During services last Shabbat, when the rabbi first mentioned a protest at Rutgers University that night, I was lukewarm about attending. I had plans to attend a party and did not want to deal with the hassle of driving down to New Brunswick. Besides, I had no knowledge of the event other than what the rabbi had said. During kiddush I spoke to a couple of people who were thinking of attending on behalf of our congregation, Mt. Freedom Jewish Center, and I expressed mild interest.
Toward the end of Shabbat the phone rang and a friend mentioned that his daughter, a student at Rutgers, had encouraged him to attend and I agreed to go with him. On the drive down, he offered more details about the event. A campus group, BAKA, had formed to protest the treatment of Palestinians by Israel. They were sponsoring a presentation featuring two Holocaust survivors who were to equate the Palestinian situation with the Shoa; the program itself coincided with the UN’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day. A group of students planned on walking out, wearing T-shirts that read, “Don’t politicize the Holocaust.” The group emphasized their desire not to interrupt the speakers or in any other way to be disrespectful.
When we arrived, we were greeted by a large crowd lining the foyer at the Douglass Campus Center. The crowd consisted of both students and the general public and appeared overwhelming to be aligned with Israel. Ushers announced their desire for an orderly entry into the auditorium; a police presence also became noticeable.
Although there was a palpable energy among the crowd — numbering close to 400 — the mood was generally organized. Many had been attracted by advertisements that indicated that while there was a suggested donation, the event was “free and open to the public.”
As the event time neared, an announcement was made that a donation of $5-$20 was now required for entry. Several apparently (based on their dress) Muslim students were escorted to the front and given entry. The crowd became visibly agitated. More police arrived to enforce order and the crowd — led predominantly by the students — began chanting, “Let the students in,” “Am Yisrael chai,” and “Free and open to the public.”
Several arguments broke out between individuals and the program sponsors. Despite this, the event began taking on the feeling of a pro-Israel rally, highlighted by my friend quieting the crowd and sharing his story. He described how he had emigrated from Libya, where he had experienced similar tactics beginning with lies, followed by denial of freedoms, and ending with the death of a Jewish community. The crowd rallied behind him.
As we left, the crowd had coalesced. They stayed on to dance the hora and joyfully sing to celebrate both Judaism and Israel. I left full of energy and admiration for my friend and the power of the Jewish community. Although I was late for my Saturday night party, I would not have had it any other way.