Rutgers students face “bias” probe for flyers criticizing Israeli home demolitions

SJP member Amanda Najib delivers a mock eviction notice at the Rutgers University campus in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Syjil Ashraf

Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, is under investigation by campus administrators after complaints of “bias.”

One Zionist group has alleged that SJP specifically targeted the dorm rooms of Jewish students on the New Brunswick, New Jersey campus with mock “eviction notices” designed to draw attention to Israel’s practice of demolishing Palestinian homes.

But this claim has been contradicted by the university in a statement to The Electronic Intifada.

A campus rabbi has even demanded that SJP be “disbanded” by the university to set an “example.”

The “bias” investigation comes after the university has already issued a written warning to SJP that it violated school policy by posting the flyers without prior approval from administrators.

The claims are only the latest in a long-running effort by pro-Israel advocates to paint Rutgers University as hostile to Jewish students.

Action to raise awareness

Activists have used mock eviction notices on several campuses to draw attention to Israel’s demolitions of Palestinian homes.

Syjil Ashraf

“Last Sunday night, October 6 Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) board members printed mock eviction notices and distributed them in dormitory buildings,” Students for Justice in Palestine — Rutgers New Brunswick explained in a statement emailed to The Electronic Intifada.

“This action was intended to call attention to the systematic demolition of the homes of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and Israel. Since 1967, approximately 27,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished by Israel, as estimated by the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.”

Last week, The Electronic Intifada published a photo story of Khirbet al-Makhul, a Palestinian community of 120 people in the occupied West Bank, demolished to make way for a live-fire training area for the Israeli army.

In August, Human Rights Watch urged Israel to “immediately end unlawful demolitions of Palestinian homes and other structures,” noting an alarming increase in the number of Palestinians made homeless in eastern occupied Jerusalem since last year.

“Our completely fake notices caused no harm. It is Israel’s very destruction of Palestinian homes and the confiscation of Palestinian land that these notices were intended to draw attention to that continues to cause harm to millions,” Rutgers SJP added.

Bogus allegation Jews targeted

Andrew Getraer, executive director of the pro-Israel advocacy group Rutgers Hillel, told the Daily Targum, the campus newspaper, that “We had many students who came to us who were very upset when they received eviction notices, who felt harassed, who felt that they have been deceived and made to feel targeted and unsafe in their dorm rooms, and … We directed them to the appropriate deans … There were several students who filed complaints.”

Getraer claimed that “in some cases, Jewish students were targeted and explained how some students came to Hillel stating how they were the only student who received a flyer on their floor.”

SJP at Rutgers denied this, explaining the measures it took to avoid the possibility of bias accusations:

We posted the notices under many doors on different floors of student dormitories and residence halls. We chose doors at random, aiming to maximize the number of people who would be viewing the notice, with one exception: we intentionally avoided the Hillel building and Les Turchin Chabad House, locations with many, if not exclusively Jewish, residents. This was done to avoid the possibility that Jewish students would feel that they were singled out or targeted.

A university statement appears to support SJP’s account and contradict the claims of Hillel’s Getraer.

“The flyers were distributed randomly to about 800 students and the university is in the process of reviewing a student complaint arising from the incident,” university spokesperson E.J. Miranda wrote in an 11 October email to The Electronic Intifada.

Identical claims that Jews were targeted have been made in other cases where campus Palestine activists distributed mock eviction notices, including at Harvard University and Florida Atlantic University.

Florida Atlantic confirmed there was no evidence Jewish students were targeted and declined to take punitive action.

The claim that Jews were targeted at Harvard appears to have been fabricated by Israel’s far-right Arutz Sheva website.

Call to disband SJP

Pro-Israel groups have been swift to condemn the SJP educational effort and to call for official retribution.

Rabbi Esther Reed of Rutgers Hillel told the Targum that she found the flyers “alarming and reprehensible” as well as “factually inaccurate,” complaining that they “vilified Israel.”

Rutgers Hillel also released a formal statement condemning the flyers, stating that they made “students feel unsafe in their homes.”

Another Hillel official, Rabbi Akiva Dovid Weiss, opined on the incident for Arutz Sheva, calling on Rutgers to ban SJP to set an “example for all others”:

[No] student in this university ever will feel safe until they know that university groups that engage in this kind of behavior will be unconditionally disbanded, since actions that compromise the emotional safety of our students within the privacy of their own residences cannot be tolerated and have no place on our campus.

The flyers were also condemned by anti-Palestinian and anti-gay activist group Christians United for Israel (CUFI) on the conservative news site The Blaze, which stated that “We focus on the real debate as opposed to theatrics.”

Bias investigation

The Targum reported on 11 October that complaints had been filed with the bias committee, and that committee, which “deals with the content in the flyers,” in turn alerted the Office of Student Life, which oversees student organizations.

Kerri Wilson, director of student involvement, told the Targum that SJP “was found responsible for violating student involvement posting policy for the residence halls,” resulting in a written warning over the unauthorized distribution of the flyers.

“We have faith that the Rutgers community and administration will recognize that our cause is important, not only to the Palestinians, but to the humanitarians in all of us,” the Rutgers SJP statement said in reference to the complaints.

“Students for Justice in Palestine is proud to be at Rutgers University, and we will not — should not — be silenced.”

Bias complaints are handled by the university’s Bias Prevention Education Committee which includes a “Response Team” made up of deans of students and a “Bias Prevention Education Advisory Team.”

The Bias Prevention Education Advisory team Team is co-chaired by Hillel Rabbi Esther Reed herself.

It is unclear whether she would play any role in the investigation, given her organization’s advocacy for Israel and her own prejudicial public statements regarding the flyers.

Rutgers Hillel has itself come under attack for promoting bias on campus. In 2003, sixty professors signed a statement expressing “growing unease to the role [Rutgers] Hillel has recently come to play in the promotion of the extreme right on campus.”

Then, as now, Getraer was executive director.

As recently as 2012, Rutgers Hillel has hosted Israeli soldiers who have personally participated in the military occupation of Palestinian land and justified killings of Palestinians.

Rutgers targeted

The allegations of “bias” at Rutgers are only the latest in a series of attempts to portray the campus as a hostile environment for Jewish students as a result of Palestine solidarity activism.

Rutgers is the subject of a 2011 complaint to the US Department of Education by the Zionist Organization of America under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, alleging pervasive anti-Semitism on campus.

A similar tactic has been used by various Zionist groups in an effort to suppress Palestine solidarity activism on other campuses.

But three similar complaints against the Berkeley, Santa Cruz and Irvine campuses of the University of California were recently thrown out by the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, in what has been seen as a major victory for free speech.

While the Rutgers case is still pending before the Office of Civil Rights, university officials have dismissed the allegations as “factually inaccurate and significantly distorted.”

Gregory S. Blimling, the university’s vice president for student affairs, told the Chronicle of Higher Education in April 2012 that the issues raised in the complaint were not about anti-Semitism, but disagreement over Israel’s policies.

“There are people on both sides of that debate,” Blimling said, “who would like to have the other side of that argument not have the same freedoms they do.”

While Blimling may believe that, the indisputable fact is that only anti-Palestinian groups have resorted to legal measures to try to silence criticism of Israel on campus.

Faculty “frightened”

The attack on Rutgers has already affected the right of students to freely learn and talk about the question of Palestine.

Junior faculty are too afraid to even discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in class, according to Professor Charles G. Häberl, 2009–12 director of the Rutgers Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

“They are frightened to say anything about these issues, especially since they don’t have the shield of tenure to hide behind. And I don’t blame them,” Häberl told the Chronicle.

Anti-Palestinian groups are likely to consider that a success.

Full statement from Rutgers SJP

SJP Rutgers Statement on Controversy Surrounding Distribution of Mock Eviction Notices on Campus

October 14, 2013

Last Sunday night, October 6 Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) board members printed mock eviction notices and distributed them in dormitory buildings at Rutgers New Brunswick. This action was intended to call attention to the systematic demolition of the homes of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and Israel. Since 1967, approximately 27,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished by Israel, as estimated by the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. The facts about Palestinian home demolitions included on the mock eviction notices are all true and substantiated by human rights organizations, as well as international bodies such as the United Nations and International Court of Justice.

For more than 65 years, successive Israeli governments have used home demolitions to displace the native Palestinian population of the region in order to create and maintain a Jewish-majority state and to “Judaize” certain areas. In 1948, Israeli forces expelled approximately 750,000 Palestinians from their homes during the state’s creation, systematically destroying more than 400 Palestinian population centers in the process, while since 1967 and the start of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, Israel has destroyed more than 27,000 Palestinian homes in the occupied territories. According to the United Nations, in just the first nine months of 2013 alone, 862 Palestinians were made homeless by Israeli home demolitions. These facts about home demolitions, and those contained in the mock eviction notices, are all accurate and substantiated by internationally respected human rights organizations. Just a few weeks ago, both the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and Human Rights Watch condemned Israel’s policy of demolishing Palestinian homes, with the latter noting that it amounts to a “grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention.” (For more information on home demolitions, see here.)

We posted the notices under many doors on different floors of student dormitories and residence halls. We chose doors at random, aiming to maximize the number of people who would be viewing the notice, with one exception: we intentionally avoided the Hillel building and Les Turchin Chabad House, locations with many, if not exclusively Jewish, residents. This was done to avoid the possibility that Jewish students would feel that they were singled out or targeted.

The fake eviction notices were just that–fake. The notices clearly stated that the eviction was not real and was authored by SJP, saying “We thank you for taking the time to read this mock eviction notice and would like to invite you to find out more information.”

This peaceful, quiet demonstration is not unprecedented. It originated with student activists at New York University and has spread to other schools across the country, including Harvard, Yale, San Diego State, and Florida Atlantic University. This action is part of our long-term mission to draw awareness to a human rights issue that affects the global community on many levels, including social, psychological, humanitarian, and economic.

The Palestinian-Arab refugee and displaced population is the largest in the world, and forced evictions are one of the milder methods used to achieve this. It cannot, thus, be truthfully denied that for 65 years now, the Israeli government has oppressed and traumatized the Palestinian people by means of racial discrimination, ethnic cleansing, illegal settlement and colonization, forced military occupation, apartheid, and more. Thousands of Palestinian men, women, and children have been killed since the beginning of this conflict, and Palestinian refugees and their descendants number in the millions.

Rutgers University has a strong history of student protests and being the voice for those whose cries have fallen on deaf ears. We are proud to uphold this tradition that is fundamental to what it means to be a student at this university as well as a citizen of this nation. The First Amendment protects our right to free speech at a public university - especially speech about one of the most urgent international human rights issues of our time. This is a college campus, the quintessential marketplace of ideas, where vigorous debate about serious problems is part of the educational experience. Free Speech is sometimes controversial and upsetting to some; it would be worthless if it were not. But as was recently noted by the U.S. Department of Education in dismissing complaints against campuses like Rutgers alleging that pro-Palestinian activism creates a hostile environment for Jewish students, “[i]n the university environment, exposure to robust and discordant expressions, even when personally offensive and hurtful, is a circumstance that a reasonable student may experience.

Our completely fake notices caused no harm. It is Israel’s very destruction of Palestinian homes and the confiscation of Palestinian land that these notices were intended to draw attention to that continues to cause harm to millions. We hope that those who received and read them were given more insight as to the plight of the Palestinian people after being put in their shoes for just a few seconds.

We have faith that the Rutgers community and administration will recognize that our cause is important, not only to the Palestinians, but to the humanitarians in all of us. We ask for your support not only in our fundamental right to freedom of speech, but also in fighting for Palestinian liberty, justice, human rights, and self-determination. Students for Justice in Palestine is proud to be at Rutgers University, and we will not– should not– be silenced.

In solidarity,

Students for Justice in Palestine–Rutgers New Brunswick

Note: On 14 October, Rutgers SJP published a more detailed version of the statement it initially sent to The Electronic Intifada. The new version contains more details about house demolitions. This post was updated on 15 October with the later version of the statement.

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Comments

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The audacity! They actually have a different view than him! The very fact that there are people with different opinions is just mind-boggling. I haven't been this surprised since I found out the secret to living a long and healthy life, is by breathing.

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While the Zionists haven't been terribly successful at officially disbanding SJP chapters, they've been successful at making the lives of members difficult enough that many chapters fold as their leadership graduates. Underclass students see the audacious challenges faced by the leadership and simply give up. So disheartening.

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When we founded the SJP at Rutgers a few years ago we faced the same kind of harassment and bullying as this generation (actually, we were personally targeted, threatened in anonymous emails, publicly defamed online and in the newspaper, and physically intimidated on campus) - all because we put on "controversial" (read: "outspoken") events and fundraisers for Palestine. The distress we felt was much worse, and we hardly got a tenth of the attention.

We were not the first group at Rutgers to put our necks on the line for Palestine - and thankfully nor were we the last!

If any self-proclaimed activist/organizer seeks to speak truth to the American-Zionist establishment s/he should be aware: you are on the front lines of the fight at universities like Rutgers, Columbia, and NYU. The upside at Rutgers is that the administration is VERY supportive (not because they are "pro-" Palestinian or "anti-"Zionist; but because they actually scrutinize the cases in front of them), and they can see through fabricated stories despite the weight that Zionists pull on campus.

A word to the wise, organizers: On US campuses with a strong Zionist presence (as it happens in Palestine on a much wider scale), you will be infiltrated by seemingly genuine individuals; you will have to sacrifice your grades, classes, and job; and you will be alienated from classmates the more you speak out.

The tactic that the Hillel Director uses is so very familiar to how Israel handles its PR strategy (tell outright untruths/fabrications and demonize those who sympathize with Palestinians). But the time I was at Rutgers was the most power I had as a Palestinian to speak my mind--in Jordan, in Palestine, in the private sector-- I cannot do now what I did at university.

Enjoy these moments and act to the fullest while you can.

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We're lucky we live in a society where you can file complaints about eviction notices, FAKE nonetheless. Unfortunately, the Palestinians don't have this right.

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as a rutgers alumnus i feel nothing but shame. i lived in palestine and taught at the arab university Jenin. i lived through the apartheid discrimination and embargoes of food and heating oil in the winter. no meat in the butcher shop. no vegetables at the grocers. i ate mostly macaroni cooked in a microwave and my only heat was an old tube TV. despite being a native NYer, i stood on line at checkpoints for hours while those with Jewish Israeli plates never even slowed down. Daily, jets broke the sound barrier at tree top level. Constantly the sound of military helicopters and tanks all around.

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.