By Larry Yudelson
New Jersey Jewish Standard
On Friday, two months after a blog called IsraeliCool first reported the anti-Semitic social media habits of Rutgers professor Dr. Michael Chikindas, the university’s leaders announced that they were taking action.
While Jewish groups welcomed the action, they called on the school to take a stronger stance against attacks on Jews. They plan on continuing to put pressure on the university to heed their concerns, which also involve two other faculty members the Rutgers administration did not condemn last week.
In a letter sent Friday to Rutgers faculty members, University President Robert Barchi and Chancellor Debasish Dutta announced four steps the school will take concerning Dr. Chikindas.
He will no longer teach required courses, so students can avoid him.
He has been removed as director of Rutgers’ Center for Digestive Health at the Institute for Food, Nutrition, and Health. “No Rutgers employee will be required to work in an administrative unit that he heads,” the Rutgers leaders wrote.
Dr. Chikindas also “will be required to participate in a cultural sensitivity training program, and will be subject to ongoing monitoring if and when he returns to the classroom.”
Finally, the university is seeking further disciplinary actions, which could include a semester’s leave without pay and possibly dismissal. Under the school’s policy for tenured faculty members, if the university president wants to fire Dr. Chikindas, he would have to convince a five-member faculty panel that the professor is guilty of “failure to maintain standards of sound scholarship and competent teaching,” “gross neglect of established University obligations appropriate to the appointment,” or “incompetence.”
According to the letter, “A fundamental expectation of a university is to provide an environment in which students can learn, discover their passions, and do research free from fears of discrimination, harassment, or disruption.
“So, too, should our faculty and staff expect a professional environment that is welcoming and free from discrimination.
“Earlier this fall, Michael Chikindas, a Rutgers–New Brunswick tenured professor, was found to have posted extensive bigoted, discriminatory, and anti-Semitic material on social media. This material perpetuated toxic stereotypes and was deeply upsetting to Jewish students, faculty, and staff across our community. The fears and concerns they have expressed to us and many university leaders are both justified and understandable.”
“This is a good first step,” Rutgers freshman Miriam Waghalter said.
In October, Ms. Waghalter launched an online petition calling on Rutgers to “to take swift and necessary action to suspend Professor Chikindas, pending further investigation.”
Ms. Waghalter, who is from Los Angeles, is the president of Scarlet Knights for Israel, a student-run campus Israel advocacy organization. (The Scarlet Knights is the school’s nickname for its athletic teams.)
“I think more can be done, but it’s understandable that the university wants to be meticulous in making sure they’re not violating his First Amendment rights or anything,” Ms. Waghalter said. “Hopefully, as the administration continues its investigation they will take more action on this matter.”
She will continue to seek a meeting with the university president.
Rutgers Hillel issued a statement praising the administration actions toward Dr. Chikindas as “significant and welcome steps.” But it noted the continuing problems posed by Jasbir Puar, who accused Israel of “what amounts to a modern blood libel,” and Mazen Adi, who spread anti-Semitism as a spokesman for the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.
“It is imperative that University leadership exert whatever moral authority is has and condemns anti-Semitism in its midst, including the anti-Semitism voiced by Professors Puar and Adi,” Hillel’s statement said. “Even if the University lacks the will or ability to take action against these professors, it has a moral responsibility to reject the messages of hate for which they stand.”
Similarly, off-campus Jewish groups have no plans to stop the pressure. “I think there was a lot of pressure on Barchi, and finally he had to cave on what was right,” said Jason Shames, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
“But this is not satisfactory to us,” he continued. “It’s in a vacuum. There needs to be a more comprehensive plan that doesn’t allow hate rhetoric to fly under the First Amendment or tenure. Our patience is shot. The anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist rhetoric has got to be called out and people need to be aware of it.”
Mr. Shames is a member of a working group established by the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations to coordinate a response by statewide Jewish leaders. Jacob Toporek, the association’s executive director, said the group wants a meeting with the Rutgers leadership.
“We have to talk about what is the best approach to prevent” anti-Semitism from faculty members, “and if something does occur in the future, how to take steps so there is the least amount of conflicts,” Mr. Toporek said. His group wants to work with Rutgers “in setting guidelines to ensure that Rutgers remains a welcoming place for Jewish students.”
Gordon Haas, president of the State Association, said that the group has been “working sort of behind the scenes to get some action, through people on the board of Rutgers and various people who have influence.
“You can see from Friday’s statement that something changed the president’s mood.”
Mr. Haas said that the community previously had effected change on the campus. “At one time Rutgers was one of the most virulently anti-Israel campuses in the country,” he said. “With the help of the Israel Action Network” — a division of the Jewish Federations of North America that the State Association again is consulting with — “we brought in Israeli professors, and Rutgers became a model of how to counter BDS.”
The BDS push was caused by students, he said. But “now, this is not the students. This is three members of the faculty.”
A week and a half ago, on Wednesday, December 6, local elected officials told Dr. Dutta that were upset by the three faculty members’ overt anti-Semitism. Dr. Dutta already had scheduled a meeting with State Senator Loretta Weinberg of Teaneck and State Assemblyman Gordon Johnson of Englewood, as part of an effort to meet lawmakers he began his job as chancellor on July 1.
The first thing Dr. Dutta heard from those legislators was their concern over anti-Semitism.
Dr. Dutta told them that “we’re an equal opportunity campus,” Mr. Johnson reported. “He said, ‘I’m new on the campus. I will get back to you.’”
Rutgers is a public state university. While the governor appoints only a minority of board members, “they get funding from the state,” Mr. Johnson said. “They want to be partners with state legislators.
Mr. Johnson said that he advised the chancellor to set up a meeting with the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “I was so impressed with what they’re doing in teaching tolerance from all ethnicities,” Mr. Johnson said; recently, he had visited the center’s Manhattan office.
As it happened, the Wiesenthal Center had met repeatedly with students on campus in the past months. “We want the students who are active fighting hate on campus to feel they have Jewish institutional allies helping them in whatever way possible,” Michael Cohen of Englewood, the Wiesenthal Center’s eastern director, said. Mr. Cohen has met with some Jewish professionals on campus.
And the Wiesenthal Center also made a federal case about Rutgers. Or, more precisely, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the center’s Los Angeles-based director of global social action, brought it up last month when he testified before the House Judiciary Committee, talking about anti-Semitism on campuses across the country. He showed the members of Congress an enlarged copy of a Facebook post by Dr. Chikindas that blamed hook-nosed Jews for everything from cancer to the Internet.
The Judiciary Committee hearing was about the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, which would define anti-Semitism for the purpose of applying existing federal anti-discrimination laws, including those that regulate universities.
Rabbi Cooper called on Congress to adopt the definition of anti-Semitism used by the State Department. This defines as anti-Semitism language that “demonizes” Israel, meaning “[u]sing the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism to characterize Israel or Israelis, drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis, blaming Israel for all interreligious or political tensions.”
That State Department definition, Rabbi Cooper said, “offers an important tool for clarifying when legitimate criticism of Israel crosses the line into anti-Semitism.”
The new definition, he said, would allow the Department of Education to defend students who are harassed for their support of Israel. “In the dozen years since the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights committed to investigating anti-Semitism under Title VI,” Rabbi Cooper said, “OCR has not found a single civil rights violation in any claim filed on behalf of Jewish students on college or university campuses.
“Given the frightening levels of harassment that Jewish students have experienced on several U.S. campuses, why have all of the Title VI complaints filed on their behalf been rejected by the OCR, while many of those made on behalf of their peers been successfully resolved?
“It all boils down to a definition — or the lack of one,” he said.
Cooper’s testimony, and a similar plea from the Anti-Defamation League, were not the only view the Judiciary Committee heard last month. Kenneth Stern, who helped draft the State Department language when he was an official with the American Jewish Committee in 2004, said he opposed codifying the definition for use by the Department of Education. He argued that a standard set up for diplomats should not be applied to students who are testing boundaries. The committee has not yet acted further on the bill.
Even if Congress does not act on the bill, it’s possible that the Department of Education will adopt the standard on its own. The Trump administration has nominated a strong advocate of the State Department definition, Kenneth Marcus, to lead the education department’s Office of Civil Rights. Mr. Marcus now heads the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a nonprofit that has taken a lead role in fighting campus anti-Semitism using the State Department definition.
That makes it likely that as the Jewish community continues to push Rutgers on the issue, it soon will have the strong support of Washington on its side, possibly determined to set new legal precedents.
In short: While Michael Chikindas has been disciplined, the case of Rutgers and the anti-Semitic professors has only begun to play out.