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Rutgers symposium tackles anti-Semitism everywhere…except at Rutgers
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Rutgers symposium tackles anti-Semitism everywhere…except at Rutgers

Students, Jewish organizations absent from planning

Following reports that multiple members of its faculty expressed anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, and other hate-filled viewpoints, Rutgers University — home to one of the country’s largest and most vibrant Jewish campus communities — held a daylong symposium on diversity, inclusion, tolerance, and free speech. Despite a lineup that featured prominent speakers and panelists who discussed how to combat the rise of anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry, there was one notable absence: the students.

Whether it was because students and Jewish groups on campus appeared to be largely, if not wholly, left out of the planning process; because it took place during a regularly scheduled class day; because most were unaware of it; or because they were simply apathetic, few of the principle constituents of the Rutgers community were present to witness the university’s response to the challenges of confronting intolerance.   

“I would have liked to see greater student involvement,” wrote Rutgers Hillel student president Paulee Manich, in an email. Manich could not attend because of a class conflict, though she said the program was “a good first step.” Still, “it could not be taken advantage of because of timing, as well as lack of information given on a broad basis to students.”

The March 27 program, “Fighting Hate While Preserving Freedom: A Best Practices Forum,” drew Jewish communal leaders, N.J. attorneys general, and former federal Homeland Security officials, among several others, and contained significant focus on the rise of anti-Semitic incidents throughout the country. There was also a moving presentation by Francine Green Roston, a former South Orange rabbi who spent 16 years at Congregation Beth El before relocating in 2014 to Whitefish, Mont., where she became the target of a vicious campaign by white supremacists at the tail end of 2016. Rutgers University senior director of news and media relations Dory Devlin estimated that 400 people attended the symposium over the course of the day; only a handful were students, according to this reporter’s observations. 

The university announced in January its intention to host the forum during a meeting between Rutgers President Robert Barchi and state federation executives and Jewish leaders to discuss the troubling behavior of members of the faculty: 

  • Michael Chikindas, a professor in the Department of Food Sciences, who posted anti-Semitic and anti-Israel remarks and images on his personal Facebook page;
  • Jasbir Puar, an associate professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, who has a history of anti-Israel writings, recently authored a book alleging Israeli soldiers were harvesting Palestinian children’s organs;  
  • Mazen Adi, a former adjunct professor in Rutgers’ political science department who served in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for 16 years, and claimed that “international gangs led by some Israeli officials are now trafficking children’s organs” during a 2012 UN Security Council meeting.

As the announcement of the symposium coincided with Barchi’s meeting with the local Jewish leaders and what was perceived as a slow response to the controversy, most assumed the motivation to host the symposium was to hold a larger discussion with the Rutgers community about anti-Semitism on campus against the backdrop of the growing trend across the country. Yet the actions of the professors rarely, if ever, referenced during the more-than-eight-hour program, or in an interview on the university website with John Farmer Jr., a Rutgers professor and director of the Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience about why the university decided to hold the symposium at this time.

“We are concerned and think it was a missed opportunity,” said Rutgers Hillel executive director Andrew Getraer, “but President Barchi had his own ideas about how to deal with issues on campus.”

In response to NJJN’s question on why the actions of the faculty were not discussed, Devlin said, “The aim of the symposium was to bring together law enforcement officials, religious leaders, and leading academic researchers to explore how to combat a resurgence of hate while protecting our First Amendment protection of free speech.”

Staff leaders at campus Jewish organizations — Rutgers Hillel, Chabad, and Jewish Xperience — said they were surprised that neither they, nor the Jewish students on campus, were consulted with regard to coordination efforts. 

“We were not contacted and weren’t involved at all in its planning,” said Rutgers Chabad administrator Rabbi Mendy Carlebach. “It’s wonderful that they’re having this, but don’t you think the people on the ground, our staff, who are dealing with the students daily, should be involved?”

He added, “There are only three Jewish organizations on campus, so how much time does it take to make a personal phone call?” 

Said Getraer, “We were informed of where it was and were very supportive of what President Barchi is trying to do, and that was the extent of our involvement. Given that a large part of the impetus for this symposium was anti-Semitism, I think there would have been a role for the Jewish campus community to play.”

Rabbis Aharon Grossman and Meir Goldberg, codirectors of Rutgers Jewish Xperience, said neither they nor any of the students involved in their campus group were told about the symposium in advance. However, Barchi told NJJN there was outreach to Hillel and Chabad regarding the planning, and a representative from the media relations department not authorized to speak on the record said that students were “informally” consulted and their input led to the inclusion of one speaker, although the representative did not elaborate.

Hillel spread the word about the forum to its students, Getraer said prior to the event, though he admitted, “I have no sense that students are excited, interested, or even aware” of the symposium. “There is just no buzz about this.”

Devlin said the information was broadly disseminated to students and staff through an email blast, the university website and social media feeds, and physical banners hung across campus. The entire symposium was live-streamed and is viewable on livestream.com/rutgersitv. 

Of the approximately 30 students at Rutgers Chabad on the university’s main College Avenue campus in New Brunswick who were asked about the symposium two days before it occurred, only one had heard about it. The vast majority did not remember receiving an email about it, though several checked and confirmed that one was received but unopened. 

“I just think of the university emails as spam and just delete them,” confessed one student, while another said, “The university sends like 10 emails a day. There are so many I don’t even read them.”

Overwhelmingly the students said that even if they had known earlier, it was unlikely they would have attended because of lack of interest or class schedules that conflicted with the forum. (Carlebach also questioned scheduling a symposium targeting the Jewish community three days before Passover “one of the busiest holidays on our calendar.”)

Sam Bousaka, a sophomore aerospace engineering major from Deal, hadn’t heard about the symposium, but he disagreed with the school’s response. 

“I feel like they should just have stood up for us when everything happened with the professors,” Bousaka said. “I don’t like the way the university always brags about the Jewish presence on campus.”

The forum, sponsored by the Office of the President and the university’s Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience, was held at Rutgers Business School on its Livingston Campus in Piscataway. It was cosponsored by the chancellors of Rutgers Camden, Newark, and New Brunswick and Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences.

Besides Barchi, Farmer, and Roston, there were at least two dozen additional speakers and panelists, including George Selim of the Anti-Defamation League, Mohammad Ali Chaudry of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, N.J. attorney general Gurbir S. Grewal, former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, and Ruth B. Mandel, a professor of politics at Rutgers and presidential appointee to the governing board of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

“I do feel that the program was relevant to the situation on campus,” said Hillel senior associate director Rabbi Esther Reed after she attended the symposium. “There was clear and direct discussion about anti-Semitism, racism, and other forms of bigotry, and what to do when it happens. Although I would have preferred a more interactive and student-focused event, it definitely raised the issues of anti-Semitism that needed to be raised.”

Elisheva Sherman, a sophomore from Highland Park who also attended, agreed there were important issues discussed.

“I just wish there were more students here.”

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