring a safe and secure environment for students, I must share with you my extreme disappointment and dissatisfaction with the University’s decision to allow this program to exist. As a Jewish leader, I must share with you my extreme concern about how including this program in your curriculum further fuels antisemitic behavior and tropes. As a tax paying resident in New Jersey, and as an American, I must share with you my deep loss of faith in how the University allowed a solemn day like 9/11 get hijacked to advance a pathologically destructive narrative.
“At a recent panel for our community, we heard from two U.S. Congressmen who implored us to combat antisemitism by speaking up. This letter is my attempt to do so. I am aware that you have received other reactions like mine, and I hope you have a moment of reflection and reconsideration with regards to this program. I further hope that you will vociferously condemn this program and take affirmative action to rectify this oversight,” Mr. Shames wrote.
Dr. Holloway wrote back the next day.
“Let me clarify that the 90-minute online panel discussion that took place on September 11 was cosponsored not by Rutgers University writ large but by the Center for Security, Race and Rights located at Rutgers University-Newark. In this regard, it is important to note that individual faculty positions or sponsored events do not necessarily represent the view of others at the university or those of the broader university, Sponsorship or co-sponsorship by an area of the institution does not constitute an institutional endorsement.
“As I explained to Rep. Josh Gottheimer when he contacted me about this matter, such cosponsorship is standard practice at universities and has been throughout my career, Departments or centers cosponsor events, and when they do, they are expected to list themselves as the cosponsoring party.”
Dr. Holloway continued: “The academic enterprise, if it is to thrive, needs wide latitude in its inquiries and voice. Quite often–especially these days–these inquiries are pushing into areas that cause offense or anxiety. My job, in those instances, is to defend the right of the faculty to pursue their line of inquiry, even when I might find it personally troubling.
“Let me take this opportunity to reiterate that I am firmly committed to keeping open the lines of communication with you and fellow leaders of the Jewish community in New Jersey. Equally important to state, Rutgers is committed to helping our students combat hate-not exclusively but very specifically including antisemitism — -and providing a welcoming and safe environment for our students to thrive.
“To mention some examples: Our equity and inclusion office and student affairs offices are working with Rabbi Esther Reed on concrete ways to foster an even more inclusive community for Jewish students and to adopt best practices to address antisemitism. Members of our equity and inclusion office and New Brunswick student affairs staff also met with the Anti-Defamation League to explore offering educational workshops on our campus and, among other efforts, to incorporate elements of the ADL’s Hate/Uncycled program with our students. We will also be launching the ‘Not on Our Campus’ initiative–a program that focuses upon combating hate, including antisemitism. In addition, I am scheduled to attend events at both Hillel and Chabad House this fall to show my personal support.
“I hope this information is helpful to you, and I offer you my best wishes,” Dr. Holloway concluded.
Mr. Shames offered an unsparing verdict on the response.
“Weak and pathetic,” he said.
He said that given the press of the Jewish holidays and the resulting short work weeks, he has not yet had a chance to decide on the federation’s next steps regarding Rutgers.