A very important statement was made this month at Rutgers University, a campus that has witnessed anti-Semitism from a tenured professor and troubling anti-Israel incidents during the past year.
Rutgers is a state-funded public university, meaning that the voice of state legislators who manage the state budget uniquely reign louder than even the prospective donations withheld by infuriated Jewish alumni, as they would at private colleges.
Fundamentally understanding that basic premise in a world without term limits dramatically increases the importance of our local elected officials as they voice their intolerance of intolerance, and publicize the visible relationships that they have within a Jewish communal structure that always is in need of such powerful alliances.
In early May, the Simon Wiesenthal Center held a ribbon-cutting ceremony on the Rutgers University Campus Hillel House for our renowned exhibition, “People, Book, Land — the 3,500 Year Relationship between the Jewish People and the Holy Land.” The exhibit, which already has been displayed on four continents, from Tokyo to Buenos Aires, from the Vatican to the Knesset, from the House of Commons in London to Capitol Hill in Washington, traces the 3,500-year love of a people for its land.
The exhibit is co-sponsored by Israel, the United States, Canada, and UNESCO. And yes, that’s the same United Nations agency whose member states pass resolutions denying Jewish links to the holy land and against the state of Israel.
The exhibit itself was not the only headline we can get from its opening day at Rutgers. What stood out as well is that on a state-funded campus that has experienced much in the way of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel issues over the past several months, was the presence of the state Senate majority leader, the deputy speaker of the state General Assembly, and a host of representatives from each of those legislative bodies.
Those dignitaries, standing purposefully in front of cameras and the university’s president, helped to cut the symbolic ribbon and make their positions reverberate in a fashion that only those filled with vitriol against us possibly could ignore.
Such a demonstration of continuing support and solidarity against anti-Jewish hate speaks volumes. Such an event did not occur in the midst of a crisis, but after campus officials had dealt with the anti-Jewish incidents. The importance here is a robust message of Jewish self-pride and a teaching moment for the entire university community.
I was truly impressed as Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, provided a guided tour of the exhibit to Rutgers President Robert Barchi, and no one rushed through it. Barchi stayed, asked questions, and made comments for well over 20 minutes. I am certain that the extension of his stay was based on one thing and one thing alone — the presence of the legislative and thereby financial power upon which the university survives. Nevertheless, Barchi deserves praise for recognizing the significance of the moment and not shirking from it.
Equally significant was the presence at the ribbon cutting of Rutgers University students such as Miriam Waghalter and others, who took upon their young shoulders the responsibility of taking action in the face of anti-Semitic actions on campus and in their midst.
This group of proud Jewish students created a petition circulated among the student body and beyond, garnering more than 4,000 signatures in a matter of days and thereby compelling the administration to deal immediately, substantively, and seriously with the dramatically offensive behavior undertaken by members of its faculty.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center and its partners at the event ensured the projection of two simple yet definitive messages — we will never be silent when anti-Semitism rears its ugly head, and the students who are brave enough to fight back never will be alone.
The exhibit is just one of the many tools that the Simon Wiesenthal Center regularly employs to help create positive events, such as an opening or ribbon cutting, both to educate and at same time to productively empower Jewish communities facing adversity both on hotspot campuses and beyond them.