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Community unites as ‘church’ pickets

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Members of Westboro Baptist Church protested outside The Jewish Standard’s office in Teaneck on Wednesday. JOSH LIPOWSKY

A handful of members of the Westboro Baptist Church descended upon northern New Jersey Tuesday and Wednesday picketing Jewish organizations and some schools and other public buildings.

The openly anti-Jewish and anti-gay organization began its New Jersey tour on Tuesday with visits to the former office of the New Jersey Anti-Defamation League, the JCC of Metrowest in West Orange, and the United Synagogue of Hoboken. On Wednesday the group protested at Rutgers University Hillel, the Kosherfest showcase at the Meadowlands Expo Center in Secaucus, the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey in Paramus, and The Jewish Standard in Teaneck. The group had also scheduled stops at Elizabeth High School, New Brunswick High School, and Dickinson High School in Jersey City.

Fred Phelps created the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., in 1955. The organization is primarily made up of his children and grandchildren. It regularly stages protests around the country, appearing at military funerals and public events to promote its anti-homosexual agenda. Since April, the WBC has made Jewish organizations one of its main focuses.

Law enforcement groups as well as the Anti-Defamation League encouraged the targeted organizations not to counter-protest and to simply ignore WBC.

“It’s quite clear from Westboro Baptist Church — they don’t argue on this point — they simply seek publicity,” said Etzion Neuer, director of New Jersey’s ADL. “Counter-protests generate more media interest and give the church more opportunities to have their activities broadcast to the larger public.”

United Synagogue of Hoboken agreed with the advice and decided not to respond, said Rabbi Robert Scheinberg. Approximately 30 counter-protesters gathered across the street from the WBC picketers Tuesday evening, though the synagogue played no role in organizing them.

“We felt the proper response for our community — which was a decision many organizations have made — was not to counter-demonstrate,” he said. “It was a case where the head overruled the heart.”

Scheinberg praised local police for keeping the WBC and counter-protesters orderly. At no point did anyone inside the synagogue feel threatened, he said, nor were synagogue functions disrupted.

“I’m grateful to live in a country where there’s free speech,” Scheinberg said. “I’m happy to let the judicial system sort out where the line is between protected speech and incitement to violence.”

At Rutgers, students organized a massive counter-demonstration Wednesday morning that drew between 1,000 and 1,200 people, according to police estimates — far overshadowing the half-dozen WBC protesters. Initially, Hillel was going to take a hands-off approach, but after the protest received coverage in the student newspaper last week, students began organizing through Facebook. Hillel decided to take the lead and turn the rally into a show of unity at Rutgers, said Andrew Getraer, the organization’s executive director.

“The campus environment is very different from a local synagogue or JCC in that there are tens of thousands of people here who can do what they feel is necessary,” he said. “Once students spontaneously began to organize, the option of ignoring [WBC] and denying them publicity was no longer an option.”

The rally was more a display of unity among the school’s different religious and ethnic groups than a direct counter to WBC, said 19-year-old Sam Weiner, the son of Rabbi Arthur Weiner of the JCC of Paramus.

“It was amazing to see that many students from all different cultural, religious, and ethnic divisions come together in a Rutgers Hillel coalition to unite against the hatred that this group is espousing,” he said.

“We made this rally about Rutgers University,” he added. “This event was not about giving Westboro Baptist Church attention. This was about drawing attention to the fact that RU can stand united against hate.”

After about 20 minutes, WBC moved on to its next target, in Paramus. Instead of congregating across the street from UJA-NNJ’s building as originally planned, the organization moved to Century Road, closer to Yeshivat Noam.

WBC failed to disrupt daily business at the federation or the schools, and Joy Kurland, head of UJA-NNJ’s Jewish Community Relations Council credited the policy of non-engagement and the support from local police.

“Their support and assistance in lending whatever they could to alleviate our fears … were clearly evident from the beginning of the process,” she said. “They were phenomenal as far as … keeping everything under control.”

Four protestors appeared early Wednesday afternoon on Teaneck Road, near the Standard’s office. A small group of reporters showed up as well, to interview WBC members. The Standard chose not to speak with any member of the WBC and issued a statement on how it balanced its duty to report the news with recommendations not to give the group publicity.

“It’s news when a Jewish institution is picketed,” the statement noted, “and this is a newspaper. We debated how to handle the situation and decided to give them the least coverage possible. Although they demonstrated near our building, we followed the ADL’s advice and did not engage with them. It was not easy to withhold our natural repugnance toward these people but we felt it was important not to give them a larger stage. We also wish the wider media would not give them a platform for their hate.”

Neuer praised the wider community — Jewish and non-Jewish — for uniting in the face of WBC. Paramus Mayor James Tedesco visited the JCC of Paramus during the protest Wednesday, and UJA-NNJ received a letter of support from the Episcopal Diocese of Newark.

“The hateful words of the Westboro Baptist Church were met by a message of respect and tolerance and by opportunities to educate our community about this group,” Neuer said.

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More than 1,000 students, led by Sam Weiner, son of Paramus’ Rabbi Arthur Weiner, rallied at Rutgers Wednesday morning in a show of unity against the Westboro Baptist Church. Courtesy of Sam Weiner
 
 

Israeli Deputy Consul Krasna reflects on time in Teaneck

Benjamin Krasna, Israel’s deputy consul general in New York, has fond memories of the past five years living in Teaneck. But when he returns home next month at the end of his appointment, there is one thing he definitely will not miss.

“The hardest part of the challenge for me was the daily commute,” he said, noting that sometimes he would spend hours trying to cross the George Washington Bridge. Still, the pluses outweighed the minuses for him, his wife Sharon, and their three children, who found the modern-Orthodox lifestyle of Teaneck and day schools of Bergen County a good fit.

“Teaneck worked,” he said. “It was a very, very good match for us — in spite of the George Washington Bridge.”

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After five years as Israel’s deputy consul general in New York, Benjamin Krasna is returning to Israel next month.

But with such an active and Israel-focused Jewish community, Krasna’s became a 24/7 job. At Cong. Keter Torah, where the Krasnas were members, congregants would often express their opinions on Israel’s policies and offer Krasna advice.

“You’re in a situation where every Shabbat is another hasbara challenge,” he said.

Balancing a job like that with family life can be a challenge, but Krasna said he made his choices strike that balance.

“You work very hard to protect Shabbat and Sunday … so you can do normal Sunday things — coaching soccer, going to Little League games, things like that,” he said. “If I decide on this day I need to be at my kid’s party at school, then fine, I’ll go and do that. I’ll make the time. You have to find those moments to free the time up for them as well.”

As the Jewish state’s No. 2 man in New York, Krasna has been responsible for keeping a bead on national Jewish groups and how they interact with Israel. Rather than simply responding to requests for information or appearances, Krasna took a proactive approach. He has spent more time than any of his predecessors, he said, visiting smaller communities outside the metropolitan area.

Literally the day Krasna first arrived in New Jersey, his government was uprooting thousands of Jewish settlers from Gaza under the disengagement plan. Then came the capture of three Israeli soldiers, the Second Lebanon War, Operation Cast Lead, the election of America’s first black president, two elections in Israel. Also, the Giants won the Super Bowl and the Yankees won the World Series (again). But, he complained, “the Knicks didn’t get any better.”

One question in particular has become routine at every event, no matter who the sponsor is, and it’s a question Krasna will not miss answering.

“And that was about Israel’s PR,” he said. “I think Israel does a very good job. We make strong efforts to make people know about the multifaceted nature of Israel, Israel beyond the conflict.”

As PR successes, he pointed to the worldwide consensus on Iran, widespread support in Congress, and a recent Gallup poll that indicated more than 60 percent of Americans support Israel — a level not seen since the 1991 Gulf War.

“We have to understand also that sometimes being the stronger in the conflict means that public sentiment may lean a little towards the weaker,” Krasna said. “The fact of the matter is I still don’t want to be the weaker, I want to be the stronger. If I look at the level of understanding there was during the war in Lebanon — publicly in America — or during the war in Gaza, we basically had public opinion on our side to take the action we needed to take.”

Many point to Israel’s delay in releasing footage from the Mavi Marmara — that showed activists attacking Israeli soldiers — as a publicity misstep. Krasna quickly disagreed.

“It was a conscious decision taken to delay the release of some of the photographs and footage,” he said. “We paid a PR price for that. You have to remember when an operation is ongoing — literally, ships are still at sea, soldiers are still there — we have other considerations that come first regarding the safety of our soldiers. You need to successfully bring this operation to a conclusion.”

One area where Krasna would like to see more emphasis is Israel education of high school students. Much has been made in recent years about the college campus as the latest battleground for Israeli public relations. Krasna, however, believes that battle needs to begin long before students get to campus.

“If our kids don’t feel comfortable enough in their own skins as pro-Israel advocates, their choice is going to be to avoid confrontation,” he said. “They don’t have the arguments and they don’t want to be faced with a case where somebody’s going to confront them.

“That’s why we need to invest in education before they get there.”

Today’s youth — and Krasna’s generation, as well, he noted — can take Israel’s existence for granted because they never knew a world without the Jewish state.

“We all run the risk of taking for granted the fact that we live in a world with the State of Israel, which is a better world because of the State of Israel. We’re all a generation born into it,” he said. “Israel is not just Ben Yehuda [Street], or the Inbal Hotel [in Jerusalem], or nightlife in Tel Aviv. Israel is battles that were fought, people who sacrificed, and things we can be proud of.”

Krasna grew up in a Zionist home in Forest Hills, Queens, and made aliyah with his family when he was 11. Although his family returned to the United States a few years later, Krasna formed a lifelong connection with the Jewish state and, after completing a bachelor’s degree in Middle East studies at Rutgers in 1986, he returned to Israel for his mandatory military service.

He left Israel again to complete a master’s degree in international relations at Johns Hopkins University. And when he returned to Israel, he got his first diplomatic break — in the form of a newspaper ad calling for diplomats. He applied and was accepted.

Starting in 1997, he served as Israel’s deputy consul general in Istanbul, as the spokesman of the Israeli embassy in The Hague, and specializing in the Multilateral European Institutions Western European Division of the Ministry in Jerusalem.

And what’s next for the career diplomat?

“Home,” he said. “Home is to enjoy a house that I bought before I came here and haven’t had a chance to live in yet. Home is seeing my kids reacquaint themselves with Israel — in the case of my youngest … seeing him acquaint himself with Israel.”

As he prepares to head home, Krasna has but one lingering regret.

“I’d be more careful about what I ate at these [gala] dinners. A smorgasbord is a very dangerous thing,” he said. “As a general rule I chose the carving station over the sushi every time.”

 
 

Tyler Clementi’s death: A Jewish perspective

 

ADL targets cyberbullying in the wake of Rutgers suicide

Neuer says electronic abuse is a growing phenomenon

When 18-year-old Rutgers student Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22, he may have been responding to cyberbullying, says Etzion Neuer, the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey regional director.

“It’s something that can have tragic and devastating results,” he said.

According to Neuer, Middlesex County Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan has not made a final decision on how to charge students Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, who used a hidden webcam to broadcast a same-sex encounter by Clementi, a Ridgewood resident. The prosecutors’ office is seeking to determine if the perpetrators targeted Clementi because of his perceived sexual orientation.

“If so, a prosecution on hate crimes charges could be part of a strong and effective outreach and education effort to deter future such bullying,” said Neuer.

But whether this is labeled a bias crime is not the main issue, he added. While the case may involve homophobia, “it appears that the perpetrators committed this [act] without any regard for the consequences, and that speaks to the general problem with cyberbullying and misuse of the Internet.”

“Many young people spend so much time on the Internet, yet they have no sense that there are real-world consequences to their actions,” he said, adding that “parents have to work very early on with children on this issue, and it doesn’t end with high school.”

Defining cyberbullying as “intentional harm inflicted through electronic media,” he called it a growing phenomenon, as increasing numbers of young people engage in e-mail, texting, chatting, and blogging “as a central part of their social life.”

With that use comes an increase in the misuse of these technologies to “bully, harass, and even incite violence.”

Neuer said that according to the Cyberbullying Research Center, this kind of abuse affects between 20 percent and 50 percent of all United States teens.

He is not surprised, he said, given the stories he has heard from students during ADL school workshops addressing the issue.

Calling educating against cyberbullying a natural part of ADL’s mission, Neuer said “it may be motivated by prejudice, hate, or bias, based on factors such as race, religion, or sexual orientation.” But “whether related to identity-based group membership or more universal characteristics such as social status or appearance, the cruelty can produce devastating results,” he said.

The New Jersey director said that over the past several years, the ADL has developed interactive workshops for students from elementary through high school.

“While we’re known primarily in the Jewish community as being the go-to group on anti-Semitism, we’ve also had a broader mission dealing with bigotry and stopping hatred of all sorts,” he said, pointing to ongoing anti-bias programs, such as those on cyberbullying for administrators, educators, and students.

Neuer said that some students have told him “chilling” stories. “It’s so disturbing,” he said, that “many of them seem resigned to it, so they’re not reporting it.”

While those students who attend the ADL workshops seem to be helped by the program, “we often feel like it’s just a drop in the bucket. Especially with the electronic media, [we feel] we’re playing catch-up as we respond.”

Parents and administrators should not feel overwhelmed, he said, since “there are steps to put in place and ways to make improvements.”

 
 

There’s no place for bullying in God’s world

 

Frisch team studies a tiny plant with a big impact

The science of sequencing: Decoding duckweed genes

Every living thing has a genetic blueprint, called a genome, that determines how the organism is structured and how it works. The genomes of plants and animals are made up of billions of chemical subunits called base pairs, strung together in a sequence unique to each creature. Base pairs are the letters of the genetic alphabet, arranged differently for each gene, like the chapters of a book.

The Human Genome Project has led to the decoding of more than 3 billion base pairs found in human beings. The genomes of other animals, plants, and microorganisms have also been decoded. But the Wolffia australiana (duckweed) genome is still largely unknown, hence the goal of this project is to sequence and analyze, gene by gene, the base pairs of the tiny plant. Some of those genes are similar to those found in other plants and animals and some are used by the plant for its unique functions.

For the Waksman Student Scholars Program, Rutgers scientists have taken DNA from the plant and used special enzymes to connect it to DNA from bacterial cells. The hybrid DNA can be carried by bacteria, which can be grown in large amounts. The bacteria are grown on petri dishes, and the colonies carrying plant DNA are called clones.

These clones are provided to the WSSP high schools for further study. The Frisch School’s science department chair, Mindy Furman, and her students began to study the clones by making many copies of the duckweed DNA inserts using PCR (a procedure commonly used in forensic labs to make millions of copies of DNA). The students measured the plant DNA pieces with gel electrophoresis. Any clones found to have a big enough piece of duckweed DNA are sent back to Rutgers for decoding the genetic letters, that is, DNA sequencing.

“You insert your DNA into a well and you run electrical current through it and it pulls down the DNA,” explained Jennifer Ledner of Paramus. “We compare it to a ladder of identified DNA fragments, where you know the size. If it’s too small you won’t be able to learn anything from it.”

“We deal with the actual base pairs of the DNA,” said Ben Sultan of West Orange. “My clone had an insert of 790 base pairs. It’s interesting that we are studying the building blocks of the duckweed.”

At Rutgers, DNA sequencing is performed to read the genetic alphabet of each student’s clones. Since plants and animals can have billions of genetic letters, the information is catalogued, organized, and processed using computer programs. The genetic sequences, in the form of graphs called waveforms, are sent back to the students for further study.

DNA base pairs are strung together in each gene like letters in a language. And like most languages there are also punctuation marks, which can be found in the genetic narrative. When the students receive the sequence data for the clones, they can use a computer program called DSAP (DNA Sequence Analysis Program) to find these punctuation marks, showing the beginnings and ends of the genes. They can also use computer analysis to determine what the proteins, produced by genetic instruction, might look like.

In addition, students will compare the sequence of their clones to other genetic sequences in a vast database, maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, or NCBI. According to NCBI’s website, the database contains the genetic sequences from more than 800 organisms, including plants, animals, and microorganisms, from bees and bacteria to zebrafish. Using very powerful computer programs they will be able to answer questions such as: “Is your sequence similar to sequences found in any other organism?” and “What is the function of your gene?”

Hannah Lebovics and Ariana Schanzer, both 16-year-olds from Englewood, accompanied Furman to the WSSP training institute in July.

“We sequenced four clones each and analyzed what proteins they code for, how it can improve our knowledge and understanding of duckweed, and how it can help us,” said Hannah.

“We had noncoding regions and we had coding regions,” said Ariana, referring to types of DNA they studied. “A seemingly negative result [that did not match the database] … could mean you found a new gene,” she added. The students working on this project could discover duckweed genes that look and act like genes found in other plants and animals, or genes that were novel, i.e., brand-new discoveries.

One example of a gene the two girls studied in the summer workshop was one that works in mitochondria, the cell structures found in all plants and animals that provide energy for the cell. “We found proteins that were also found in humans and other organisms, that were important for mitochondrial transport and removal of copper,” Ariana reported.

“It’s a necessity for all living organisms, so it should be important,” she concluded.

Ariana, Hannah, and their classmates are now studying a new set of clones, a process that can take months from start to finish. They are patiently pursuing the project, step-by-step, hoping to contribute to the understanding of the duckweed genome and how it can be used to help humankind.

 
 

Frisch team studies a tiny plant with a big impact

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Studying a tiny plant, the duckweed, are, sitting, Rachel Reichner and Eric Tepper; standing, Katie Fishbein and Ben Sultan. Aaron Keigher

A recent report by The National Academies, the nation’s top advisory group on science and technology, found that the U.S. ranks 48th out of 133 developed and developing nations in the quality of math and science instruction. Last month a New York Times editorial reacting to the report stated that “too often, science curriculums are grinding and unimaginative.” However, a new nontraditional “Science Research Course” offered by the Frisch School in Paramus appears to be anything but a grind. Through a grant funded by the National Science Foundation and G.E. Healthcare, Frisch has been able to offer “The Waksman Students Scholars Program: HiGene: A Genome Sequencing Project” as a new elective course for its juniors.

“The program is exquisitely creative,” said Mindy Furman, chair of the science department, who teaches the course. “The goal is to develop a passion for science in students and ultimately to help encourage them to pursue careers in science. It’s an opportunity to do authentic hands-on research with publication, on a topic that’s very timely, all in the school day.”

The project involves the analysis of genes from a tiny plant, Wolffia australiana, the duckweed. The seemingly insignificant organism has been recently recognized as having many potential uses.

Frisch 11th-graders, ages 15 and 16, who are taking the class, explained the importance of the tiny plant. “Duckweed produces more ethanol than corn. So we could make alternate fuel sources without using up food,” explained Rachel Reichner of Spring Valley, N.Y. It is estimated that nearly one third of the U.S. corn crop is converted into ethanol-based fuels.

“Duckweed grows more quickly than corn,” added Aaron Dardik of Livingston, highlighting another advantage of the special little plant.

“If you were to create food from duckweed,” said Teaneck resident Eliora Wolf, “it would be used for animal feed. And the animals can provide food for humans. And if you give this product to animals instead of corn, then you can use the corn for humans instead.” The plant reportedly has up to six times as much starch as corn, is higher in protein than soybeans, and serves as an important food source for waterfowl. In some Asian countries it is consumed by humans.

Duckweed “also cleans up ponds and lakes and takes out toxic metals,” added Rachel.

Ariana Schanzer expanded on that point. “Bioremediation involves cleaning up toxins from the environment. They are using [duckweed] in several countries, such as Bangladesh, to clean up water.” The plants absorb nitrogen and phosphates as well as metals.

“There are 50 schools involved in the project, mostly in New Jersey,” said Furman. “Rutgers provides all the equipment on loan, and all supplies” needed for the project. The list includes thousands of dollars worth of equipment and materials that would typically be found in advanced college and graduate level research labs, such as Pipetmen, microcentrifuges, thermocycler, gel boxes, restriction enzymes, and primers for PCR.

“I learned about the program through a parent,” said Furman, who added that Frisch is the only yeshiva among the 50 participating schools. Furman spent three weeks at Rutgers University this summer training for the project. Two Frisch students, Ariana Schanzer and Hannah Lebovics, both from Englewood, accompanied her to the summer workshop, learning the complex procedures.

The website of the Waksman Students Scholars Program for 2010-2011 explains that “students in the project will isolate and sequence genes from Wolffia australiana. The sequences of these genes has never been determined before and this information will be deposited in the international sequence databases for the students and other scientists to use.” In other words, the high school students who participate in the program will discover new information about the genes of this unique plant, and will share their discoveries by publishing them online.

Andrew Vershon, a professor at Rutgers’ Waksman Institute, developed and runs the project. Described by Furman as “an amazing guy,” he says that his vision is to provide students an entrée into the world of science research at an early age. Furman explained that Vershon and his team developed the approach used in this study, including detailed instructions and manuals designed to provide guidance to the teachers and students who are new to such high-tech computer-based research.

“Rutgers has constructed a cDNA library,” said Furman, referring to a collection of bacterial colonies that carry genes of the organism. For the project, Rutgers scientists provide bacterial plates that have colonies of cells carrying specific duckweed genes (see sidebar). Each bacterial colony, known as a clone, is a cluster of cells that grew from one parent cell.

“The goal is that each student should analyze four clones,” said Furman. “We practiced for a week how to use the Pipetman,” she said, noting that students have learned techniques needed to measure and transfer the tiny volumes of material used in molecular biology research. Students were also introduced to methods for growing bacteria as well as extracting DNA from the cells.

The DNA is tested through a procedure called PCR, to measure the size of the duckweed gene in each clone. If the duckweed DNA fragment is large enough, then the bacteria from the clone are grown in a test tube and prepared for sequencing. That sample is sent back to Rutgers where it is decoded to reveal the genetic code for the duckweed genes.

“Dr. Vershon developed an amazing computer program, [the] DSAP, DNA Sequence Analysis Program,” said Furman. “It takes the kids step by step through how to analyze the sequence.”

“It’s user-friendly,” said Eliora. “The professors at Rutgers check everything we do. When we finish the analysis of the protein we can submit it to the database of the NCBI — the databases of all different kinds of organisms. Any scientist can access it.”

The DSAP program links to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), which maintains a massive database of known DNA sequence information. “The students ‘mine’ the database for the same [or similar] DNA sequences,” said Furman. “The program converts the sequence to the amino acid sequence and compares it to known amino acid sequences.” In this way it may be possible to determine what the gene actually does in the plant.

“We ask whether it is ubiquitous or novel to duckweed. We send that information back to Rutgers and [scientists at] Rutgers check it,” said Furman. “We are online with Rutgers at every point. We upload all the data. We post everything on Google Docs and it is checked by the Rutgers people.

“Then we submit it to the NCBI where it gets published on the web,” Furman said. “We get national recognition.”

Next summer, students will be able to present reports on the genes they have analyzed at a symposium at Rutgers.

The biggest challenge, reported Furman, is that the students have to complete the laboratory work in four 43-minute periods each week. Some of the procedures need longer periods of time for completion. “How to stop a protocol and put it in the fridge where it won’t get messed up … from a research standpoint that’s been a challenge,” she said.

The project combines sophisticated biology research with high-powered computer technology. Furman acknowledged the contributions of Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky, director of education technology at Frisch, who has helped to implement the computer-based aspects of the project. The new Frisch facility, with state of the art science and computer labs, has been a tremendous factor in the success of the project, she said.

Eleven students chose the course as an elective. “These kids are the pioneers,” said Furman. “They signed up for the course not knowing what they were getting into.”

“It sounded like an extremely interesting course,” said Jesse Silverman of Teaneck. “We are doing a lot of the things we learned about in ninth grade, but at a college level and with college-level equipment. I thought it was really cool that so much science research is being done on computer databases rather than the lab.”

Jeremy Appelbaum of Suffern, N.Y., appreciated the hands-on biology, as well as the computer analysis. “I particularly liked seeing how gels run to see how long the DNA is,” he said. “In the computer analysis you have to take apart each bit and piece to see what it does. We want to find part of the genome and find what it does. We don’t know enough about it; that’s why we’re doing the project.”

Kate Fishbein of Livingston is interested in becoming a research scientist or a doctor. “As a high school student who wants a career in science, I thought this would be a project that is relevant to the world.”

Eric Tepper of Teaneck communicated his responses by texting. “I’m interested in possibly pursuing a career in science,” he wrote. “It is a good hands-on introduction to what I may see in the future. The program is educational and interesting, yet fun at the same time.”

“It’s a great opportunity that at this age we can contribute to the science world,” said Ben Sultan of West Orange. “We’re not just learning, but also contributing.”

 
 

A bittersweet lesson from Rutgers

 

Rutgers students rise up to protest anti-Zionist program

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Rutgers students protest the use of the Holocaust to condemn Israel. Natalie Weiss

Hundreds of students and community members assembled on Saturday at Rutgers University to protest an event sponsored by two non-campus groups that invoked the memory of the Holocaust to criticize Israeli policy towards Palestinians.

The program, sponsored by American Muslims for Palestine and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN), is part of a national effort called the “Never Again for Anyone” tour and features a Holocaust survivor who criticizes Israeli policy. The event, at a hall on the university’s Douglass campus, drew 400 protestors and aroused more student outrage than previous events critical of Israel on campus, according to Sarah Morrison, student president of Rutgers Hillel.

“We are a campus with diverse views on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and all those views [exist] under Hillel; we accommodate everyone,” said Morrison, who helped to organize the protest.

But the comparison of Israel’s handling of the conflict with the Palestinians to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews during the Holocaust offended Jewish students and ultimately “moved us to action,” Morrison said.

Andrew Getraer, executive director of Rutgers Hillel, stressed that he was proud to see Jewish students and community members standing up for Israel against what he characterized as a “well-funded, well-organized effort to delegitimize Israel on college campuses across the country.”

“This event is part of a road show sponsored by non-student organizations, … and students at Rutgers decided, ‘We’ll not stand idly by. We’ll stand up for our people and we’ll stand up for the truth,’” said Getraer.

Controversy intensified at the event when, as documented on video by Rutgers freshman Jake Binstein, an organizer announced that $5 and ID would be required for admission.

These requirements contradicted notices that had appeared on Facebook and Craigslist that advertised the event as “free and open to the public,” and amounted to an impromptu tactic to prevent pro-Israel students from attending the talk, some contend. Pro-Israel students had planned to stage a walkout of the event.

“Twenty to 30 students were going to go into the talk wearing yellow shirts that said, ‘Don’t politicize the Holocaust,’” said Binstein. “We decided we could not walk out on the Holocaust survivors,” but would stage the walkout at another point in the program, he said.

The pro-Israel students and community members sang and danced in the lobby outside the hall. Binstein recorded this musical protest on video and has posted the footage to his blog, www.jakebinstein.com.

Rutgers issued a statement on the event that said, “The organizers had originally advertised a suggested donation of five to twenty dollars upon entry. At the event, the organizers chose to impose a five dollar entrance fee on attendees.… Contrary to published reports, Rutgers University Police did not bar anyone who paid the fee — which was imposed by the organizers who leased the space — from entering the hall.”

But the problem was, that fee was imposed selectively, according to students and community members present at the event, as well as Getraer. (See A bittersweet lesson from Rutgers).

“[Their supporters] were there first; they walked in in a bloc and did not pay,” said Binstein. “Then when organizers saw hundreds of Zionists, they decided we needed to pay.”

“People they knew to be friendly to their cause could get in for free; people they perceived to be pro-Israel had to pay,” said Getraer. “I think that’s a biased action.”

(As of press time the “Never Again for Anyone” website advertised “$5 to $20 suggested donation on entry” for the Rutgers event.)

Binstein thinks organizers started requiring payment because they believed, in most cases correctly, that the pro-Israel demonstrators would not want to monetarily support the “Never Again for Anyone” tour and would therefore be effectively kept out of the event. He added that he found the organizers’ decision to require ID, which he says was only required of students who appeared pro-Israel, to be troubling.

“If they just needed … the money, why would they start requiring IDs from people?” said Binstein.

Sami Jitan, events coordinator for BAKA, Students United for Middle Eastern Justice, the Rutgers student group co-hosting the event, disputed the assertion that only Israel-supporters were required to pay, saying that after a certain time, everyone, regardless of belief or nationality, “including Palestinians,” was required to pay for admission.

The decision to charge people for the event was made by the organizers, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, Jitan said. He added that IJAN made the decision to time the event to the United Nations’ Holocaust Remembrance Week and to bring Holocaust survivors to speak.

“What we were told to do came from IJAN; they paid for the room and they have the legal right to charge people at the door,” said Jitan, a Rutgers senior majoring in cultural anthropology. “It was never our tour, it was never our idea to bring Holocaust survivors to talk. We are not organizers, we are volunteers.”

Asked how his group connected with IJAN, he said BAKA learned about the group through “a friend of a friend.”

He is dismayed that people are not focused on the point of the event, which he claims was not intended to exploit the Holocaust or create moral equivalency, he said.

“What happened in the Holocaust is not the same as what happens in Israel/Palestine,” said Jitan. “But any time there’s discrimination based on identity it should not be tolerated.… No one is talking about what the speakers were saying.”

Rutgers junior and political science major Sam Weiner was among the few pro-Israel students who got in to the event.

The son of Shira and Rabbi Arthur Weiner of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, he was struck by the presentation, which he described as “anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic,” as well as “deplorable” and yet subtly “nuanced.”

Speakers included two Holocaust survivors as well as someone who called himself a survivor of the 1948 battle at the Arab village of Deir Yassin, which some — including Saturday’s speaker — have characterized as a massacre.

“These are real stories, and you can’t feel anything but sympathy,” said Sam Weiner.

Following these testimonies, one individual from American Muslims for Palestine “explained to the entire group, ‘What Jews had done to them in the Holocaust, the Zionists are now doing to the Palestinians,’” according to Weiner.

Other speakers made a point of saying they were not trying to compare the Holocaust “as the Jews experienced it” to today’s Mideast conflict, but that “Jews should have taken lessons” from the Holocaust and that “Zionists are using [the Holocaust] to justify” present actions that are unethical, Weiner said.

“As this national tour moves forward, other campuses need to be warned about it,” he added.

Getraer believes this event and others like it are funded and organized by larger national and possibly international groups with an agenda to delegitimize Israel.

“I don’t know where the funding is coming from, but it’s clearly not from a student group budget,” said Getraer. “Programming at this level — showing films, flying people in nearly every week — that costs serious money.”

Neither American Muslims for Palestine nor the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network has a listed telephone number in New York, New Jersey, or the 1-800 national directory. Organizers did not respond to The Jewish Standard’s repeated e-mails seeking comment via the “Never Again for Anyone” website.

Upcoming stops on the “Never Again for Anyone” tour include Grace Episcopal Church in Chicago and Macalester College in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

 
 

Rutgers event links Israel, apartheid

Hillel fires back with facts, testimonials from Ethiopian, Arab, and gay Israelis

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Members of Israel’s minority communities come to Rutgers as part of the event “Get Me, Get Israel.” Courtesy Rutgers Hillel

An event last week comparing Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens to South Africa’s treatment of blacks under apartheid marked the latest in a series of anti-Israel programs at Rutgers University that some local Jewish leaders have characterized as an anti-Israel campaign targeting the school.

The Rutgers event took place in concert with “Israel Apartheid Week” events at numerous university campuses. While some Jewish leaders are alarmed at this trend, others are of the opinion that, try as they might, anti-Israel groups are not making headway in their efforts to delegitimize Israel in the U.S. And Rutgers Hillel last week mounted its own campaign to highlight Israel’s diversity.

The anti-Israel event, called “Israel, the Apartheid Analogy, and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement,” held March 1 on Rutgers’ Douglass campus as part of “Palestine Awareness Week,” was sponsored by a group called BAKA: Students United for Middle Eastern Justice. BAKA has organized other events highly critical of Israel, including January’s “Never Again for Anyone” program featuring a Holocaust survivor critical of Israel.

Area Jewish leaders expressed outrage at what they characterized as a false and offensive comparison between Israel and apartheid-era South Africa, and pledged to help pro-Israel students at Rutgers combat what they believe is a deliberate campaign of disinformation.

“It is hateful and egregious to compare Israel to apartheid South Africa,” said Allyson Gall, New Jersey area director of the American Jewish Committee. “There are over 1 million Arabs in Israel who have the right to vote, to serve in Knesset, who have freedom of religion and free speech. When Jimmy Carter used the word apartheid in his book, there were African-American leaders here in the U.S. who called him to tell him using this word was wrong and he should not use it.”

She added, “When they throw around the word ‘apartheid,’ then I know they are not just pro-Palestinian, they are anti-Israel, because they are dead wrong.”

Leonard Cole, an adjunct professor at Rutgers who teaches at the Newark campus in the division of global affairs, decried what he sees as an anti-Israel “drumbeat” on campus and called on the university to condemn it.

Citing six separate anti-Israel events at the University’s New Brunswick campus in November/December and referencing last Tuesday’s event, Cole said, “There is no right to prohibit such an event, but neither is there prohibition of the president of the university or other university officials from condemning hurtful or outrageous or untrue statements or claims that come out of these events.”

In apartheid South Africa, according to Alan Elsner of the Israel Project, a non-profit organization that provides information about the Middle East, blacks had no right to form political parties, to vote, to live in certain areas, or to freely associate with whites, and South Africa’s government enforced this discrimination.

In Israel, he pointed out, all citizens including Israeli Arabs have the right to vote, to speak, to assemble, to form political parties, to freely associate, and to live where they wish.

The differences mean “there is not any valid comparison” between Israel’s government and South Africa’s during apartheid, said Elsner.

“I’m not saying Israeli democracy is perfect, but show me another country in the Mideast where minorities, women, and gays have the same rights as they do in Israel,” said Elsner, who worked as a reporter in South Africa during apartheid.

Jake Toporek, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, says his organization is working to “organize a movement to counter the BDS movement.” To that end, his and other area organizations including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Jewish Federations of North America are organizing a conference at Rutgers June 1.

“The events on Rutgers campus are disturbing, but are a wake-up call to the rest of the Jewish community to remain vigilant and respond effectively, with a united front, and to do all it can to ensure that Israel remains a viable nation,” said Toporek.

BAKA Treasurer Michael Dunican, a Rutgers senior majoring in Middle East studies, told The Jewish Standard that BAKA organized the event “to spread awareness.” Regarding the charge that the apartheid analogy is false, Dunican said, “The response that the analogy is false won’t do. Diversity shares the same root as diversion and the issues we raised have not been addressed.”

Dunican added, “[Anti-Defamation League National Director] Abe Foxman recently made the statement that when these things happen at Rutgers, the BDS movement is gaining momentum.”

Foxman in fact told Ha’aretz this week regarding “Israel Apartheid Week” events: “There are 3,500 colleges and universities in the U.S. If it happens in 40 or 80 campuses, it’s upsetting, troubling, but it’s not dangerous.… Overwhelmingly, students either don’t care or they are pro-Israel.”

Foxman also said, “The only difference is that after the communications revolution, when something happens in Rutgers, the whole world knows. The communications revolution gives them a megaphone way beyond what they are and whom they represent.”

Ken Stern, director of the Division of Anti-Semitism and Extremism at the AJC, agrees.

“They’ve pushed this for 10 years, and not one college campus has divested [from Israeli investment],” said Stern. “I don’t see Israel apartheid week as it’s played out in the U.S. to date as having been effective in achieving the goal of delegitimizing Israel in the eyes of the average person.”

Stern noted that the effort to de-legitimize Israel on college campuses has gained traction in Canada, and said there is a real danger in larger global efforts to delegitimize the Jewish State.

Meanwhile, Rutgers Hillel hosted its own series of events to coincide with “Palestine Awareness Week,” highlighting Israel’s diversity. A Feb. 28 event, “Israel at Heart,” featured Ethiopian Jewish Israelis and a Darfuri man who found refuge in Israel, all of whom made the case that “Israel is not an apartheid state,” according to Hillel Director Andrew Getraer.

Last Tuesday’s event, called “Get Me, Get Israel,” featured an Israeli Arab woman who has organized Israeli Arabs to do a year of national service to Israel and two Israelis who are members of the country’s LGBT community.

“They talked about the importance of seeing Israel not as a highly politicized country but as a diverse and accepting country,” said Raffi Mark, a sophomore at Rutgers majoring in American Studies who grew up in Wayne and who helped organize Hillel’s events.

Asked if he had any response to these events, Dunican said, “Regarding the event[s] with gay and Arab Israelis, at our event we had a Palestinian speaker and three Ashkenazi Jews.”

Heather Robinson can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 
 
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