Rutgers University, home to one of the country’s largest and most vibrant Jewish campus communities, has come under fire in recent weeks after reports that multiple members of its faculty expressed anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, and other hate-filled viewpoints. In the wake of these revelations, Jewish students at Rutgers and local communal leaders have called for the administration to take action.
Inflammatory posts were found on the Facebook page of Michael Chikindas, a professor of microbiology in the Department of Food Sciences and director of its Center for Digestive Health. In one he wrote that Judaism is “the most racist religion in the world,” and in another that Israel is “a terrorist country,” the goal of which is “the genocidal extermination of the land’s native population, Palestinians.”
Chikindas has also posted or shared caricatures that portray Jews as money-hungry predators who control Hollywood, the Federal Reserve, and the government. He also criticized Israel’s tolerance of the LGBT community, posting that the country is “far ahead” of others in the number of homosexuals who live there, and that as many as 25 percent of Tel Aviv’s residents are gay.
Rutgers Hillel executive director Andrew Getraer sent a statement to NJJN saying that Chikindas’s statements “express a base racism, homophobia, and misogyny, which has no place in our university or our society. Its vile anti-Semitism is a profound embarrassment to our university and a source of pain and bewilderment to our students, the largest undergraduate Jewish population in America, and to our alumni parents and supporters.”
A group called Concerned Jewish Students of Rutgers launched an online petition and urged the university to suspend the professor immediately, pending further investigation. The petition, which has garnered more than 5,000 signatures, says, in part, that Chikindas has caused “great pain and concern to both the Jewish and LGBT student bodies” by promulgating “the ugliest forms of anti-Semitism and homophobia.”
The offending posts on Chikindas’s page were first reported in the Israellycool blog. Following the backlash, the Facebook account was taken down.
According to his resume on the Rutgers website, Chikindas is originally from the former Soviet Union and received his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Moscow and Armenia, where he also held positions early in his career in the 1980s.
In response to the posts and to the public outcry, the university issued a strong condemnation and announced that it would launch an investigation into the conduct of Chikindas.
In a statement sent to multiple media outlets on Oct. 25, the university said Chikindas’s expressions are “antithetical to our university’s principles and values of respect for people of all backgrounds, including, among other groups, our large and vibrant Jewish community. Such comments do not represent the position of the University.”
The statement continued: “All the members of our community, including faculty and staff, are free to express their viewpoints in public forums as private citizens. Yet at Rutgers University we must also foster an environment free from discrimination, as articulated in our policy prohibiting discrimination.
“The university is reviewing this matter to determine if actions taken in the context of [Chikindas’s ] role as a faculty member at Rutgers may have violated that policy.”
Messages left by NJJN on Chikindas’s home and university phones were not returned. However, in an e-mail to New Jersey Advanced Media, which appeared on NJ.com, Chikindas contended that his Facebook posts weren’t anti-Semitic and said his account, which he thought would been seen only by a small circle of friends, was hacked.
Austin Altman, a sophomore from Livingston and one of the authors of the petition, said it was “extremely disappointing” and “frustrating” that a professor with Chikindas’s views “could be here at this university.”
Another faculty member, Jasbir Puar, an associate professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, has a history of anti-Israel writings, and she makes several defamatory claims about the Jewish state in her new book, “The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability” (Duke University Press), including writing that Israel has designated Palestinians as “available for injury.”
Puar is on sabbatical this semester, and an individual who answered the department phone said she had no way to reach the professor. Puar’s home phone is unlisted, and a message left on her Facebook page was unanswered.
In response to a request from NJJN, on Oct. 30 the university sent a statement in which it disavowed Puar’s views but defended her right to academic freedom: “We encourage our faculty to engage in open debate and discussion, all within the boundaries of respectful discourse, which academic freedom requires.”
Puar’s book hasn’t provoked the same level of outrage as Chikindas’s posts. Student leaders said they are focusing on Chikindas because many of his posts were virulently anti-Semitic and homophobic, rather than strictly anti-Israel, like Puar’s.
“We thought it would resonate with a broader community,” said Altman. The response, he said, “has been incredible,” with support coming from within and outside the university. Altman is a member of Scarlet Knights for Israel (SKI), which is supported by CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting.
“We will not tolerate bigotry from any staff member in any form,” said SKI president Miriam Waghalter, a CAMERA fellow and freshman from Los Angeles whose name appears on the petition. The call to have Chikindas suspended indefinitely, she added, was “urgent.”
Widespread condemnation of Chikindas’s actions came from the ADL, the Rutgers Jewish Faculty Forum, the American Jewish Committee-NJ, and the pro-Israel StandWithUs.
The Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ, in whose catchment area Rutgers-New Brunswick is located, sent a letter to university president Robert Barchi and chancellor Debasish Dutta; signed by federation president Jeff Schwartz and CEO Keith Krivitzky, it states, in part, “Free speech, critical discourse, and uncomfortable views are the hallmark of a quality education. Hate speech and bias/slander/discrimination tear at the fabric of a community or a university.”
Getraer said the views of the two faculty members shouldn’t be tolerated, and both professors “must be held accountable.” Getraer told NJJN that he met with Dutta and senior associate Hillel director Rabbi Esther Reed. Dutta, Getraer said, assured them the university was conducting a thorough investigation regarding Chikindas's posts.
The storm has not yet passed. Last week the Algemeiner reported that Mazen Adi, an adjunct professor in Rutgers’ political science department, “worked for Syria’s foreign ministry in various roles for 16 years,” and “represented the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad” as a diplomat in the United Nations. Moreover, the website reported that, according to a translation by a UN interpreter, during a 2012 Security Council meeting, Adi said that “‘international gangs led by some Israeli officials are now trafficking children’s organs.’” Rutgers is retaining Adi’s position as an adjunct professor, according to a WNYC report.
Altman said that at Rutgers, “which has a very vibrant Jewish community,” he feels “no discrimination.” He added that anti-Israel groups — like Students for Justice Palestine, which has promoted the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign on many campuses — “are not prominent here. It’s incredible to go to a school that is so Jewish and so supportive of the Jewish community.”
Waghalter, a political science and Middle Eastern studies major, said it’s unfortunate that Rutgers is getting a reputation for anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activity.
“It really is an amazing place to be Jewish and support Israel,” she said. “I don’t think there are many universities where I would be this comfortable being Jewish and feel as supported as I am here.”