Panelists see ‘assault’ on Israel at campus events
Jewish organizations are rallying around pro-Israel Rutgers University students who feel they are under siege by a coordinated campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state.
That was the message delivered Feb. 16 during a meeting organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County and a number of local synagogues.
National, state, and local leaders and 250 members of the community attended the gathering at Young Israel of East Brunswick.
Panelists included Martin Raffel of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; Liran Kapoano, president of the pro-Israel student group Scarlet Blue and White; Andrew Getraer, Rutgers Hillel executive director; and Jacob Toporek, executive director of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations.
Anti-Israel efforts on campus are “not a new phenomenon,” said Raffel, JCPA’s senior associate executive director, adding that such campaigns were being staged at colleges and universities across the country.
“This is quite literally an assault on the legitimacy of Israel playing out in the ’hood,” said the East Brunswick resident.
Panel members stressed that the pro-Palestinian side inaccurately compares the Israeli treatment of Palestinians with genocide and with regimes that openly discriminate against people based on their ethnicity or religion.
Getraer said college students are particularly vulnerable to propaganda from anti-Israel activists, since their message is designed to appeal to young people “full of idealism [who] want to make the world a better place.”
But, Getraer said, when Israeli treatment of Palestinians is likened to the “ethnic cleansing” of Jews during the Holocaust, Hillel and the pro-Israel community need to take a stand.
The passions of pro-Israel and pro-Palestinians students have played out at a number of campus events in recent months. On Jan. 29, pro-Palestinian groups sponsored a panel discussion — endorsed by the Rutgers student group BAKA: Students United for Middle Eastern Justice — that tied Israel’s actions to the United Nations International Day of Holocaust Remembrance. Some 500 pro-Israel students and residents from throughout the state took part in what became a counter-demonstration.
BAKA had previously organized programs featuring speakers deeply critical of Israel and its role in last May’s deadly flotilla incident.
On Jan. 31, Hillel and the Middlesex federation were among several organizations that sponsored a dinner for 23 student organizations touting the bond between Israel and the United States.
The Rutgers student newspaper, The Daily Targum, has published what amounts to a running debate for months, with news articles, op-eds, letters-to-the-editor, and blog comments from both sides.
“If we don’t stand up for the truth no one will,” Getraer said. “When this controversy hit, we found ourselves very much alone…. [BAKA supporters] lied about us and the State of Israel. They branded [Israelis as] ‘Nazis’ and we the protestors as troublemakers.”
Yet, he said, BAKA has refused to cosponsor events that would initiate dialogue. Hillel has been “taking the high road” and countering lies by espousing “truth and peace,” said Getraer, who was also critical of university administrators, who he said took a “bureaucratic” position in allowing the BAKA events to take place. In not wanting, they claimed, to violate anyone’s rights to free speech or free assembly, “the Jewish community was violated,” said Getraer.
In the wake of such actions, Hillel is working with Jewish federations across the state to formulate “a big response to the university,” Getraer said.
That message will be crafted in such a way as to let the administration and “influential” Rutgers board members know “the Jewish community is livid over this.”
Raffel said he is heading the Israel Action Network, a $6 million joint initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America and JCPA to combat anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaigns.
He said the anti-Israel initiatives have become more coordinated and sophisticated over time, although “they do not have a large hardcore” number of adherents. Rather, they rely on “a large pool of the uninformed and naive whom the malevolent are able to lead around by the nose.”
Middlesex JCRC chair Philip Cantor, in addressing the crowd, said, “What we have is an amazing grassroots infrastructure ready to be leveraged.”
The NJ Jewish federations have awarded Rutgers Hillel $10,000 to run pro-Israel events during the spring semester; the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, and Jewish National Fund have also contributed money to the effort, according to Getraer.