Supporters of a pro-Palestinian student group are suing Rutgers University, saying the university improperly froze funds raised to help break the Israeli blockade of Gaza.
The suit also alleges that the money was frozen “under pressure” from Rutgers Hillel and the Anti-Defamation League.
The suit seeks redress for all 250 attendees at a Nov. 4, 2010, event at the Busch Campus Center in Piscataway sponsored by BAKA: Students United for Middle Eastern. The event raised $3,345 in support of “US Boat to Gaza,” an organization that planned to join a 2011 naval protest of Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The suit contends that the university froze the funds after heeding complaints by Hillel and the ADL challenging the legality of the Gaza “flotilla” and the tax-exempt status of the intended recipients.
The suit alleges that the university “determined that criticism of the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza is unlawful, a decision based on pressure from outside groups, in particular the ADL and Hillel.”
In a prepared statement, university spokesman E.J. Miranda said, “It is the university’s practice not to comment on pending litigation. As an institution of higher education, Rutgers is committed to academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas in an atmosphere of mutual respect.”
The suit was filed during the first week of September in federal district court in Trenton by attorney John Leschak on behalf of Rutgers chemistry professor Larry Romsted and Manijeh Saba, a Rutgers alumna and pro-Palestinian activist.
The 2010 event was organized through Stand for Justice, a pro-Palestinian group, on behalf of US Boat to Gaza. It featured speakers deeply critical of Israel and its role in a flotilla incident several months earlier in which 10 people were killed in a clash with Israeli commandos aboard a six-ship, Turkish-registered convoy bound for Gaza.
Both Hillel and ADL had presented Rutgers with information questioning US Boat to Gaza’s nonprofit status and other legal issues. The information prompted the Rutgers University Student Assembly to inform BAKA that the original recipient was unacceptable and “conditionally approved” the fund-raising provided a new beneficiary was found.
That position was reiterated in a letter from university vice president for student affairs Gregory Blimling to Etzion Neuer, then regional director of NJ ADL. It stated that “the university takes your concerns very seriously and will continue to take the appropriate steps to address them.”
At the time, Neuer said raising funds to run a blockade of a U.S. ally may be in violation of federal law, and raised questions of civil liability for the university.
He told NJJN he 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” and urged Rutgers “to do its part to ensure this isn’t a shell game.”
The ADL’s current NJ director, Jeffrey Salkin, told NJJN that his organization “had concerns about a student fund-raising event on the Rutgers University campus and we exercised our First Amendment rights by bringing those concerns to the attention of the university.”
However, the suit counters that the plaintiffs provided documentation from the Center for Constitutional Rights attesting to the legality of the flotilla and from Stand for Justice affirming the nonprofit status of the Institute for Media Analysis, a New York-based organization that was handling finances for US Boat to Gaza.
Two months after that information was provided, according to the suit, a request to then Rutgers president Richard McCormick to release the funds was denied. The university has not acted on subsequent requests by BAKA to turn over the funding to the WESPAC Foundation, an organization based in Westchester County, NY, that recognizes “victims of war, injustice and environmental degradation.”
The suit called the university actions “an egregious violation” of the plaintiffs’ First Amendment right to free speech because “it treats their speech — fund-raising — different than other speech on the basis of its content and viewpoint.”
It also claims their 14th Amendment right to due process was violated by such “viewpoint-based discriminatory treatment of protected speech.”
Leschak told NJJN that if the suit progresses to trial, his clients would seek damages and trial fees from the university, but that was not its primary purpose.
“The intent of the suit is not money,” noted Leschak. “We just want the rights of the complainants to be respected.”
The lawsuit is the latest chapter in a series of conflicts between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students at Rutgers over the last several years. Last year a complaint by the Zionist Organization of America prompted the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to launch an investigation into claims that Rutgers failed to address “the hostile anti-Semitic environment” on campus and that it improperly investigated a university administrator who threatened and bullied a Jewish student.
The administration defended its handling of those incidents.