Israel at center of free speech debate at two NJ campuses

Israel at center of free speech debate at two NJ campuses

Rutgers Hillel calls Syrian apologist on faculty a ‘national embarrassment’

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Mazen Adi, adjunct professor at Rutgers, served in Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Mazen Adi, adjunct professor at Rutgers, served in Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Suddenly, two New Jersey college campuses have become battlegrounds for two very different fights facing Jewish students when it comes to the fraught issue of Israel.

One battle, at Princeton, is being waged inside the Jewish student population, pitting pro-Israel students vs. others who oppose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing coalition. The other, at Rutgers University, has Jewish students on one side angrily denouncing what they call an anti-Jewish adjunct professor, and former Syrian diplomat, against an administration citing academic freedom.

Less than 20 miles apart, the two schools are now testing grounds for the stress placed on Jewish students as they try to negotiate a campus environment where anti-Semitism and Israeli politics collide.

According to a report on the Algemeiner website, Mazen Adi, an adjunct professor in Rutgers’ political science department, served in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for 16 years, including representing the country as a diplomat in the United Nations. During a 2012 Security Council meeting, Adi said (according to an official translation) that “international gangs led by some Israeli officials are now trafficking children’s organs.” 

Adi, who was initially hired by Rutgers in 2015, teaches international criminal law, political science, and United Nations and global policy studies. A petition by UN Watch on — which had more than 4,000 signatures at press time — called for Rutgers to fire Adi, but so far the administration has refused, citing academic freedom and free speech. In a statement, Rutgers said it “will not defend the content of every opinion expressed by every member of our academic community, but the University will defend their rights to academic freedom and to speak freely.”

In a blistering statement in which he called the decision to retain Adi “a national embarrassment,” Rutgers Hillel Executive Director Andrew Getraer said, “There are no doubt, Arab, Yazidi, Druze, or other students at Rutgers whose own relatives were murdered by the government for which Adi was a spokesman and apologist. How must they and their families feel knowing this man is now a Rutgers ‘educator?’”

The Hillel statement urges the university to “condemn Adi’s former statements as the mouthpiece of the murderous Syrian regime” and “to investigate the process by which a man like Mazen Adi was hired in the first place.”

Adi, who did not respond to a request for comment, worked for Syria’s foreign ministry in a variety of positions between 1998 and 2014. In the role of diplomat and legal adviser at the Permanent Mission of Syria to the United Nations in New York, he often defended and justified the regime’s war crimes. His university bio mentions his diplomatic background but omits his association with Assad.

Rutgers freshman Miriam Waghalter of Los Angeles told NJJN, “I do not think that it is right for him to be employed here as he represents ideals that are antithetical to the standards that we set at Rutgers.” 

In an op-ed she and sophomore Austin Altman of Livingston wrote for the Daily Targum, the Rutgers student newspaper, they ask, “should an ‘apologist for … mass murder’ be given the platform to speak freely in the context of a political science class about anti-corruption while being so blatantly a part of it?” The piece continues, “The University defends its decision to hire him based off of ‘his expertise in international law and diplomacy, and other fields.’ However, is genocidal diplomacy the type of politics that we want taught in our University? Where is the line drawn?”

Critics at Rutgers are linking the revelations about Adi to anti-Semitic social media posts by a second Rutgers faculty member, microbiologist Michael Chikindas, who posted or shared messages on his Facebook page that embrace traditional anti-Semitic tropes from cartoons of hook-nosed Jews to conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the world. Both Chikindas’ posts and Adi’s words “reflect and contribute to trends in our society in which the expression of extremism and prejudice have become common place and even acceptable,” Getraer wrote in Hillel’s statement.

But as Shelley Stangler, a Springfield attorney specializing in employment, education, and civil rights law explained, professors cannot be fired simply because something they’ve said is considered repugnant. 

“These are very sensitive moral, ethical and political issues that do not align with the legal issues regarding terminating a professor,” she said in a telephone conversation with NJJN. Although she has no knowledge of Adi’s contractual relationship with Rutgers, she said, “he has a right to freedom of speech and the university cannot retaliate against him for that speech, even if his views are abhorrent.” 

Still, there are boundaries. For example, she said, a university can demand professors meet certain standards of research and accuracy in their work and in their statements. 

“Would a university have to retain a Holocaust denier? I don’t think so,” said Stangler, not because those views are offensive, but because they are false. If those views create a hostile environment in the classroom, she said, students have the option of refusing to go to class or of undertaking other nonviolent opposition. 

“But this professor has certain constitutional rights that we all have and there is tremendous conflict about this now in our country,” she said. “But it’s not that easy to fire him.” The question it raises, she said, is “At what point does speech become so offensive, so grossly out of line, that you can let him go?”

While some Jewish campus organizations have offered statements, others have stayed out of the fray. StandWithUs declined to comment; CAMERA did not respond to inquiries.  

Across the state, Princeton University was also under the microscope on an issue related to academic freedom and Israel, after Princeton Hillel canceled an address planned by Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, the day before she was set to speak. Hotovely is a self-described “religious right-winger,” and opposed to a Palestinian state. 

Hillel withdrew her invitation in response to a petition by the student-run Alliance of Jewish Progressives which accused Hotovely of being a racist, and in a statement executive director Rabbi Julie Roth said that in the future Princeton Hillel “will refine our procedures to learn from this experience.”

Ultimately Hotovely was able to speak after Princeton Chabad agreed to sponsor the event, and Hillel International CEO, Eric Fingerhut, and Roth apologized to the deputy foreign minister, admitting they made “a mistake.” 

“Unfortunately, we did not treat the Israeli deputy foreign minister with the respect that her office deserves,” they wrote, adding that “Hillel International stands squarely behind the value of hearing from the Jewish state’s elected leaders.”

Princeton’s Alliance of Jewish Progressives, however, said the Hillel’s about face was a clear double standard.

“We disagree with this policy and its potential for unqualified censorship and want to point out [Princeton’s Center for Jewish Life’s] hypocrisy in applying its policy only to left-wing speakers,” the group wrote in a statement. “By drawing attention to this policy over the past few days, we have tried to highlight its failures, not to increase censorship on campus.”

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