What’s going on at Rutgers?

What’s going on at Rutgers?

Hillel’s CEO talks about the troubles

ON THE COVER: A student holds a candle at an emergency rally at Rutgers on October 9, 2023, two days after the Hamas attack in Israel. (Omer Kraler)
ON THE COVER: A student holds a candle at an emergency rally at Rutgers on October 9, 2023, two days after the Hamas attack in Israel. (Omer Kraler)

Lisa Harris Glass is not a punch-puller.

She’s the CEO of Hillel at Rutgers, where more than 6,400 Jewish students are enrolled this year — and that’s just the undergraduates. Rutgers and the University of Florida at Gainesville regularly swap the honor of being the public university with the largest number of Jewish students in the country.

It’s always a tough job — if it’s two Jews, three opinions, how many opinions are there for 6,400 Jews? — and a gratifying one.

But this year is different.

The Hamas attacks on southern Israel on October 7, the medieval brutality unleashed on its victims, also unloosed a spew of poisonous antisemitism. Much of it, for reasons that sociologists and cultural historians will be able to study and explain later, has centered on universities.

Much of it has centered on Rutgers.

Students gather at an emergency rally at Rutgers, days after the Hamas attack. (Omer Kraler Photography)

The situation there “is so much worse than people can imagine,” Ms. Glass reported.

She began her job at Rutgers over the summer. She arrived there after decades of work in the Jewish world, beginning as a synagogue executive director, then working for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and then rising through the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, becoming COO, and leaving there for Rutgers Hillel.

She thought she knew what she was getting into, but October 7 changed everything. “The academic environment, predictably, is a place where you are going to run into lots and lots of ideas,” she said. “Some of them are better than others, as is true in all things. I knew I was going to an amazing institution. I was excited to be doing something new, excited to meet the students. Over the summer, the school is like a desert, and then, when the students come, it starts to bloom, and the energy that you feel all over is nourishing.”

She knew that there was a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine on campus, and that there is an Israel Apartheid Week every year, but those did not seem to be insurmountable problems. Jewish students have flourished at Rutgers, and she was secure in the belief that she’d be able to keep that happening.

The year started with great promise, but then October 7 happened, and “I have learned a lot since then,” she said.

Ms. Glass was sure that she’d maintain “the great relationships that we had with the administration.” Before she got to campus, Rutgers Hillel, “led by my colleague, Rabbi Esther Reed,” the organization’s chief experience officer, “and the administration participated in Hillel’s Climate Initiative.” According to Hillel International’s website, “The Campus Climate Initiative (CCI) collaborates with higher education administrators to ensure a positive campus climate in which Jewish students feel comfortable expressing their identity and values, free of antisemitism, harassment, or marginalization.”

Or, as Ms. Glass put it, “the initiative was supposed to make it so that what we are living through now would never happen.” The training program “was about making a safe space for Jewish students, physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually.”

Lisa Harris Glass

In the immediate wake of October 7, “the expectations of behavior, the norms that you’d expect to be in place, weren’t there,” she said. “I’m not talking about reactions from the students, but from the administration. You’d expect that there would be rules in place. You would think that ordinary seichel — common sense plus — would mean that you would raise an issue, and the administration would say, ‘Yeah, we can’t have that,’ and they would do something about it.

“But that never happened. So we walked around in shock and horror and grief over October 7, and also with a sense of disbelief in the alternate reality that we seemed to be living in, where the rule of common sense and of law did not seem to apply.”

Ms. Glass hadn’t been on campus long enough to feel the betrayal and abandonment that her colleagues who had been there far longer are experiencing, she said. “I was new — technically I’m still new, but boy I don’t feel new. I had been told that the administration was friendly to us, supportive of us, but it’s easy to be friendly and supportive when you don’t call the question. I had to call the question, and that’s not what I found.”

Hillel has drawn up a chronological list that now has 49 instances of antisemitic acts on campus. “The list, of course, only has incidents that we know about,” Ms. Glass said. “I’m sure that there are more that we haven’t heard of.”

The list includes small but upsetting incidents like students tearing down the posters that show hostages’ faces, eggs thrown at cars and fraternity brothers, and shouted insults — for example, a student wearing a kippah in the student center was greeted with chants of “Murderer, murderer” — to the disruption of events. There was a “study-in” at the library whose stated aim was “to shut it down, and render the space unusable for the rest of the students.”

And there was also a press conference where the SJP said, among other things, “May we remove the walls and barriers in Palestine. May we seek liberation within our lifetime. Long live the Intifada, globalize the Intifada, long live Palestine.”

Rutgers students joined hundreds of thousands of other Israel supporters on the Mall in Washington in November.

This is just a very small sample of a very long list, which has cumulative power; it hints at the hostility that Jewish students find themselves facing. (And these are the students whose high-school careers were marked by the pandemic. This year’s college freshmen were the high-school freshmen whose high-school careers began with a year at home alone, staring at their computer screens, and the seniors are the ones whose senior year at high school never really happened.)

“This is the generation that is going to be in charge of the rest of us in the not-distant future,” Ms. Glass said. “What happens then? What happens when people from groups like LGBTQs for Palestine — people Hamas would throw off a roof if they went there — are in charge?

“We are living in an upside-down world, where people do not understand that we enjoy the liberty to be nonsensical.”

She has some suggestions for adults. “Think about your elected officials and candidates running for office,” she said. “Ask yourself what you’ve heard from them about what’s going on. Because the majority of people who are supposed to serve us — the people who we believed in the past were in the corner of righteousness and justice — if you listen to them, you will hear crickets. And that is shocking.

“I believe that if you want to know what 1938 Germany looked and felt like, just look around, because this is it. Right now, it seems unfathomable, but it is happening. The protections that we thought we had don’t seem to apply to us as Jews.

“Obviously, I was not alive in 1930s Germany, but I can imagine that Jews who were assimilated, who had friends and business relationships and enjoyed a good life, felt that this is what it is like to be a good citizen of this country. I can make it here, and I can be proud.

At Hostage Shabbat at Rutgers Hillel, a table is reserved for the hostages, whose seats will remain empty.

“That’s what it feels like right now, and I feel this because of what I have seen on campus.

“If anyone has not picked up on it yet, there is a second front to this war, and it is on American college campuses.”

This has been a long time coming, Ms. Glass said, prepared in part by “the huge investment of Arab money into American institutions of higher learning,” an investment that’s been reported on in many outlets and began decades ago. More specifically, “look at the toolkit that the SJP sent out on October 10 or 11.” It was from SJP’s national office. “How do you write a 40-page toolkit in 24 or 48 hours? It was super-complete. It was proofread.

“I am not a conspiracy theorist, but clearly, they were ready.

“And let’s remember that in that toolkit, they said that everything that happened on October 7, all the atrocities that were committed, were justified in the name of resistance. Anyone physically on that land was a military asset, because of being on the land. Even the babies.

“The national toolkit not only said that everything done in the name of resistance is justified, but it instructed its followers that whatever they do is justified. They should hide their identities. They should mask themselves, and if they’re asked who they are, they should not say.

Ari Kolb, Hillel’s president, speaks; an empty Shabbat table is set for hostages, and candles lit for them.

“As the lead professional of Hillel, who feels responsible for the physical, emotional, and psychological safety of my students, I felt a need to notify the administration. This seemed dangerous to me. The SJP was planning a rally in the middle of the campus in the middle of the day, and its purpose was to terrorize. It seemed like any normal individual would see that and intervene.

“But they didn’t. And they don’t. And I believe that there are faculty who are aiding and abetting the efforts of the ‘resistance.’” There’s a new group on campus called Faculty for Justice in Palestine, she added.

“There’s also a group on campus called the Center for Latino Arts and Culture,” Ms. Glass continued. “One might assume from the name that all Latino students would be welcome there. We were doing a joint program with them in the autumn, and the administration member who was in charge of their socials declined to post about the event because she objected to things we’d posted on Hillel’s Instagram account.

“Then the administration removed the staffer, Silismar Suriel, from that task, and then, on her social media, she accused Rutgers of standing on the side of injustice and she spread the antisemitic trope that the university is run by Zionists.

“So then a group called the Endowment Justice Collective” — an informal, unofficial group made up of representatives of progressive organizations on campus — “hosted a rally for Ms. Suriel to protest her removal from posting for the Latino group, and she decided she was going to take the mic.

“There were a few Jewish students peacefully protesting across the street, who endured repeated incidents of profanity and insults; a few of them were Latin-American Jews. One of those students wrote about the experience, reporting that Ms. Suriel, who is an adult, a staff member, hurled such insults at them as ‘Fuck you’ and ‘Fuck you, colonizer’ and ‘Fuck you, Zionist, why don’t you go read a fucking book?’

This is some of the hatred of Israel that students face on campus.

“This attack continued for an hour, even after the student who was protesting put the materials down and stayed just to observe.

“Both the Rutgers police and the administration said that there was nothing they could do about it.”

According to the list of incidents, the student wrote: “While I was told by Rutgers faculty that I could only protest ‘silently’ and without engaging with the other side, they were allowed to hurl insults and threats without repercussion. The double standard not only undermines the principles of free speech and peaceful protest but also perpetuates a toxic environment where certain voices are privileged over others.”

At another protest, “students were told that they are all Palestinians now, and the speaker extolled the virtues of dying for the cause,” Ms. Glass said. The speaker said: “You are the resistance on behalf of the Palestinians and dying as a martyr is one of the greatest sacrifices you could make.” (This exhortation was made in Arabic, she added; one of her students, who speaks Arabic, translated it.)

All this brings up the question of free speech; the line between free speech, the default that the American Constitution grants all of us, and threatening speech, which is not allowed, is hard to define and is properly protective of our First Amendment rights.

“The University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee has a great position on free speech,” Ms. Glass said. After explaining First Amendment rights, the school — a public university, like Rutgers — describes how and why those rights occasionally can be curtailed.

Free speech does include hate speech, although it is distasteful; it does not include, among other categories, defamation; “true threats”; incitement to immediately break the law; fighting words, defined as “intimidating speech directed at a specific individual in a face-to-face confrontation that is likely to provoke a violent reaction”; “Harassment as defined by law and university policy”; and “Non-expressive conduct such as disruption of university functions, property damage, trespassing or blocking entrances to buildings.”

(It’s online at free-expression.wisc.edu.)

The Department of Justice is investigating Rutgers for violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. In December, a school spokesperson said that an “investigation of a complaint has been opened related to alleged incidents of harassment in October and November 2023 of students on the basis of their national origin (shared Jewish ancestry and/or Israel).”

“Since then, there has been more transparency than there had been prior to that,” Ms. Glass said. “Now, when I ask a question, I get an actual answer instead of obfuscation.”

Some government officials are responding to the problem of antisemitism on campus.

“Last week, I had the opportunity to address a caucus of Jewish elected state officials,” Ms. Glass said. “I am so grateful for their interest. We need action.”

Hillel keeps going, despite the hate; here, students help pack supplies for Good Deeds Day.

“It very quickly became clear to me that since the world is upside down, and things that we thought were behavioral norms are not, we would need some kind of legal intervention,” she said.

She came up with a number of ideas to lobby for.  Among them were the mandatory inclusion of antisemitism as part of the state’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work, and its adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism.  Hillel’s partners in the local Jewish federations and the Jewish Federations of New Jersey also lobbied.

Whether or not it was a result of the lobbying, Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Dist. 36) introduced a bill package that included these proposals.

Another bill in that package recognizes swatting — that’s calling in false alarms, which can lead to dangerous police responses — at synagogues and other houses of worship as a crime, and a third similarly recognizes doxing — making people’s addresses and other contact information public.

That’s a good start, but we need more, from more people, Ms. Glass said.

“I will not back down,” she said. “We at Hillel are there all day every day for the students. We are going to keep up the fight. How can we not? Israel is fighting every day. And I will fight every day for our students’ right to have an education that is free from this garbage.”

“People like dead Jews,” Ms. Glass said, quoting the novelist and essayist Dara Horn. “People like quiet Jews. People like complacent Jews. They do not like me.”

She urges everyone to stop being quiet. “And every Jew ought to research who among the politicians and candidates who represent them spoke out, and who hasn’t.

A student draped himself in an Israeli flag at Rutgers’ emergency rally on October 9. (Omer Kraler Photography)

“And not only should everyone google their politicians, they also should examine their philanthropy. It’s truly up to us to help us. I encourage people to support the organizations that are on the ground working — and that includes the local federations, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, as well as the state’s three other federations.

“I am grateful for the federations’ leadership and the influence they bring to bear on our behalf,” she continued. “And I’m very grateful to Harris Laufer, the director of the Jewish Federations of North Jersey. He’s been a great resource and support.”

Why is this happening? Ms. Glass laughs. “I’m laughing to keep from crying,” she said.

“There’s an Amalek in every generation”; Amalek was the tribe that followed the Israelites as they trekked through the wilderness, picking off the weakest and the slowest from behind. Amalek is the enemy.

“We get comfortable, so we forget we’re alone,” she continued. “We get comfortable in society and think that who we are no longer matters. That being part of the community no longer matters. We’re just Joe Jew, just living life.

“But we have to be part of the community. As Pirke Avot tells us, do not separate yourself from the community. We integrate and assimilate, but then, in the end, when it matters most, the rest of the world reminds us that Jewish is always your label, whether you think it is or not.

“And remember, if you ever wondered what 1938 Germany looked like — this is what it looked like. We’re in it.

“I’m speaking about it to as many people as I can, as often as I can, because I need people to wake up,” Ms. Glass said.

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