December 13, 2023

N.J. congresswoman asks college heads to fight antisemitism on campus

U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-11th Dist., wrote to the presidents of more than 40 of New Jersey’s colleges and universities Monday, urging them to address the rise of antisemitism on campus.

“Jewish students report feeling targeted by faculty and their fellow students, being threatened verbally and physically by student activists, and harassed with hurtful antisemitic tropes,” Sherrill wrote in a letter obtained by NJ Advance Media.

Noting that she is ready to work with them to reflect New Jersey’s values, she asked, “What is your institution doing to ensure your students are free from harassment and bullying on campus? How do you ensure hate speech does not dissuade free speech in your public squares? And how do you ensure a free exchange of ideas without sowing division?”

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul sent a similar letter to college presidents on Saturday.

The letter comes in response to Congressional hearings last week where the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology gave what many considered inadequate answers regarding how they are protecting students from violent rhetoric following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. On Saturday, the president of Penn, Liz Magill, resigned.

In her letter, Sherrill, a Catholic member of the House Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Antisemitism, said that while she shares the leaders’ deep commitment to student freedoms of speech and assembly, there is little ambiguity around one central tenet: “Antisemitism is hatred, without exception; threats of genocide against Jews are violent, no matter the context, and it was disturbing to see these leaders equivocate on their responses,” she wrote.

Addressing the New Jersey college heads, she wrote, “When Jewish students and Muslim students alike are afraid for their safety, it is more important than ever that you stand up with the strong message — hatred has no place on a college campus.”

The presidents were quick to respond.

“Hate speech has no place on any of our college campuses or anywhere in society,” said Andrés Acebo, interim president of New Jersey City University. “Our Jewish and Muslim communities deserve a safe haven where there is never an excuse for anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, and we must all remain vigilant against bigotry.”

Michael Bernstein, interim president of The College of New Jersey, said, “To date, we have resisted sweeping generalizations that characterize some political rallying cries as hate speech. We have instead been focused on engaging students in thoughtful dialogue aimed at promoting a greater understanding of the complicated issues at play in the Middle East.” He added, “The safety of our students, faculty, staff, and guests is always our primary consideration.”

According to a Montclair State University spokesman, President Jonathan Koppell has clearly and publicly denounced antisemitism and told the community that antisemitic and anti-Muslim hate speech does not meet the school’s expectations of appropriate discourse.

“Demonstrations have been staffed by a significant police presence, both for the safety of those demonstrating and those voicing opposition, but in such a manner that does not impede free speech or disrupt teaching and learning,” said spokesman Andrew Mees. “President Koppell and university leadership have directly engaged in dialogue with affected communities, both on and off campus.”

Rutgers spokeswoman Dory Devlin said the school will respond directly to Sherrill, “making it clear that we reject absolutely intolerance based on religion, national origin, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability, or political views.” She said the school agrees with Sherrill’s letter and looks forward to working with her “to assure that our university is free from antisemitism and all forms of hate and intolerance.”

Commenting on the letter, Wassim Kanaan, chair of the New Jersey chapter of American Muslims for Palestine, said it was concerning that organizing on behalf of Palestinians is being equated with antisemitism.

“We are against Jewish hate,” he said but noted that in the hearings and elsewhere, critics of antisemitism are using coded language.

“That gives legitimacy to allegations that Palestinian organizing by students on campus creates a dangerous environment for Jewish students,” he said, adding that polls have shown that the majority of Jewish young adults are not uncomfortable with Palestinian students organizing. He said he had discussed his concerns with Sherrill many times.

“This rhetoric and these actions bring real impact and harm against the students,” he said, noting that some Palestinian student organizers are afraid to share their names for fear of getting doxed and harassed. “It’s heartbreaking to see them struggling.”

Last Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-5th Dist., who, like Sherrill, is considered a potential candidate for the 2025 governor’s race, urged Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway not to “provide a bully pulpit” for a seminar on the New Brunswick campus called “Race, Liberation, and Palestine: A Conversation with Noura Erakat, Nick Estes, and Marc Lamont Hill.” Gottheimer called Estes and Lamont Hill “well-known antisemites.”

“Rutgers is a community of diverse ideas; we value academic freedom’s protections that allow our faculty and invited guest lecturers to state their views and engage in lively discourse,” Rutgers spokeswoman Dory Devlin said in response to Gottheimer’s letter.

The seminar the next day drew about 100 people in person and more online.

NJ Advance Media staff writer Brent Johnson contributed to this report.