With one of the largest populations of Jewish students, Rutgers University - New Brunswick, has never been free of antisemitic incidents, said Rutgers Hillel Executive Director Andrew Getraer.
But even as Rutgers officials work to create a campus where all voices can be heard and respected, the state university has experienced three incidents of intolerance in a one-week span.
The three incidents came in the form of hate speech by professor Michael Chikindas, first reported last week by an Israeli blog; white pride recruitment posters by Identify Evropa, a white supremacist group, found plastered last week on university buildings on Douglass, Livingston and College Avenue campuses; and the latest, a swastika found by students spray-painted on the side of Stonier Hall, a building on Brower Commons.
According to Neal Buccino, a spokesperson for Rutgers, at 10 a.m. Sunday, Rutgers University Police responded to Stonier Hall where a large black swastika, surrounded by a red circle with a red line through the swastika, was painted on an exterior wall.
"The university is removing the image," Buccino said. "Such symbols are antithetical to the values of the University, where we strive to create an atmosphere free from bias and to treat people of all backgrounds with dignity and respect."
As for last week's separate incidents concerning Chikindas and white supremacist flyers posted, Buccino said "the university has no updates on the other matters."
Gatraer noted that Rutgers is not unique to this situation. He said there has been a flurry of white supremacist flyers being posted at campuses around the country.
"This has happened at Rutgers before," said Getraer, who has been on campus for 16 years. "Every couple of years there's white supremacist flyers distributed around campus. I don't know in this case who did it, but in the past it has always turned out to be a lone individual. And it had little or no impact on anybody else. I hope that is the case now, but of course we are seeing a trend in our society where the expression of gross antisemitism and racism and white supremacy is becoming more acceptable in some quarters and this may be a manifestation of that. And that is something that our whole society is wrestling with and it needs to stop."
Antisemitism and Anti- Israel sentiment
Rutgers is home to 6,400 Jewish undergraduates as well as the newest and largest Jewish campus facility in the country — the Eva and Arie Halpern Hillel House on the Wilf Family Campus. Four hundred students gather at Hillel weekly to celebrate and enjoy a free Shabbat dinner. In addition, hundreds of Rutgers students will be traveling to Israel with Hillel this winter, and Rutgers has a notable Jewish Studies Department.
In October 2016, Brandeis University released a report about campus "Hotspots of Antisemitism and Anti-Israel Sentiment." At Rutgers, approximately 39 percent of its Jewish students said they perceived a "hostile environment to Israel."
"There was a time that Israel was stigmatized on the college campus," Getraer said. "Zionism was stigmatized and Jewish students, pro-Israel students felt that they were targeted and that they couldn't express themselves freely. And anything that had to do with Israel became politicized and controversial."
To combat this negativity, the Rutgers Hillel Center for Israel Engagement (RHCIE) seeks to be a model for excellence in Israel engagement, education and advocacy on campus.
"When we started it was one of a kind and many Hillels have now expanded their Israel education and engagement program, but we are still unique in that we have three full-time staff. We have an approach that is driven by a positive relationship to Israel is essential for a healthy Jewish identity and that drives the program," Getraer said. "We are not about any political view. We are about helping any Jewish students and non Jewish students as well wherever they come to the table thinking or believing to come to understand Israel and build a positive relationship with Israelis and Israeli society in some way, shape or form. "
Getraer said that part of RHCIE's strategy is to normalize Israel on campus.
That is done by "actively presenting all aspects of Israeli society the way that the Latino culture club would and any other ethnic or cultural group would to celebrate what is good in our background and do it very publicly so that people are used to seeing Israeli culture and the Israeli flag and Israelis in a way that isn't just about conflict, which is a small aspect of Israeli society," Getraer said.
Getraer said that this action has had the effect of "creating allies on campus" and reducing tensions.
"There were years here — 2010, 2011 — and most recently when tensions regarding Israel were extreme," He said. "And the kind of tension you see in some of the other campuses in America, in California, etc. They were present at Rutgers before they spread. Those still exist but they have been diffused considerably and I think in a large part of the efforts of our center's engagement."
"A lot of the people exposing extremist views are really very ignorant," he said. "They are repeating things they have been taught or heard and when you confront them with a difference of opinion, they realize they don't know what they are talking about and they stop talking. Sometimes all it takes is saying, 'I disagree' and 'Here's why you are wrong.' It diffuses a lot of things."
In December, RHCIE is running for the first time for non Jewish student leaders to Israe,l where they will embark on an 11-day educational tour of all aspects of Israeli society.
"We are taking 20 non-Jewish student leaders from all aspects of the campus and five Jewish student leaders," said Getraer, who is staffing the trip with their Jewish Agency Israel fellow Aviv Ayash. "And we are also going to go into the Palestinian territories and meet with Palestinian leadership so that they can judge for themselves what the situation is. I'm very excited about this. The more people that are exposed to Israeli society and visit and learn, the more they understand and support the Jewish state."
Following that, 80 students will attend the annual Birthright trip to Israel, he added.
Stereotypes promote hateful ideology
This time around, the incidences at Rutgers have less to do with Israel and more to do with traditional stereotypes.
Chikindas — a microbiology professor at Rutgers' department of food science and director of the school's Center for Digestive Health — wrote about dozens of anti-Jewish conspiracies on his Facebook page earlier this year, according to the Israellycool blog. These include describing Judaism as "the most racist religion in the world," and calling Israel a "terrorist country."
A statement put out by Rutgers Hillel categorized Chikindas' posts as antisemitic, homophobic and sexist, and "express a base racism, homophobia, and misogyny which has no place in our university or our society."
An online petition at https://www.change.org/p/rutgers-university-standing-against-anti-semitism-at-rutgers is now being circulated by students. In it, the petition calls on Rutgers University to "take swift and necessary action to suspend Professor Chikindas, pending further investigation." As of Monday, more than 3,700 people signed the petition.
The petition is intended to send "a clear message that these comments will not be tolerated at our university," said Miriam Waghalter, who created the petition representing "Concerned Jewish Students at Rutgers."
In a statement released last Thursday by Rutgers, Chikindas may have violated the university's discrimination policy with comments he made on social media about Judaism, minority groups and related matters. The Rutgers statement said that all members of the Rutgers community, including faculty and staff, are free to express their viewpoints in public forums as private citizens.
But it added that "Chikindas' comments and posts on social media 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 Rutgers statement added that despite the policy allowing its staff to be free to express personal viewpoints, at Rutgers University, they "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 his role as a faculty member at Rutgers may have violated that policy," the Rutgers statement said.
The Hillel statement also made note that another Rutgers professor, Jasbir Puar, will be publishing a book accusing Israel of what amounts to a modern blood libel.
"Each of these incidents gives voice to traditional racist, anti-Jewish tropes," the Hillel statement said. "They both reflect and contribute to trends in our society in which the expression of extremism and prejudice have become common place and even acceptable."
Puar, an assistant professor of Women's and Gender Studies, became notorious in early 2016 when during a talk at Vassar College, she combined queer theory and Foucault's biopolitics in a blood libel with regards to Israel claiming that Israel holds the Palestinians in a limbo of debility, "maiming" but not killing them so as to extract their resources indefinitely. Outrage went viral and Puar was quiet for a while, but she is releasing a book — "The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability" — on Nov. 3 in which these blood libel concepts are further expanded.
In her new book's forward, it states that "This book is dedicated to the fortitude of the Palestinian people, the imminent liberation of Palestine, and whatever new worlds and struggles that may bring."
In the book, published by Duke University Press, she outlines her theories on other sensitive issues connected to the campus, including that of the suicide of gay Rutgers student Tyler Clementi in 2010 and in her words, "a vicious anti-Asian backlash" that followed due to the fact that the instigators of the surveillance incident that led to his suicide were Asian.
Last Wednesday, Rutgers-New Brunswick Chancellor Debasish Dutta met with Getraer and Senior Associate Director Rabbi Esther Reed about the antisemitic matters.
Dutta assured the two that the university "takes this issue very seriously and that there will be accountability," according to the Hillel statement.