Campus, state, and religious leaders stood up at Rutgers University to support each other against a torrent of hateful actions against religious and ethnic communities triggered by fears of terrorism and a divisive election season.
The Stand Up for the Other Rally, held Nov. 1 at the Douglass College Center in New Brunswick, concluded with the words of Ryan Mellody of the Catholic Student Association, who said that “while interacting with members of my own faith, ethnic, or gender community or with others, if I hear hateful comments from anyone about members of any other community, I pledge to stand up for the other and challenge bigotry in any form.”
This is the second year that such rallies, originally initiated by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, have been held internationally; the Rutgers event was cosponsored by 25 universities and statewide interfaith, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian organizations.
Jacob Toporek, executive director of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations, said the importance of student and community organizations collaborating “cannot be overstated,” calling it “a vital teaching lesson in the development of the hearts, minds, and ideals of our young adults at a time when they begin to mature and set their path to the future.”
The event was also a kick-off for the 2016 International Muslim-Jewish Season of Twinning.
Walter Ruby, the foundation’s Muslim-Jewish programs director, said although the presidential election produced “bigotry and fear-mongering in the air,” regardless of the outcome it was imperative that “New Jerseyans of all religious backgrounds vow to stand up for each other in the weeks and months ahead.”
Said Rabbi Esther Reed, senior associate director at Rutgers Hillel, one of the sponsoring organizations, “It is extremely important to bring diverse people together to unite as one. While there are ideas we disagree about, we can all agree to respect our fellow human beings and stand up when others don’t show that respect.”
To that point, Dr. Mohammed Ali Chaudry, president of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge and cofounder of the NJ Interfaith Coalition and the NJ Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee, said those gathered should, among other efforts, refuse to tolerate bigoted jokes.
In his keynote address, state Attorney General Christopher Porrino said although people often view his office as a law enforcement entity, it is also an agency that protects the rights of those targeted because of their race, religion, disability, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.
Porrino said he takes seriously “our challenge to confront” hatred and bigotry, and when confronted by them “to push back peaceably, but to push back hard.”
“What we do at the attorney general’s office is to stand up for the other,” he said. “Our mission at its core is really to stand up for the other.”
Porrino said his office’s Division of Consumer Affairs goes after crooked investment scams that cheat people out of their money and unscrupulous doctors, while its Civil Rights Division enforces “one of the strongest and most robust” anti-discrimination laws in the nation.
He said when a young Muslim woman inquired on the phone about an Elizabeth apartment, the landlord told her to come by, but when she showed up wearing a headscarf, “the landlord’s enthusiasm was gone.” Porrino said that, as they’ve done in other similar housing discrimination cases, his office sent in undercover agents and filed a complaint.
“When the TV cameras showed up [the landlord] continued to insist this young woman was part of ISIS and I was part of that conspiracy,” he said. “This case was important because it allowed us to stand up for an alleged victim of bigotry. No one should have to conceal their religion to find a place to live. No one should have to hide the color of their skin to find a job.”
State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Dist. 20) grew up in Elizabeth, where his Catholic school basketball team played teams from the city’s Jewish Educational Center. “I was welcomed with open arms,” he said, whenever he would go to the Jewish day school to shoot hoops.
Lesniak now lives in a Muslim neighborhood in Elizabeth and described his neighbors as peaceful and hardworking. He said he was dismayed that the media did not report that 120 Muslim organizations distributed a sketch of then-unidentified Ahmad Rahami, charged in the September bombings in Seaside Heights and Manhattan, asking anyone recognizing him to contact law enforcement.
Omar Khan and Gilana Levavi of Rutgers Salaam/Shalom stressed the importance of dialogue at the university, noting that Rutgers has the largest number of both Jewish and Muslim students of any campus in the country.
“One of the things I love about Rutgers is its diversity,” Khan said. “The problem is most of us tend to stay in our own communities.”
Steven Gutkin, deputy director of the state Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, said that New Jersey “is the most diverse state in the United States…. It is a strength that only makes us stronger when we are united as a community.”