Rutgers denies claims in anti-Semitism probe

U.S. Dept. of Education pursues ZOA grievance over on-line incidents

Rutgers University is denying claims, contained in a federal probe, that it failed to address anti-Semitic incidents on campus.

University officials replied Monday to reports that the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is pursuing claims made by the Zionist Organization of America. The ZOA charged in a complaint first filed in July that Rutgers failed to address “the hostile anti-Semitic environment” on campus or that it properly investigated a university administrator who threatened and bullied a Jewish student.

“The claims by the ZOA are contrary to the true values of Rutgers University and are not supported by the facts,” said spokesperson E.J. Miranda in an e-mail response to NJJN. “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.”

The OCR is investigating a ZOA complaint alleging the university is in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, requiring that recipients of federal funding ensure their programs are free from ethnic and racial discrimination, including anti-Semitism.

In its complaint, the ZOA charged that Shenaz Sheik Abdeljaber, outreach coordinator for the Rutgers Center for Middle Eastern Studies, made anti-Semitic comments to a columnist for the student newspaper, The Daily Targum.

It alleges she called Aaron Marcus of West Orange “a racist Zionist pig” and encouraged other students to leave comments on Facebook disparaging him, and threatened and bullied him on other occasions. NJJN previously tried contacting Abdeljaber on numerous occasions, without response.

The ZOA also alleged that another student threatened Marcus on Facebook, saying he wanted to “see [Marcus] beat with a crowbar.” Several of his Facebook “friends” indicated they “liked” his sentiment. However, in an April e-mail to NJJN, the student said the post, which had already been taken down, was made out of frustration with the ongoing conflict between the two sides. He said he apologized to Marcus.

Marcus, who previously told NJJN he has also been verbally threatened many times for his pro-Israel views, said last April that he had filed a complaint with the university, which was not addressed within the 24 hours required by the institution’s guidelines. He also filed a police report and a bias incident report with the dean of students involving the student who had threatened him on Facebook.

“Rutgers hasn’t done anything to stop this type of language,” he said last April. “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.”

The ZOA asserted that when the dean finally contacted Marcus more than a month later it informed him there were insufficient grounds to formally charge the student. The offender was given a “warning event,” though Rutgers’ student code of conduct states that threatening to use force against another person is prohibited and could lead to suspension or expulsion from the university.

In a June 29 letter from university president Richard L. McCormick to the ZOA, which was provided by Rutgers, he reiterated an earlier stance that “the university cannot comment on the behavior of individual students or any personnel matter. Federal and state laws limit the university’s ability to release this information.”

ZOA also charged that the admission fee for a January event sponsored by “the vicious anti-Israel student group” BAKA: Students United for Middle Eastern Justice was “selectively enforced” in violation of university policy prohibiting false advertising, in an effort to prevent those who appeared to be pro-Israel or Jewish from attending. The OCR, however, is not pursuing this claim.

OCR opened its investigation on Oct. 26, according to a report in The Huffington Post.

The ZOA complaints came after a period since 2010 in which pro-Palestinian groups on campus staged various events that some Jewish and pro-Israel groups claimed crossed the line from confrontational to hostile.

Morton A. Klein, ZOA’s national president, and Susan B. Tuchman, director of its center for law and justice, welcomed the investigation.

“We strongly praise OCR for recognizing that the harassment, intimidation, and discrimination that Jewish students have been subjected to at Rutgers merits the government’s scrutiny,” they said in a Dec. 2 statement. “We urge the agency to thoroughly and vigorously investigate Rutgers’ response to campus anti-Semitism; the ZOA will assist in any way we can, so that Jewish students there will be assured the kind of campus environment that every student deserves — one that is physically and emotionally safe and conducive to learning.”

However, without denying the seriousness of the charges surrounding the Marcus incident, some Jewish leaders said Rutgers is nevertheless a campus with a strong and secure Jewish population.

Hillel president Zeke Pariser, an Orthodox Jew from Teaneck who wears a kipa, told NJJN, “In my three-and-a-half years at Rutgers, I have never experienced any anti-Semitism, and it’s pretty obvious I’m Jewish.”

Pariser said that included a willingness among administration and professors to work around Jewish holidays in scheduling exams and other academic requirements.

“I’m not saying that this incident did not happen — and if it did, the university needs to take appropriate action,” he said. “But I hope it’s not being perceived as representative of the culture at Rutgers. That is my concern, and if that’s how it’s being viewed, that’s just not accurate.”

The university’s Jewish student population jumped from 6,000 to more than 7,400 this year, according to Rutgers Hillel director Andrew Getraer. The New Brunswick campus Chabad House is undergoing major expansion and Hillel is raising funds to build a new center (see Related Article).

“We feel this issue is about one student in particular, and it’s a serious issue that needs to be addressed, but it is not representative of the experience of 99 percent of the Jewish students for whom Rutgers is a warm and welcoming place,” Getraer told NJJN.

However, he said, the university did not live up to its responsibility in that it did not address the situation with Abdeljaber and did not let others know how it was handled.

“One incident of bias is one too many, but we shouldn’t lose perspective,” Getraer said.

ZOA complaints have also triggered ongoing federal investigations at the University of California at Irvine, University of California at Santa Cruz, and Columbia University.

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