Rutgers Student Groups Call for Defunding of Hillel and other “Zionist Organizations”

Brooke Ramos
July 29, 2021

A survey of Jewish history teaches us that antisemitism is an ever-evolving prejudice. The Christ-killer myth, the blood libel myth, and the racial inferiority myth are just a few of the ways in which Jews have been targeted. In a post-Holocaust world, it is undeniable that antisemitism knows no bounds but rather molds itself to fit the popular narrative. The recent antisemitic and anti-Zionist iterations by both administration and student organizations at Rutgers University are proof of this growing movement.

If you step inside the expansive Hillel house at Rutgers University-New Brunswick or find yourself in conversation with a student or rabbi, you’ll often hear one phrase, repeated with varying levels of irony: “Rutgers is a great place to be Jewish.” The largest public college in New Jersey, Rutgers prides itself on its ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic diversity, as well as a Jewish undergraduate population of 6,400 students (17.7% of its student body). With a Chabad-Lubavitch center bookending the other end of its College Avenue campus and rabbis from every major sect of Judaism on-staff, the school appears to be a haven for Jewish students in the region. But not everyone at Rutgers agrees that Jewish organizations have a place there.

The Eva & Arie Halpern Hillel House at Rutgers University, one of the largest in the nation

Like many of the anti-Zionist incidents reported in recent months, the most recent attacks on Rutgers’ Jewish community have involved social media. On 26 May 2021, during the height of military clashes between Israel and the terrorist group Hamas, Rutgers University chancellors Christopher J. Molloy and Francine Conway emailed a statement to students entitled “Speaking Out Against Antisemitism.” Both expressed sadness and outrage over “recent incidents of hate directed toward Jewish members of [Rutgers’] community.” While the statement did not name specific dates or attacks, this wording alluded, in part, to the egging of a Jewish fraternity on Holocaust Remembrance Day, during the reading of victims’ names. After linking antisemitism to the uptick in crimes against Asian-Americans, Muslims, and Indigenous people, the chancellors mentioned “the deaths of children and adults and mass displacement of citizens in the Gaza region and the loss of lives in Israel.” The statement ended with unequivocal support for the Jewish community and an overall rejection of intolerance.

The outrage that followed made international news. Rutgers issued two following emails in the two succeeding days. The second email, once again written by the chancellors, appeared to be an apology for condemning antisemitism without mentioning the Palestinian plight in Sheikh Jarrah, but Rutgers president Jonathan Holloway quickly remedied the issue in his own letter, a reaffirmation of standing against antisemitism and all bigotry.

Rutgers Hillel student and professional staff meet with University president Jonathan Holloway (center right)

The outrage continued behind the scenes. On June 12, the Executive Board of the Part-Time Lecturer Chapter of Rutgers’ AAUP-AFT (Local 6324) issued a statement calling for the American Federation of Teachers to divest from Israel. Calling Israeli defense actions “apartheid,” the statement included a link to a petition signed by 150+ professors and faculty members at Rutgers in support of Rutgers’ AAUP statement. The petition employed more inflammatory language, calling the eviction cases in Sheikh Jarrah “Zionist settler-colonial expansion” and “unchecked Israeli anti-Palestinian violence.” Rep. Josh Gottheimer condemned the demand for divestment in Israel in a June 29th letter to Holloway, citing concerns for the safety of “Jewish or pro-Israel” students at Rutgers amidst the spike in antisemitic hate crimes. No further comment was publicly issued by any voice at Rutgers on the matter.

That is, until July 26th, when Rutgers Mutual Aid (@rutgersmutualaid), an unaffiliated group known for fundraising efforts benefiting various social justice causes, made a series of Instagram posts summarizing a longer statement co-issued with several Palestinian rights’ groups, including the Rutgers New Brunswick chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), recognized as an official student organization. The Instagram post categorized Gottheimer’s statement as “slander” and decried Rutgers’ “investments in apartheid Israel, and prominent campus Zionist organizations such as Hillel.” The most brazen statement, though, was the designation of Zionism as one of the “real threats to Jewish safety today,” as it “ties all Jews to the Israeli regime, and by extension, its crimes.” The post concluded with several demands on Holloway and the Rutgers administration, including rejection of Gottheimer’s statement, divestment from Israel, and an audit of endowed investments led by SJP.

One of RU Mutual Aid’s boldest claims: Jews in the Diaspora are culpable for the actions of the Israeli government.

The associations between Israel and colonialist/apartheid regimes are not new; they are also not widely supported. The erroneous conflation of Zionism with racial or ethnic cleansing has become so widespread that it has been incorporated into the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. While the Rutgers’ AAUP and faculty petitions cite the U. N. Human Rights Council’s most recent report as an example of Israel’s purported crimes against Palestinians, the petitions fail to acknowledge the UNHRC’s long-standing reputation of anti-Israel bias. This is not surprising, as the modern presentation of antisemitism as staunch anti-Zionism has led to the identification of the “three Ds” of antisemitic dialogue surrounding Israel: “delegitimization, demonization, and double-standards.” The UNHRC has come under fire for the employment of such tactics, with no punitive action assigned. The citation of such a report does little to bolster the credibility of these petitions; instead, it reinforces the connotation of Zionism as an inherently prejudiced term.

When this kind of language and misinformation thrives, Jewish students are also attacked in one of the safest microcosms of Jewish life: their campus Hillel. Rutgers Mutual Aid’s defamation of Hillel as an organization that, through its Zionist stance, “ties all Jews” to the purported “crimes of the Israeli regime” is a blanket attack on a vital religious and cultural space for Jewish students. Such blatant attacks on the legitimacy of other religious or cultural centers are rarely heard, if ever, and never tolerated. By forcibly making all Jewish students spokespeople for the Israeli government, Rutgers Mutual Aid engages in the kind of propagandist overgeneralizations that endanger the physical and psychological safety of Jewish students. In regards to the social justice concerns in Israel and Gaza, such a statement minimizes any capacity for productive dialogue between sides and propagates the myth that Palestinian rights’ activism and condemnation of antisemitism cannot coexist.

It’s unclear if any disciplinary measures will be taken against Rutgers Mutual Aid or if the administration will condemn this kind of antisemitic language. History suggests they will not, if a high-profile federal investigation into alleged antisemitic practices by Rutgers SJP, which failed to elucidate any widespread change, is any indication. Members of the Jewish community at Rutgers will not be unaffected, though, for the posts by Rutgers Mutual Aid and the aforementioned petitions typify the synergy of anti-Israel attitudes between faculty and students alike. This saga of anti-Zionist words and actions at Rutgers University is not only a resounding example of increasing antisemitic sentiment on college campuses; it is a stain on Rutgers’ self-conceived image of a welcoming space to all students of all identities.

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