Israel supporters, critics in Rutgers showdown

Israel supporters, critics in Rutgers showdown

Sides trade accusations as event links Shoa to Palestinian cause

Rutgers Hillel president Sarah Morrison of Edison during the Jan. 29 protest at the Douglass College Center.
Rutgers Hillel president Sarah Morrison of Edison during the Jan. 29 protest at the Douglass College Center.

Pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups traded barbs and accusations in the wake of a raucous event in New Brunswick featuring an anti-Israel panel timed to coincide with the 2011 International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Members of the Jewish community and other pro-Israel supporters complained that organizers initiated an admission fee to the Jan. 29 event — which was advertised as being free — in order to prevent demonstrators from attending. Sara Kershnar, a coordinator of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network and moderator for the program, meanwhile, issued a statement accusing “right-wing counter-protestors” of disrupting the event and delaying its start for more than one hour.

The program, “Never Again for Anyone,” was sponsored by American Muslims for Palestine, the International Anti-Zionist Jewish Network, and the Middle East Children’s Alliance, and was endorsed by BAKA: Students United for Middle Eastern Justice, a Rutgers University student organization. Speakers included Hajo Meyer, a Jewish Holocaust survivor who opposes Zionism and who regularly draws parallels between “my experiences in Germany prior to 1939 and those suffered by Palestinians today,” and Osama Abu-Irshaid, an Egyptian-born journalist (see related article).

According to the university, American Muslims for Palestine leased the hall and paid the cost of the event. “The organizers hired two off-duty officers to assist with security and crowd control,” according to a statement from the university.

The “Never Again” panel, which is being presented at campuses as part of a 13-city tour, raised alarm bells among leaders of Rutgers Hillel and outside Jewish groups, who were already concerned about a recent flurry of anti-Israel events on campus and objected to the linkage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the Holocaust.

In the lead-up to the Jan. 29 event, Rutgers Hillel, synagogues, and Jewish federations across the state sent e-mails urging members and supporters to come out in a show of support for Israel. The state’s Jewish federations had pledged $10,000 to Hillel in its efforts to fight what Hillel calls the “delegitimization” of Israel by BAKA and other groups.

The estimated 500 students and members of the Jewish community who gathered at the Douglass Campus Center outnumbered the 200 or fewer program attendees. While the program was originally billed as being free and open to the public, organizers decided at the last minute to charge a $5 admission fee, in part, according to a number of Jewish community and Hillel leaders, to discourage the attendance by demonstrators who would hesitate to give money to the organizations that planned the event.

That led demonstrators to begin chanting “free, free,” “lies, lies,” and “Let us in, Let us in” as well as to heated exchanges between pro- Israel and pro-Palestinian bystanders. The program was delayed almost an hour and a half while campus police came and, according to the university, blocked from entering those attempting to “enter the venue without paying the fee or through unauthorized entrances, including fire doors.”

Demonstrators had planned a silent walk-out during the event. University representatives holding walkie-talkies struggled to find a place to accommodate the growing line of those hoping to enter the hall, as area rabbis, Holocaust survivors, community leaders, couples with children, senior citizens, and students continued to arrive.

Fewer than a dozen pro-Israel demonstrators — about half of whom appeared to be students — appeared to get inside the hall for the event.

‘A gross distortion’

Also among the panelists was Hedy Epstein, described as a “Jewish refugee of the Holocaust,” one of two Shoa survivors on the pro- Palestinian panel. She told the audience that she “had never experienced such opposition” at any event and added this was “totally, totally different.”

On Jan. 30, Kershnar, of the Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, produced a written response sent to NJJN and other news outlets.

“Right-wing counter-protestors disrupted an event honoring the memory of the Nazi Holocaust, ignoring the event’s message of support for all who continue to fight for their rights and for collective humanity,” wrote Kershnar, who is not a Rutgers student. “Concerned with protecting speakers and audience members, police closed the event for more than one hour, with the result that a number of interested participants were unable to enter.”

Demonstrators were put off by the timing of the event and the participation of the Holocaust survivors. One demonstrator carried a sign reading, “Don’t politicize the Holocaust.”

“I believe referring to the plight of the Palestinians as ethnic cleansing is an injustice to the Jews who perished in the Holocaust because of their religion,” said senior Ariel Bucher of Marlboro. “To ignore the fact that six million Jews were exterminated is just wrong and does not reflect the reality of the situation. It is a gross distortion of the truth.”

Noah Glyn Jr. of Cherry Hill, who said he was active in student government, said the program “is anti-Semitic and anti-American” and added, “I personally have never before felt anti-Semitism in my life, but I feel it here right now.”

The crowd of demonstrators included some waving Israeli flags and Hillel students wearing yellow T-shirts protesting comparisons of the Israeli treatment of Palestinians to treatment of Jews during the Holocaust.

“I am here to support Holocaust remembrance,” said Noah Horowitz, 11, of Branchburg, who came with his uncle and grandmother. “It is a big part of Jewish history and should be remembered.”

Martin Raffel, senior associate executive director of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, said his organization was monitoring the situation at Rutgers.

“I am part of the national campaign fighting the growing delegitimization of Israel on college campuses,” said Raffel, who lives in East Brunswick. “Since I’m local I wanted to see it firsthand instead of sitting in my ivory tower. I wanted to experience what the Jewish students are experiencing.” Joe Hollander, the president-elect of the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County and current president of the Brown University Hillel board, said he came to “support the students of Rutgers and stand up for Israel.”

Andrew Frank, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks, said it was imperative to show united support for the Rutgers students and Israel and “counter-balance” the anti-Israel sentiment.

Steve Weinberg, an adult from Highland Park, surged to the front of those hoping to enter the hall and said he would collect $5 from attendees and donate it to the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, but was blocked from doing so.

With all but a handful refusing to pay the $5 entrance fee, Rutgers Hillel director Andrew Getraer grabbed a bullhorn and stood on a staircase leading to the building’s second floor.

“I urge you to go back and tell your friends and family about the lies told about the Jewish people told here today,” he said. “We are never going to be silent again.”

He urged concerned members of the Jewish community to e-mail Rutgers president Richard McCormick with their concerns. “While Rutgers Hillel respects the right to free speech, the comparison of Israeli acts of defense to the gas chambers of Auschwitz are morally repulsive and have no place on the campus of a state university.”

After the crowd began chanting “Am Yisrael chai” Hillel president Sarah Morrison of Edison took the bullhorn to urge the protestors to “let them know we are here.”

She was followed by Rutgers Chabad Rabbi Boruch Goodman and former Chabad student president Michael Schaier of Fair Lawn.

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