Rutgers University has denied charges by the Zionist Organization of America that it has failed to address “the hostile anti-Semitic environment” on campus or that it improperly investigated a university administrator who threatened and bullied a Jewish student.
“Rutgers has a long tradition of working with and supporting the Jewish community, and the university has gone to great lengths to facilitate meaningful dialogue and promote civility,” said the university in a statement provided to NJJN on June 30 in response to the charges.
“We will continue to support students of faith and defend the rights of our students, faculty, and staff to express their opinions openly.”
In a June 27 letter from ZOA president Morton Klein, the organization criticized the response of Rutgers president Richard McCormick to various incidents, most involving a Jewish columnist for the campus newspaper, The Daily Targum, who complained that he had been targeted and physically threatened for expressing his pro-Israel views.
In a school year in which pro-Palestinian groups held a series of anti-Israeli events on campus, ZOA charged Jewish students have received “physical threats and [been] made to feel intimidated and unsafe.”
The ZOA also claimed McCormick “whitewashes and ignores” anti-Semitism on campus.
Much of ZOA’s complaint involves Aaron Marcus, the columnist.
According to the ZOA, the university allegedly failed to properly investigate incidents involving the conduct of Shenaz Sheik Abdeljaber, outreach coordinator for the Rutgers Center for Middle Eastern Studies.
ZOA cites an incident in which Abdeljaber posted a message on Facebook referring to Marcus as “that racist Zionist pig” and directing Facebook users to read other comments disparaging Marcus.
In his April 26 response, provided to NJJN by the ZOA, McCormick said the university “is well aware of each of these incidents and has worked diligently to address them throughout the course of the academic year.”
“The First Amendment limits the ability of Rutgers, as a public university, to discipline its students for intolerant statements,” added McCormick. “In light of this, our purpose is to respect Constitutional principles while encouraging civil discourse and educating members of the Rutgers community about the potentially harmful effects of the intentional or misguided expression of insensitive and destructive prejudices.”
Moreover, university officials have met with leaders of Rutgers Hillel and Rutgers Chabad to address concerns.
‘Ensuring the future’
Marcus, in a phone conversation with NJJN, said he was so displeased by Rutgers’ response that he is considering legal action against the university and has been in contact with several members of Congress who have shown interest in pursuing the matter.
“Rutgers hasn’t done anything to stop this type of language,” said Marcus, who will be a senior in the fall. “It basically created this blanket statement that this Middle Eastern studies department official has a First Amendment right to her opinion. They’re right about that, but not if it comes at my expense.”
Marcus claimed the university was in violation of its own policy banning discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender, religion, ethnicity, or political affiliation. He and the ZOA also believe Rutgers may be in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which requires recipients of federal funding to ensure their programs and activities are free from racial and ethnic discrimination, including anti-Semitism.
The ZOA has invoked Title VI on a number of campuses.
Marcus said he does not believe the university properly investigated Abdeljaber and that she has since tried to get him removed from the paper because she felt it “published too many pro-Israel articles.” However, the Targum has stood by him, and Marcus said he would continue as a columnist.
Abdeljaber has refused numerous requests for comment by NJJN.
“It’s not about me anymore because after all that has happened, I don’t think it will happen to me again,” said Marcus. “I want to make sure it doesn’t happen to other pro-Zionist and Jewish students who care about Israel but are intimidated and threatened by other students and staff. This is about ensuring the future of the Jewish community at Rutgers.”