Jewish students and community leaders hailed action taken by Rutgers University president Robert Barchi against a professor who posted anti-Semitic and anti-Israel remarks and images on his Facebook page. But the campus battle won’t end until two other professors, also deemed anti-Semitic and anti-Israel, receive disciplinary action as well.
Michael Chikindas, a microbiology professor in the Department of Food Sciences, has been suspended from teaching core classes, required to take sensitivity training, and removed from his role as director of the department’s Center for Digestive Health.
“While the university is and should always be a place that challenges students to grapple with complex and even controversial ideas, this situation has threatened the trust between professors and students that is a prerequisite to learning,” wrote Barchi in a letter to Rutgers faculty sent on Friday.
Rutgers Hillel president Paulee Manich said though she was happy with Barchi’s “tangible action,” she believes most students “will not be satisfied until [Chikindas] is removed entirely from his position.” The senior genetics major from Pittsburgh said Barchi and the university “are taking this situation seriously and not just dismissing it.”
Miriam Waghalter, president of Scarlet Knights for Israel (SKI), started in late October an online petition “Standing Against Anti-Semitism at Rutgers” calling for the university to suspend Chikindas indefinitely, pending an investigation. The freshman from Los Angeles said Barchi’s move shows that he and the administration “care and are aware we’re concerned about how this bigotry affects us.”
“We will not stand for bigotry on campus,” said Waghalter, who also holds a fellowship from the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting: CAMERA. The petition to date has garnered almost 6,000 signatures.
In posts, Chikindas wrote that Judaism is “the most racist religion in the world,” and that Israel is “a terrorist country,” the goal of which is “the genocidal extermination of the land’s native population, Palestinians.”
Chikindas also posted or shared caricatures that portray Jews as money-hungry predators and has criticized Israel’s tolerance of the LGBT community. He has never responded to any NJJN inquiries but claimed in an e-mail to New Jersey Advanced Media that his Facebook page, which has since been taken down, was hacked.
Also praising Barchi’s move but calling for additional action were the leaders of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, Rutgers Hillel, and Rutgers Chabad. They have echoed student leaders’ concerns about Jasbir Puar, an associate professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, and Mazen Adi, an adjunct professor in Rutgers’ political science department.
Puar has a history of anti-Israel writings. Adi, who served in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for 16 years, claimed during a 2012 UN Security Council meeting that “international gangs led by some Israeli officials are now trafficking children’s organs.”
Hillel executive director Andrew Getraer said he and other leaders support Barchi’s statement that the university is seeking disciplinary action through the collective bargaining agreement.
University spokesman Neal Buccino confirmed to NJJN that there is no investigation into Puar and Adi.
Rutgers Chabad administrator Rabbi Mendy Carlebach said he wants Chikindas “totally removed from the classroom” along with Puar and Adi. “When people of authority express anti-Semitism, it has to be cut off,” said Carlebach.
Getraer said that Adi, in voicing support for Puar’s claim in a recent book that Israel “harvests Palestinian children’s organs for some nefarious cause,” is “a source of continuing pain to the Rutgers Jewish community, and [both] have become a national embarrassment to the university.”
Regarding removal of faculty members, association executive director Jacob Toporek said he understands the administration’s “hands are tied with respect to the union contract with the college professors. We want to explore what can be done not just about the professors, but also to ensure that Rutgers remain a safe and welcoming place for Jewish students.”
Though Toporek said he fears additional anti-Israel activity at campuses in response to the recent decision by the United States to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, most student leaders said Rutgers — with one of the largest Jewish student bodies in the nation — has minimal anti-Semitism.
Rutgers Hillel’s Israel chair, Segev Kanik, a sophomore from West Long Branch, said he organized last year’s Israel Independence Day program on College Avenue in the heart of the university’s main New Brunswick campus. “We had Israeli flags flying and music, and we had zero anti-Semitic reaction,” he said.
Kanik also said he is “happy” with Barchi’s action; as a biological sciences major he would have had to take a course with Chikindas and was relieved the professor was at least removed from teaching core classes.
Waghalter said students in SKI are pressing for measures to be taken against the other two professors. They’re awaiting a response to their request for a meeting with university administrators.
“We understand there were different situations with each of the professors,” she said, but Chikindas “was most urgent.”
Austin Altman, a sophomore SKI member from Livingston and one of the authors of the petition, said he is grateful to Barchi for the disciplinary actions, but added that Chikindas has not written a letter of apology requested by the students.
Altman said students want Puar and Adi to be compelled to take the same sensitivity classes that Chikindas will have to take and for them to issue public apologies.
Manich called the last month “jarring” for many students, a contrast to the feeling that “we are lucky enough to go to a school where we can walk around openly and proudly as Jews.”
Downplaying the notion that may have developed that the Rutgers campus is a hotbed of anti-Semitism, Carlebach said, “The campus is, as it’s always been, the best place to be Jewish.”
Recent events, said Manich, are a reminder “that we must not become complacent and must continue to build a thriving and strong Jewish community.”