University union pres. decries reopening case against Rutgers

University union pres. decries reopening case against Rutgers

Jewish profs demand retraction, cite ‘conflict of interest’

Jenny Mandelbaum, a communications professor and cochair of J-FAS
Jenny Mandelbaum, a communications professor and cochair of J-FAS

The ripple effects of a student event held at Rutgers University in 2011 have seeped into faculty politics and Jewish members are charging the president of the Rutgers faculty union, Deepa Kumar, with overstepping bounds and a conflict of interest, among other concerns.

Kumar, representing Rutgers’ AAUP-AFT, was among three signatories of an Oct. 12 joint statement opposing the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) reopening of a case in which Jewish students were allegedly charged an admission fee for attending an event sponsored by the anti-Zionist student group BAKA: Students United for Middle Eastern Justice, along with several other groups. The event, which took place January 2011, featured Jewish Holocaust survivors critical of Israel.

The two other signatories of the statement include Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Rudy Fichtenbaum, president of the American Association of University Professors.

The 2011 incident is being investigated by the OCR as a possible violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires that recipients of federal funding (such as a public university) ensure that their programs are free from ethnic and racial discrimination. The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) filed the original complaint in 2011; after being rejected by the OCR in 2014, the case was reopened in September.

Rebecca Cypess and Jenny Mandelbaum, cochairs of J-FAS (formerly known as the Jewish Faculty Forum), wrote in a counter statement that the union’s press release was “deeply troubling.”

“We take no position on whether this re-opening is proper,” they wrote. Rather, their objection was to the release “being distributed on behalf of our faculty union.” Their letter was sent to the union signatories, Rutgers administrators, and Jewish communal leaders.

Chief among J-FAS objections is that Kumar became adviser to BAKA in 2011.

BAKA is now known as Students for Justice in Palestine and the group’s faculty adviser is Kerri Wilson, director of off-campus living and community partnerships.

According to the J-FAS letter, “Professor Kumar’s distribution of this message in the union’s name without clear acknowledgment of her role in BAKA is questionable.” She “should refrain from using the union as a platform from which to comment on this investigation. To do otherwise gives the appearance of using the union in pursuit of a personal agenda that diverges from the union’s mission.”

The letter also called the faculty union’s assertions “misleading and based on faulty logic,” explaining the issue was not the content of the program — which the joint statement termed “a free exchange of ideas” — but rather the students’ “sense of grievance” at being discriminated against.

Calls and emails made by NJJN to Kumar, a professor of journalism and media, were not returned.

Another charge levied by the Jewish faculty members is that Kumar’s statement simplifies the connection between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Citing “the [Betsy] DeVos Education Department,” the joint statement criticizes the U.S. government for expanding the definition of anti-Semitism to include “criticism of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians” and equating “advocacy for Palestinians with anti-Semitism.”

In response, Cypess and Mandelbaum wrote, “Anti-Semitism and opposition to Israel are often, though not always, intermingled. The definition of anti-Semitism is, at the very least, a question that deserves open discussion.” 

The letter called on Kumar to recuse herself from the case and demanded that the group retract their joint statement.

Rebecca Cypess, associate director of the department of music and cochair of J-FAS

Mandelbaum, a communications professor, told NJJN that she did not believe individual faculty union members had been polled in advance of the joint statement. She herself had not been questioned about the reopening of the OCR case. “It didn’t seem like a union concern,” she said.

Cypess, associate director of the department of music, said she had been “taken by surprise” by the faculty move and was interested in having the union “focus on its true mission representing the people on campus.”

“We are looking for common ground with our academic peers on campus despite our different religious and political beliefs or our ethnicity,” Cypess told NJJN. “We are looking to build relationships. We really want to stress we have no animosity toward anyone in this scenario. We are seeking to be partners with everyone and anyone in finding common ground.”

Mandelbaum said J-FAS has been in “informal communication” with the faculty union vice president David McDermott Hughes, a professor of anthropology, but no official statements have been made.

Cypess noted they see the OCR investigation as an issue of discrimination and hoped the faculty union would “join us in engaging the student community on the issue of free speech.

“We need to prepare students for the world in which we are living now and in the future and we want them to understand the difference between discrimination and free speech.”

The joint statement acknowledged the rise of “racist and xenophobic hatred” on college campuses, giving examples of recent anti-Semitism at University of California, Davis, and Sacramento City College, and asked that the OCR “use its limited resources to investigate serious offenses that threaten the safety and civil rights of students on these campuses.”

Mandelbaum said she knew of no recent anti-Semitism or anti-Israel sentiment on campus, adding, “The campus climate right now is very positive for Jews. Rutgers is really a great place to be Jewish.”

Rutgers University declined to comment; Dory Devlin, the university’s senior director of news and media relations, told NJJN that the letters were a faculty matter.

Rutgers Hillel President Benjamin Bass said that while he was aware of the letter, it didn’t really have any effect on students, although he agreed with everything the Jewish professors wrote.

“It’s very calm right now,” said the Westfield resident. “There’s no anti-Semitism and we haven’t had any incidents this year. We’re very fortunate at Rutgers because things are a lot different for Jews here than at other campuses.”

Andrew Getraer, Rutgers Hillel executive director, said Hillel was very supportive of the Jewish faculty forum and its leadership.

“We are gratified they are taking an active role on this issue because we can’t fight anti-Semitism without engaging faculty leadership.”

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