With anti-Semitic incidents at Rutgers University last semester making national news headlines and raising concerns within the Jewish community that the university was not doing enough to protect its Jewish students, the State Association of Jewish Federations recently coordinated a meeting between community leaders from New Jersey Jewish Federation and Rutgers President Robert Barchi. A written report summarizing this meeting was provided to The Jewish Link.
“This meeting was sought by our state federations out of deep concern we heard from members of our individual communities that anti-Semitic statements on the part of certain faculty had occurred at Rutgers,” stated State Association President Gordon Haas in the report. “It was welcomed as an opportunity to speak frankly with President Barchi about the impact recent events at Rutgers had on Jewish students at the school, their families and our community in general.”
In November 2017, allegations were made against Rutgers microbiology professor Michael Chikindas, stating that he had called Judaism “the most racist religion in the world” in Facebook posts, and also made inappropriate jokes about Judaism and Israel, women and homosexuals. Chikindas reportedly also shared anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, including that Israel perpetrated the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on the U.S. At the same time, two other university professors were accused of similar anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic sentiments.
Jewish life is currently thriving at Rutgers University, with a new Hillel facility, an active Chabad and other Jewish student organizations, and the largest number of Jewish students of any university in the country. Eighteen percent of the school’s students are Jewish, which translates to approximately 6,400 undergraduates and more than 1,200 graduate students.
Rutgers Hillel Executive Director Andrew Getraer described a campus experience for Jewish students that is comfortable and welcoming. “I think Rutgers is a great place to be Jewish. The Jewish students here are vibrant. Diverse. Active. They are well-known and respected on the campus. No Jew feels they have to hide here,” he told The Jewish Link.
Freshman Miriam Waghalter, a student active in Jewish life on campus and the president of Scarlet Knights for Israel, agreed, saying, “I feel completely safe as a Jew on campus.”
“Rutgers University enjoys remarkable religious diversity, including a vibrant Jewish community. The university has a fundamental commitment to provide an environment where our students can discover their passions free from fears of discrimination or religious bias,” said President Barchi in the report. “I am grateful to the members of the state federations for meeting with me to discuss strategies for combating anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry on our campuses.”
Keith Krivitzky, CEO of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, the federation catchment area where the main campus of Rutgers is located, was quoted in the report as saying, “We were pleased to hear that President Barchi agreed that Rutgers should do everything possible to counter these concerns about anti-Semitism and ensure the continued vibrancy and success of the Jewish community on campus.”
An internal investigation ensued in the wake of the Chikindas allegations; it was determined that he had “posted extensive bigoted, discriminatory and anti-Semitic material on social media. This material perpetuated toxic stereotypes and was deeply upsetting to Jewish students, faculty and staff across our community. The fears and concerns they have expressed to us and many university leaders are both justified and understandable,” wrote President Robert Barchi and University Chancellor Deba Dutta.
The university took action against Chikindas, including removing him from teaching required courses and from his leadership position as director of the Center for Digestive Health at the Institute for Food, Nutrition, and Health; requiring him to participate in a cultural sensitivity training program and to ongoing monitoring if and when he returns to the classroom; as well as possible further action in accordance with the university’s collective bargaining agreement with the faculty union.
In response to these actions, Getraer wrote in a statement, “Rutgers Hillel applauds the sensitivity and integrity of the university leadership in the matter of Professor Michael Chikindas. Prof. Michael Chikindas’ social media posts expressed a base racism, homophobia and misogyny that have no place in our university or our society. From the first revelation of these remarks, Rutgers Hillel has called for the university to hold him accountable.”
“We are very satisfied that the university took action against Chikindas. Losing the leadership of the Center for Digestive Health and no longer teaching required courses was a very impactful step against him professionally. We are satisfied that the president and university understand the gravity of this,” Getraer told The Jewish Link.
He continued, “This situation is very important because universities are the most enduring educational institutions in American society. If a university becomes a font of anti-Semitism...then we are lost.”
Getraer is proud that not only Jewish groups, but Jewish students as well, have spoken out and taken action against this situation. “At Hillel, we not only stand up for our students, we help them find their voice and educate them to help them find ways to express, and stand up for, themselves.”
Waghalter told The Jewish Link, “While I think that more could have and still can be done, I appreciate that the university is taking our concerns seriously and I am glad it is taking action.”
While news of the actions taken against Chikindas was welcomed by Hillel and other Jewish groups, many felt, like Waghalter, that there was still much to be done. Two other professors at the university, Jasbir Puar and Mazen Adi, were also accused of anti-Semitism. Puar has published a book accusing Israel of what amounts to a modern blood libel, and Adi, former spokesperson for the genocidal Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, was hired by the university to teach international human rights law, leading to concerns that his seeming anti-Semitism might carry over into the classroom.
At the meeting with federation leaders, President Barchi provided an update on Rutgers’ review of the three professors in question, noting that “his response is subject to the university’s principles of academic freedom and limitations of a public university under the First Amendment.” Barchi shared that Adi is not currently employed at Rutgers and has not taught at the school since the summer of 2017. Specifics were not shared regarding Puar, but Getraer was able to shed some light on current developments.
“While all three incidents of anti-Semitism came into public knowledge at the same time, they are vastly different situations,” Getraer noted. “Chikindas’ anti-Semitism was public, raw and obvious. Puar’s anti-Semitism is linked to her professional work: a book she published professionally. Hers is more subtle and, therefore, possibly more dangerous.”
Getraer explained that Puar’s remarks were part of her research and published by a respected academic press. She is also a tenured professor and is protected under “academic freedom” and freedom of expression, therefore the university feels it is not in a position to take action. However, he cautioned, in academia, if the “wrong” facts are presented, the individual is—in fact, must be—openly criticized by his or her peers, and he welcomes that sort of professional criticism regarding Puar’s book.
Getraer added, “The issues [with Puar] are not resolved and we are exploring every way possible to focus on her libel of the Jewish state.”
Adi, however, apparently only taught one course at the university as a visiting professor, and his teachings were not themselves criticized as being anti-Semitic. Those concerns were raised solely due to his previous employment by the Syrian government. “It is unclear if what he said or did in his prior role is who he is today,” Getraer said. “We will be meeting with him to get a better sense of who he is, but it is important to understand that he is not teaching at the university at all this year.”
Sophomore Josh Degen of West Orange, who is the treasurer of Scarlet Knights for Israel, told The Jewish Link, “In regards to professor Michael Chikindas, I believe President Barchi handled the situation correctly. It took some time, but the university ultimately got it right. However, Rutgers sent a terrible message by not taking any action against professor Jasbir Puar and professor Mazen Adi. As a political science major, I do not feel comfortable taking a course with Professor Adi as I’m afraid my grade could be negatively affected for believing in the Jewish right of self-determination.”
In discussions with The Jewish Link, Getraer shared that he feels the university environment is moving in a positive direction for its Jewish students. “I have spoken with the president, chancellor and head of Chikindas’ department and I am pleased that they understand these issues are important and want to do the right thing,” he said. “The university’s first response was not acceptable, but President Barchi recognized that and addressed the situation, and students are feeling better about the university’s handling of things.”
“While the response to faculty who express inappropriate sentiments is governed by faculty and union procedures, we were pleased to hear from President Barchi that he has agreed to speak out clearly and forcefully in response to anti-Semitic and other bigoted statements made within the University community,” stated Roy Tanzman, chairman of the Rutgers Hillel Board and former State Association president, in the report.
“While thankfully there is continued progress behind the scenes, we must at the same time be mindful that providing demonstrative actions that are visible to the Jewish students on campus is of equal importance. Jewish students on campus are the ones on the front lines facing the harassment of anti-Semitism, and if we expect them to continue fighting back then they must visibly see us in the trenches beside them,” Michael Cohen, eastern director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told The Jewish Link.
Geri Palast, executive director of IAN, the Israel Action Network, created by Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council of Public Affairs to meet the increasing challenge of efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel, shared with President Barchi at the meeting a set of principles adopted by the University of California and guidelines on responding to anti-Semitic incidents crafted and approved by UC Irvine. “President Barchi agreed to convene a high-level work group with representatives of the Jewish community to formulate together a statement of principles and policy as to how best to mitigate concerns of anti-Semitism in the future,” Palast indicated in the report.
In response to these recent events, Rutgers University will hold a full-day symposium on diversity, inclusion and tolerance scheduled for March 27. The symposium will address concerns about anti-Semitism and other incidents of bias and hate on campus. “All members of our federations’ leadership team agreed with President Barchi that such sentiments, whether targeted against Jews, Muslims or any other particular group, are antithetical to a healthy university community. We are looking forward to learning more about this program and sharing feedback with the Jewish community,” stated Marlene Herman, president-elect of the State Association, in the report.
Getraer stated, “Overall in our society, we are seeing people feeling empowered and free to express anti-Semitism. They must be called out and stopped. Every time. Immediately. This symposium is a positive development.”
Everyone who participated in the meeting with President Barchi agreed that the discussion was a positive step. “While this discussion doesn’t fully address all the concerns raised, the outcomes will, hopefully, be a series of constructive steps in the near future to do so. We look forward to continuing to celebrate Jewish life at Rutgers University and proclaiming how Rutgers is and will continue to be a great place to be Jewish,” concluded Haas.
By Jill Kirsch