Last week, the Anti-Defamation League again urged Rutgers University President Richard L. McCormick to act promptly to "seriously investigate" allegations of anti-Semitic harassment and intimidation of Jewish students on campus and, if verified, to "take appropriate disciplinary actions," spokesman Todd Gutnick said.
The U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into the allegations, Gutnick said. They are against Shehnaz Abdeljaber, a university student-turned-employee, who, on Dec. 10, 2010, in a Facebook posting described a columnist for the university's Daily Targum newspaper as a "racist Zionist pig."
Two Jewish Rutgers students, however, have come to Abdeljaber's defense, and one said he does not believe Abdeljaber made the post against Aaron Marcus.
Daniel Heitner of Marlboro described Abdeljaber as a staunch anti-bullying advocate who would rather protest a genuinely anti-Semitic comment than post one.
Abdeljaber, who now works for the university's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, could not be reached for comment, but Heitner said the accusations against her are "blood-lustful witch hunt."
"No anti-Semitic harassment or environment is on this campus," he said. "What are on this campus are many Zionist people who believe that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. Zionism is political. Judaism is religious. I am anti-Zionist and I am Jewish. How can anti-Zionism be anti-Semitism? I can't hate myself, can I? While they stem from the same culture, they are not one and the same.
"Something that is hard to find here are Jewish students who will speak out against this," Heitner added. "One thing we don't like that you definitely can find is Hillel in letters to the editor over the past year to the Targum speaking as if they speak for all Jewish students on campus. The majority of the Jewish student population is not involved in Hillel, so they don't speak on everyone's behalf. They have no right to speak on my behalf because I don't agree with Zionist views."
A fellow member with Abdeljaber of the Middle Eastern-focused political group Belief Awareness Knowledge and Action (BAKA), Heitner left the campus chapter of the Hillel Jewish organization because he feels the group is being socially unjust. Jordan Kutzik, a 2011 Rutgers graduate now living in Massachusetts, also said he left Hillel because of an editorial submitted by an employee of Rutgers Hillel that had offended him.
While many students don't view Abdeljaber's comment as anti-Semitic, the Anti-Defamation League does, said Etzion Neuer, regional director of its New Jersey office.
"Certainly there is a place for legitimate criticism of Israel," Neuer said. "Unfortunately, the anti-Zionist movement, as it has become today, seeks to delegitimize Israel as a nation and singles out Jews alone as a people who are not entitled to a homeland. When Abdeljaber, a Rutgers employee, called Aaron Marcus a 'Zionist pig,' she resorted to a tactic frequently used by anti-Zionists: dehumanizing them. In doing so, we believe that she crossed a line.
"Of particular concern to us is the uneven dynamic between Ms. Abdeljaber and Aaron Marcus," he added. "This is not a case of a student-on-student incident, where both parties are of equal status. When an employee uses such a pernicious slur against a student, there is a greater impact upon the victim who feels an additional sense of intimidation, as the aggressor is an authority figure, seemingly with the imprimatur of the university. Rutgers must clearly initiate or spell out a course of action that would reassure students that intimidation is not acceptable at the university and create an atmosphere where students can feel comfortable with expressing their own points of view."
Gutnick said that ADL referenced concerns about the incident on Dec. 2 in testimony before the Helsinki Commission, an independent U.S. Government agency designed to foster security and cooperation in Europe.
Since May 2011, ADL has been corresponding with Rutgers President McCormick about the alleged anti-Semitic remarks, he said.
"We believe that it is simply unacceptable for a university employee to publicly use such hurtful, derogatory, and poisonous language when referring to a student," ADL National Director Abraham H. Foxman said. "It should not take a federal case to be initiated before Rutgers will seriously investigate this incident and take appropriate disciplinary actions."
Rutgers spokesman Ernest Miranda confirmed that the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights has begun a review based on allegations by the Zionist Organization of America. The university has made clear in its response to the OCR that the ZOA's allegations are false and do not reflect the true environment of inclusiveness and a free exchange of ideas that exists at Rutgers University, Miranda said.
"Rutgers is cooperating fully with the U.S. Department of Education and we are confident the university will be recognized as a welcoming institution for people of all faiths," he said. "Rutgers University has one of the largest populations of Jewish students of any public university in the nation. Rutgers also has a long tradition of working with and supporting the Jewish community, and a longstanding commitment to facilitate meaningful dialogue and promote civility among all members of our community."
Miranda cited several examples.
The university's Department of Jewish Studies offers Rutgers students the opportunity to study all aspects of the Jewish experience, he said. More than 60 interdisciplinary courses offered by the department address the historical, social, cultural, religious and political life of the Jewish people from ancient times to the present. The department offers both an academic major and minor in Jewish studies.
The university supports the Middle East Coexistence House, which enables students on the Douglass Campus from various religious backgrounds to live and study together, Miranda said.
An event this semester at the university, "Going Viral: Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the Role of the Media," attracted about 400 people to the New Brunswick campus, he said. Organizers of this event include faculty from the Department of Jewish Studies and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies.
he university also supports the student organization Shalom/Salaam, which brings together Jewish and Muslim students, Miranda said. In September, an organization meeting featured Teaneck's Muslim mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin and Orthodox Jewish deputy mayor Adam Gussen, both of whom are Rutgers graduates, he said. Miranda shared a link to a video of Shalom/Salaam members working with fellow Jewish and Muslim groups preparing meals for less fortunate members of our community before Thanksgiving athttp://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=u96U4geB2Xo.
"The university is also home to many centers, institutes and organizations devoted to Jewish life and the needs of our students," Miranda said. "Although the university cannot comment on the complaint filed earlier this year, President McCormick has communicated directly with the ZOA. We will continue to support students of faith and defend their rights to express their opinions openly."
Foxman responded, "We recognize that Rutgers has an important record of working with the Jewish community and developing programs related to Jewish history and culture. However, these initiatives are completely irrelevant to the issue at hand of how incidents of bias and bigotry are handled. Our concerns are specific to this incident and we call on the university to appropriately address the situation."
To the ADL, McCormick wrote a six-page letter on April 26 and a one-page follow-up on June 29.
He concluded the first letter by saying, "With respect to academic programs on campus, the First Amendment protections extend to university faculty and programs sponsored by university departments. There is no evidence that any of the events you have identified have caused or threatened to cause a material disruption which would justify interference with University faculty members' or departments' exercise of First Amendment rights.
"The university has already addressed each of the incidents that you have identified," he wrote. "Student members of BAKA and student members of Rutgers Hillel have both expressed concern about one another's programming on different occasions. In response to the resulting tension between the two student groups, the university has gone to extraordinary lengths to facilitate meaningful dialogue and promote civility. Thus, based on the results of our investigation, we are confident that we have satisfied our obligations under both Title VI and the First Amendment."
Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the recipients of federal funding must ensure that their programs are free from racial and ethnic discrimination.
In March 2010, ADL helped coordinate a letter with 12 other Jewish organizations urging the Education Department to clarify that anti-Semitic harassment on campus also can be prohibited by federal civil rights law, Gutnick said.
In October 2010, the Education Department issued guidance on bullying and harassment in schools in which it stated that it now will protect students from anti-Semitic harassment. The League strongly welcomed that new guidance, Gutnick said.
Founded in 1913, the Anti-Defamation League claims to be the world's leading organization fighting anti-Semitism through programs and services that counteract hatred, prejudice and bigotry.