The headline on the conservative news website WorldNetDaily was as compelling as they come: “Rutgers bars Jews from anti-Zionist gathering.”
Days earlier, the conservative blog Atlas Shrugged had exhorted readers to protest the pro-Palestinian presentation at Rutgers University, whose organizers the blog described as “Holocaust Deniers and Islamic Supremacists.”
But conversations with students and others who attended the January 29 event paint a far murkier picture. While pro-Israel students complained that event organizers initiated a sudden change in their admissions policy as a way to keep out Jewish protesters, the event’s supporters alleged that the protesters misrepresented the nature of the gathering in public calls to action, and that their protest grew ugly and threatening.
The upshot was a classic showdown of charges and countercharges over the use and abuse of the Holocaust in contemporary debates over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“It was a disturbing situation,” said Jordan Kutzik, a Rutgers senior and Rutgers Hillel member who described being afraid to leave the room in which the event was taking place because of the pro-Israel protesters shouting outside.
The Saturday evening event was a stop on a multi-city tour titled Never Again for Anyone, sponsored by three pro-Palestinian organizations: the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, Americans for Muslims in Palestine and the Middle East Children’s Alliance. The Rutgers stop featured two Jewish Holocaust survivors and a Palestinian survivor of the 1948 massacre at Deir Yassin, where at least 100 Arab men, women and children were killed by right-wing Zionist militias.
The purpose of the event was not to deny the Holocaust, but “to show that all human suffering is equally deplorable,” said Hoda Mitwally, a Rutgers senior who is a spokesman for BAKA: Students United for Middle Eastern Justice, a student group that helped coordinate the event. “That one people’s suffering should not be used to justify another. And that all should be equally condemned.”
In the days leading up to the event, Rutgers Hillel contacted Jewish federations, Jewish community relations councils and synagogues across the region, asking for support in opposing the event, which fell during the same week as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“I wanted to say that that’s not true — the Holocaust is worse than what is going on in the Palestinian territories,” said Aaron Marcus, a self-identified conservative campus activist who was among the organizers of the protest. “It doesn’t mean that what’s going on in the Palestinian territories isn’t tragic,” he said. “But to compare it to the Holocaust is just outrageous.”
A letter circulated to the members of at least one local synagogue and signed by Rutgers Hillel executive director Andrew Getraer began: “We are facing a crisis at Rutgers.” The letter went on to allege that the event “trivializes the systematic murder of 11 million people in the Holocaust, including six million Jews,” It asked volunteers from off campus to come and protest the event.
Kutzik said he spoke with protest attendees who believed that they were there to oppose Holocaust denial.
Contacted after the event, Pamela Geller, who runs the Atlas Shrugged blog, defended her description of the organizers as Holocaust deniers. “It is Holocaust denial to equate” the Nazi genocide with the treatment of the Palestinians, she said.
The planned disruption of the presentation by the Hillel-led group resembled tactics that have recently been deployed by anti-Israel protesters at pro-Israel events. According to Rutgers Hillel associate director Rabbi Esther Reed, Jewish students planned to enter the event wearing hidden T-shirts bearing the slogan “Don’t Politicize the Holocaust.” The students were to sit near the front of the room, wait until one of the Palestinian speakers began speaking, and then stand, reveal the shirts, and walk out, according to Reed.
Marcus disputed the notion that their planned protest was similar to high-profile disruptions of speeches by anti-Israel protesters, most prominently a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren in February 2010 at a California university. In that incident, protesters shouted at Oren, significantly delaying the talk.
“We never wanted to stop anyone’s free speech. We didn’t want them to stop their event,” Marcus said. “A walkout isn’t really trying to stop an event from taking place; it’s merely to show that there are people here to disagree with what they’re saying.”
In the end, the planned walkout didn’t take place. After some students had already entered the hall, the national groups that had organized the evening decided to charge a $5 entrance fee for what had been billed as a free event.
Medical student and Rutgers Hillel member David Gendelberg said that Sara Kershnar, co-coordinator of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, told the crowd already gathered in the room that the organizers had decided to charge an entrance fee after they saw the protesters arrive. But Kershnar denies speaking to the crowd at all, and said that the decision to charge entrance fees was brought about because of unforeseen expenses, including the extra security necessitated by the protests.
The Jewish protesters saw the sudden move as a way to keep them out, since paying the fee would force them to support the sponsoring organizations financially.
Claims in the WND report that students wearing yarmulkes were barred from entering were contradicted by participants who saw people wearing yarmulkes at the event.
Whatever the reason for the change in policy, it’s clear that the atmosphere quickly grew heated.
“There were many, many rowdy and unruly protesters,” said Daniel Heitner, a Rutgers sophomore and a member of the Rutgers Hillel who volunteered to help with security at the event. Heitner said that he saw a man whom he recognized as a member of the Hillel call the women working at the registration table, who wore hijabs, “terrorists and suicide bombers.”
The female students who were the alleged targets of the slurs could not be reached by press time.
Getraer said that he had been told of an apparently separate incident during the event, when a woman who was not a student had berated a Muslim woman in a hijab. “That is 100% counter to what Hillel stands for, and to what we asked” of the people attending the protest, he said.
But Getraer said that the crowd grew angry only after the organizers’ fee policy was changed. “I think the responsibility for that falls on the organizers,” he said. He charged that they were not sufficiently prepared for the event.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.