The US to Gaza Initiative and the Hillel Controversy at Rutgers

Last night I attended a fundraiser for the US to Gaza mission that intends to bring humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza.  It was an incredible success.  About 350 mostly young people had crowded the hall, most of whom stayed on past 10 pm to listen to the invited speakers.

The presence of so many students who had chosen to attend the event despite intimidation by those claiming to represent Rutgers Hillel was truly heartening.  Colonel Ann Wright, who was one of the featured speakers, said that this was one of the largest and most well attended of such fundraising events she has been to.

This speaks volumes to the potential that exists right now to build a genuine grassroots movement that will not be bullied and that will stand up against the inhumane conditions that the people of Gaza have had to endure under Israel’s blockade.

Hillel’s line of attack was predictable.  In a press release Andrew Getraer, the executive director of Rutger’s Hillel, argued that there were “serious legal issues” involved.  First on the list was the claim that the “blockade runners will attempt to deliver goods, services or technical assistance to Hamas, a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).”

This is a standard rhetorical ploy: trot out the bogeyman of Hamas in order to obscure and paper over the horrendous conditions under which Palestinian people in Gaza live.  In fact, the press release does not once make reference to these conditions and why it is so urgent and important to raise money for this humanitarian crisis.  Instead, it asserts that “Hillel is vehemently opposed to this event.”

Which leads me to ask: what kind of person would oppose an event that tries to bring much needed aid to people who are suffering from malnutrition, lack of access to clean water, inadequate housing and health care facilities, and massive unemployment?

International agencies from the UN to various human rights groups have documented the impact that Israel’s blockade (begun in 2007) has had, shedding light on the extent of the crisis.  A recent report by the United Nations Development Programme explains:

The blockade [has] resulted in the closure of most of the manufacturing industry, which was deprived of materials and export markets, and led to a surge in unemployment which currently stands at 40%.  John Holmes, the United Nations Emergency Relief Co-ordinator, described the blockade as “collective punishment” of the civilian population of the Gaza Strip.  The blockade has created shortages in a number of critical items and constrained the rights of Gazans to education, health, shelter, culture, personal development and work.

The Red Cross recently pointed out:

The closure imposed on the Gaza Strip is about to enter its fourth year, choking off any real possibility of economic development.  Gazans continue to suffer from unemployment, poverty and warfare, while the quality of Gaza’s health care system has reached an all-time low.  The whole of Gaza’s civilian population is being punished for acts for which they bear no responsibility.  The closure therefore constitutes a collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law.

“The closure is having a devastating impact on the 1.5 million people living in Gaza”, said Béatrice Mégevand-Roggo, the ICRC’s head of operations for the Middle East.

Why would anyone be opposed to efforts to not only bring aid to Gazans but also challenge the blockade?  As many commentators have pointed out, it is the blockade that is illegal and not efforts to challenge it.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a leading figure in the South African struggle against Apartheid as well as a UN envoy, called it “a siege” and a “gross violation to Human Rights.”

Yet, none of this is worthy of mention in Getraer’s press release.  There is neither empathy nor compassion for the plight of the 1.5 million men, women, and children who live in what is nothing less than a prison camp in Gaza.

Getraer’s second line of attack has to do with the environment for Jewish students at Rutgers.  He criticizes BAKA (Belief Awareness Knowledge and Action) for not only organizing this fundraising event but for holding other events as well on campus that he alleges “contribute to creating an environment that is becoming increasingly anti-Israel, and supportive of terrorist organizations, such as Hamas.”  One of the events that he lists, a talk by Prof. Gilbert Achcar on Nov. 10th, has been organized by me.

This line of attack is also utterly predictable and is in line with the now well-established argument that criticisms of Israel’s policy are unacceptable and are automatically anti-Semitic.  And in this instance apparently automatically supportive of “terrorist organizations” as well.

In making these unfounded charges against BAKA, Getraer claims to represent and speak on behalf of the 6000+ Jewish students at Rutgers.  He ends the press release by stating that his aim is to ensure that the atmosphere at Rutgers “remains a safe one for pro-Israel students.”

This is truly a despicable accusation and one made in bad faith.  Neither myself nor any of the students that I know in BAKA would ever participate in creating an unsafe environment for Jewish students.

Hoda Mitwally, a leading member of BAKA, who has worked with me as a research assistant for the last two years is an outstanding person.  She is extremely well read, thoughtful, and compassionate — to paint her and others like her in BAKA as attempting to create an “unsafe” atmosphere is insulting.

Perhaps Getraer might have spent a little more time talking to the people he is attacking, or for that matter talking to the Rutgers Jewish student body to elicit their opinions before putting out a press release that has now drawn national media attention.  If he had done so, he might have found that his views don’t strike a chord with everyone.

For instance, Avi Smolen, a former president of Rutgers Hillel, wrote a letter to the Rutgers campus newspaper the Daily Targum offering his support for the BAKA fundraiser.  In the letter titled “Allow BAKA event to continue,” Smolen takes on all the points raised by Getraer and refutes them, stating at the outset that the blockade of Gaza “violates international law.”

He adds:

Some people will also be quick to say that this event will be “anti-Israel.”  First, this “pro” and “anti” dualism is rarely useful in any case.  If a U.S. citizen doesn’t support the war in Iraq, is she “un-American” or is she simply expressing her views on a single issue?

Second, the aim of the event is to challenge the actions of Israel in enforcing a blockade against Gaza.  I recognize Israel’s positive movement in easing the restrictions on Gaza, but the blockade does still exist, and those who disagree with it have every right to protest it.

Smolen is not a lone voice among the young Jewish American students who attend Rutgers University.  If anything, he is part of a new generation that is open to having an honest discussion about Israel and its policies.  As Peter Beinart in an article in the New York Review of Books points out, today’s younger generation of liberal college-age Jewish students have “imbibed some of the defining values of American Jewish political culture: a belief in open debate, a skepticism about military force, a commitment to human rights.”  He adds that, “in their innocence, they did not realize that they were supposed to shed those values when it came to Israel.”

Beinart also states that “several studies have revealed, in the words of Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College and Ari Kelman of the University of California at Davis, that ‘non-Orthodox younger Jews, on the whole, feel much less attached to Israel than their elders,’ with many professing ‘a near-total absence of positive feelings.'”

Smolen has some good words of advice at the end of his letter.  He states: “I encourage all current University students, faculty and staff for whom this issue is meaningful to speak about it openly and with compassion for people with different viewpoints.  If we listen to one another, instead of shouting past each other, we may understand each other better and find a way to work together for the common good.”


In the face of what is now universally recognized as a horrendous humanitarian crisis in Gaza, I urge the Rutgers administration to permit BAKA to donate the money raised yesterday for the US to Gaza initiative and not give in to Getraer’s pressure tactics.  In my view, this is simply the right thing to do.

Deepa Kumar is an associate professor of Media Studies at Rutgers University.  This article first appeared on her blog

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