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Students demand ouster of prof for ‘vile’ anti-Semitism
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Students demand ouster of prof for ‘vile’ anti-Semitism

Rutgers condemns hate, launches inquiry of two faculty members

An anti-Semitic cartoon taken from the Facebook page of Prof. Michael Chikindas. Image courtesy JTA
An anti-Semitic cartoon taken from the Facebook page of Prof. Michael Chikindas. Image courtesy JTA

Rutgers University listened when students and others voiced outrage over the postings of a professor that, they claimed, “promote the ugliest forms of anti-Semitism and homophobia.”

An on-line petition launched by Concerned Jewish Students of Rutgers — which by Oct. 31, days after being posted, had already garnered more than 4,000 signatures — calls for the immediate suspension pending further investigation of Michael Chikindas, a microbiology professor in the Department of Food Sciences and director of its Center for Digestive Health. 

The university issued a strong condemnation and launched an investigation into the conduct of Chikindas.

Jasbir Puar, an associate professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, who has a history of anti-Israel writings, has also come under fire. The claims she makes in her new book, “The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability” (Duke University Press) — among them that Israel has designated Palestinians as “available for injury” — have provoked little reaction. Student leaders said they are focusing on Chikindas because many of his posts were virulently anti-Semitic and homophobic, rather than strictly anti-Israel, like Puar’s.

“We thought it would resonate with a broader community,” said Austin Altman, a sophomore from Livingston and one of the authors of the petition. The response, he said, “has been incredible,” with support coming from within and outside the university. Altman is a member of Scarlet Knights for Israel (SKI), which is supported by CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting. 

“We will not tolerate bigotry from any staff member in any form,” said SKI president Miriam Waghalter, a CAMERA fellow and freshman from Los Angeles whose name appears on the petition. The call to have Chikindas suspended indefinitely, she added, was “urgent.” 

The petition notes that Chikindas has shared Facebook posts that caused “great pain and concern to both the Jewish and LGBT student bodies” by promulgating “the ugliest forms of anti-Semitism and homophobia.” 

Among his reviled posts are those calling Judaism “the most racist religion in the world” and Israel “a terrorist country” whose aim is “the genocidal extermination of the land’s native population, Palestinians.” 

Chikindas has posted Jewish caricatures portraying money-hungry predators controlling Hollywood, the Federal Reserve, and the government. He also criticized Israel’s tolerance by posting that the country is “far ahead” of others in the number of homosexuals and that as many as 25 percent of Tel Aviv’s residents are gay.

According to his resume on Rutgers’ website, Chikindas is originally from the former Soviet Union and received his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Moscow and Armenia, where he also held positions early in his career in the 1980s.

The offending posts were first reported in the Israellycool blog, but following the backlash, the Facebook page has been taken down.

Altman said it was “extremely disappointing” and “frustrating” that a professor with Chikindas’s views “could be here at this university. We want to commend Rutgers for its quick action when this became public.”

In a statement sent to multiple media outlets on Oct. 25 the university said Chikindas’s expressions are “antithetical to our university’s principles and values of respect for people of all backgrounds, including, among other groups, our large and vibrant Jewish community. Such comments do not represent the position of the University.”

The statement went on: “All the members of our community, including faculty and staff, are free to express their viewpoints in public forums as private citizens. Yet at Rutgers University we must also foster an environment free from discrimination, as articulated in our policy prohibiting discrimination. 

“The university is reviewing this matter to determine if actions taken in the context of [Chikindas’s] role as a faculty member at Rutgers may have violated that policy.”

Altman said that at Rutgers, “which has a very vibrant Jewish community,” he feels “no discrimination.” He added that anti-Israel groups — like Students for Justice Palestine, which has promoted the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign on many campuses — “are not prominent here. It’s incredible to go to a school that is so Jewish and so supportive of the Jewish community.”

Messages left by NJJN on Chikindas’s home and university phones were unreturned. However, in an e-mail to New Jersey Advanced Media, which appeared on NJ.com, Chikindas contends his Facebook posts weren’t anti-Semitic and said his account, which he thought would been seen only by a small circle of friends, was hacked.

Waghalter found his contention that his Facebook page was hacked suspicious since he made the claim only after his posts went viral. 

“I know Rutgers is getting a bad rap now about anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activity, but it really is an amazing place to be Jewish and support Israel,” said Waghalter, a political science and Middle Eastern studies major. “I don’t think there are many universities where I would be this comfortable being Jewish and feel as supported as I am here.”

Puar is on sabbatical this semester; the person answering the phone in her department said she had no way to reach her. Puar’s home phone is unlisted, and a message left on her Facebook page was unanswered.

Widespread condemnation of Chikindas’s actions came from the ADL, Rutgers Jewish Faculty Forum, the American Jewish Committee-NJ, and the pro-Israel StandWithUs. 

The Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ, in whose catchment area Rutgers-New Brunswick is located, sent a letter to university president Robert Barchi and chancellor Debasish Dutta; signed by federation president Jeff Schwartz and CEO Keith Krivitzky, it states, in part, “Free speech, critical discourse, and uncomfortable views are the hallmark of a quality education. Hate speech and bias/slander/discrimination tear at the fabric of a community or a university.” They asked to be kept apprised about how the administration intended to respond to Chikindas’s “hurtful and hateful” posts. 

Rutgers Hillel executive director Andrew Getraer sent a statement to NJJN saying that Chikindas’s statements “express a base racism, homophobia, and misogyny, which has no place in our university or our society. Its vile anti-Semitism is a profound embarrassment to our university and a source of pain and bewilderment to our students, the largest undergraduate Jewish population in America, and to our alumni parents and supporters.” 

Getraer said the views of the two faculty members shouldn’t be tolerated, and both professors “must be held accountable.”

Getraer told NJJN that chancellor Dutta met with himself and senior associate Hillel director Rabbi Esther Reed, assuring them the university was conducting a thorough investigation. 

In response to a request from NJJN, the university sent a statement about Puar on Oct. 30 that disavowed her view but defended her right to academic freedom as a faculty member. It noted: “We encourage our faculty to engage in open debate and discussion, all within the boundaries of respectful discourse, which academic freedom requires.”

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