College students should not suffer physical threats or verbal harassment for their political or religious views. And when such incidents do occur, they should be taken seriously by the administration and promptly investigated.
That is the gist of a 15-page letter sent by the Zionist Organization of America to administrators at Rutgers University. The letter details a number of troubling allegations in which political disagreement has shaded into religious harassment, a possible violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The ZOA, as it has on several campuses in recent months, is holding the Rutgers administration’s feet to the fire, saying they are “ready and willing to work with President [Richard] McCormick and his administration to make sure that Jewish students get the kind of welcoming and safe campus environment free from bigotry that every student needs and deserves.”
At a moment when efforts to delegitimize Israel have crept from the margins of debate to the mainstream, the ZOA is putting Israel’s critics on notice. The question is not whether individuals or groups have the right to criticize Israel. Of course they do. But when such criticism demonizes Jews or Israel using classic anti-Semitic tropes, or encourages an atmosphere of intimidation or violence, it must not be tolerated. That is not a matter of academic freedom. It is harassment, plain and simple.
However, the ZOA’s well-intentioned campaign is not without pitfalls. The danger is that large and diverse campuses like Rutgers will be unfairly tainted by a few ugly allegations, or that outside groups or individuals will bypass and perhaps undermine the strong relationships that have been carefully built among local Jewish institutions and campus officials. A plethora of active Jewish institutions — including Hillel, Chabad, and the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life — have made New Jersey’s state university a destination school for Jewish students in the Northeast and beyond. As ZOA national president Morton Klein has himself written, “Rutgers is an excellent school with a fine reputation. We don’t want to see that reputation tarnished and ruined and Rutgers become known as a campus that’s unwelcoming or downright hostile to Jewish and pro-Israel students.”
Fair enough. Unfortunately, outside voices with less restraint have already passed judgment on Rutgers. The inveterate Internet provocateur Pamela Geller, for example, has written of ZOA’s efforts, “Rutgers has earned such a hostile reputation for Jewish students, it is rivaled by the Jew-hating” University of California, Irvine. From all we have seen and reported over the past few years, that is a wild overstatement.
In fact, even as a pro-Palestinian group on campus continues to make headlines, campus Jewish institutions like Hillel have set sterling examples of Jewish and pro-Israel pride. When an odious forum implicitly compared Israel to Nazi Germany, students and adult supporters came out in a peaceful and boisterous counter-demonstration that showed Israel’s supporters will not be cowed.
We look forward to the administration’s swift and comprehensive response to the allegations contained in the ZOA letter. Although the timing may have been coincidental, we were heartened to see McCormick’s reply to a query by Hillel, in which he unequivocally asserted that the university has “absolutely no intention” of cooperating with the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement that has become the pro-Palestinian camp’s main tool in transforming Israel into a pariah state.
A similarly prompt and unequivocal reply to the ZOA’s allegations will demonstrate, to New Jersey residents and beyond, the administration’s commitment to civil rights, student safety, and legitimate academic discourse.