Gaza blockade event at Rutgers faces challenge
ADL, Hillel charge fund-raiser violates university policy
A fund-raiser being run by a Rutgers University student organization to support efforts to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza will go on as scheduled, although the organizers have been instructed to find a new beneficiary through which to funnel proceeds.
Both Hillel and the Anti-Defamation League had raised concerns in the week leading up to the event, scheduled for Nov. 4, being sponsored by BAKA: Students United for Middle Eastern Justice
“The situation at this time is very fluid,” Rutgers Hillel executive director Andrew Getraer told NJJN at press time the afternoon of Nov. 2.
Etzion Neuer, regional director of NJ ADL, told NJJN he had “serious concerns” about the benefit for the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, a coalition “working to break Israel's illegal blockade on Gaza.”
He said funds raised at the event — scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at the Busch Campus Center in Piscataway — would in effect be “funneled from an activity supported by a public university to an organization threatening to commit a belligerent act against one of America’s closest allies.”
Getraer said given the ultimate recipient of the funds, BAKA, which is charging an entrance fee of $5 to the fund-raiser, appeared to be violating university policy. He had been in contact with RUSA about the situation, and ADL reached out to university president Richard McCormick.
In response, university vice president for student affairs Gregory Blimling sent Neuer a letter Nov. 1, which was provided to NJJN by the university. It stated that “the university takes your concerns very seriously and will continue to take the appropriate steps to address them.”
Neuer had said he believed “the NJ State Legislature would be dismayed to learn a state-funded university funded such a gross violation of U.S. foreign policy.”
The fund-raiser also raised questions of civil liability for the university, “because as recent events have shown, running a blockade involves serious risks,” said Neuer in reference to a deadly Israeli raid on a boat that was part of a Gaza-bound flotilla in May.
A spokeswoman for BAKA told the Star-Ledger that her organization was being maligned by groups opposed to the event.
"The way we are collecting the money is entirely legal," Hoda Mitwally, a Rutgers senior, told the Star-Ledger. "Everything we're doing is essentially for a humanitarian mission, yet we're being accused of just the opposite by those who don't want to recognize there is a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip."
A former Rutgers Hillel president, Avi Smolen, also defended the BAKA event. "I recognize Israel's positive movement in easing the restrictions on Gaza, but the blockade does still exist, and those who disagree with it have every right to protest it," Smolen, a 2009 graduate of the university, wrote in the Daily Targum, the campus newspaper. "As long as the event stays on point and does not deteriorate into an Israel-bashing session, I fully support it.
When BAKA initially applied for funding for the program from the Rutgers University Student Assembly, it was turned down based on information provided by Hillel and the ADL. Stipulations require any organization receiving RUSA money be classified as a 50lc nonprofit; Gaza Freedom Flotilla, which will receive any funds raised, does not have that status.
Blimling said RUSA had told BAKA the original recipient, USToGaza, was unacceptable and “conditionally approved” event funding provided a new beneficiary was found.
At press time on Nov. 2, the event was still scheduled to go on, although no decision had been made on a fund recipient, according to university spokesperson Greg Trevor.
“On a viewpoint and content-neutral basis as required by applicable federal law, the university is seeking to ensure that any beneficiary of the event proceeds is legally recognized as a bona fide tax-exempt entity under U.S. law and that all proceeds will be used for lawful purposes,” wrote Blimling.
However, Neuer said, he still had “serious concerns that at the end of the day these funds will be funneled to an organization that will attempt to break the blockade of Gaza. Our concern remains that Rutgers has to do its part to ensure this isn’t a shell game.”
The Nov. 4 event will feature speakers deeply critical of Israel and its role in the flotilla incident.
They include Retired U.S. Army Col. Ann Wright, a diplomat and antiwar activist, who was described by BAKA as “a survivor of the Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara” during the May 31 incident in which 10 international activists were killed in confrontation with Israeli commandos aboard the Turkish-flagged ship.
Also scheduled to speak is Adam Shapiro, a board member of the Free Gaza Movement and cofounder of the International Solidarity Movement, which was recently named to ADL’s “Top Ten List” of organizations it calls the “most influential and active anti-Israel groups in the United States.”
Jewish students do not plan to protest, although on Nov. 2, Rutgers Hillel is scheduled to bring in Neil Lazarus, a Jerusalem-based instructor of Israel advocacy, to conduct programs for students at several campus locations. Getraer said student leaders from other colleges throughout the state have also been invited “so they can bring what they’ve learned back to their campuses.”
“Our policy is not to react to such things because that just brings them more attention and more publicity, and our experience on campus is that it has not been effective,” said Getraer.
“We will have several dozen of our students trained in pro-Israel advocacy,” he said. "We find the best way to combat anti-Israel activity is with pro-Israel activity, not with protest.”
Neuer urged all NJ residents “to raise their voices against this grossly inappropriate use of student funds” and said on Oct. 29 that he hoped “common sense would prevail and funding will be cut off.”