Rutgers Newspaper Elects New Editorial Board Amid Controversies

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The daily student newspaper at Rutgers University elected a new editorial board last weekend, as it attempts to move forward from a controversy where both sides of the Israel-Palestine debate  have laid blame on the paper.

The Daily Targum's new editor-in-chief Alex Meier has taken over for Enrico Cabredo.  Cabredo was the the third individual to serve in that role over the tumultuous 2013-2014 year.  Each and every February, a new board is selected.

Also departing the editorial board was Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, the controversial opinions editor who is now alleging that she was unreasonably censored by her bosses and the Targum's Board of Trustees.

Al-Khatahtbeh, who is also the founder of MuslimGirl.Net, accused the Trustees, who are mostly adults, of censoring the student paper in last week's bombshell article published in the Huffington Post

Al-Khatahtbeh said she was put under heavy scrutiny when editing letters concerning Israel, and said the Targum's editors censored her farewell column on the grounds that it aired the paper's dirty laundry, citing long-standing policy.  Muckgers.com, a new online newspaper started by former Targum staffers, has since reported that no such policy exists.

During her time as editor, several pro-Israel writers, including many affiliated with the Rutgers Hillel organization, complained that their letters were edited in a politically biased manner.  Al-Khatahtbeh asserts that the letters were shortened to fit on the Targum's pages, or screened for factual accuracy.

According to Muckgers, the Board of Trustees had suggested firing Al-Khatahtbeh on February 27, 2013, less than a month after she had been elected.  Ultimately she was able to finish her term, but not without further controversy.

In the waning days of Al-Khatahtbeh's tenure as opinions editor, the Targum published a scathing commentary criticizing a new Rutgers Hillel building approved for College Avenue, without properly checking the facts and assumptions underlying the opinion.

This led to a backlash from Hillel supporters and Targum critics, leading the Targum to remove the commentary from its  Colleen Jolly, a Rutgers senior majoring in Economics.

Jolly wrote that the new Hillel building would be the "second Jewish building on a historically reformed Dutch college that began its roots in theology" and that "$18 million…is a success of great ardor, but I also fear the demographics do not fit this proposal."

As critics were quick to point out, there are 7,000 Jewish students at Rutgers, 17.5% of the school's population, and that the Hillel building is open to the entire student body, not just Jewish students.

Jolly's commentary included a couple of complaints about the adequacy of New Brunswick's streetlighting and lack of alumni housing, implying that the millions being spent on the new building could be better spent elsewhere.

"The lights on the streets are at 50 percent productivity", Jolly writes,  "[and] it is also hard to dismiss what that $18 million could do in creating residences for Rutgers alumni."

Of course, Hillel is privately funding the construction of the new building.  Instead, the commentary made it seem as if the expenditures for the new building were coming at the expense of taxpayer or tuition funds.

The building would be 55-feet tall and include a porch, cafe, and various lounge spaces, as well as a catering hall and other facilities. The building would be a synagogue, as well as a community center. 

Jolly asserted that "pro-Israel parties are good at getting money into funds," and suggested that Jewish organizations were mainly focused on fundraising.

"Is the building impractical?  As a non-Jewish person, does the Jewish nature make you feel welcome?  Do you expect this buiding to benefit everyone?" Jolly asks in the piece.

"I ask that we, the students of Rutgers, re-evaluate the resourcefulness of these presented charitable offerings. This is just something to think about," she concludes.

The Rutgers Targum retracted the commentary and offered an apology four days later.

Al-Khatahtbeh said that, after Jolly's commentary was published, that the Targum's Board of Trustees instituting a new policy that required the Trustees approve all opinion pieces published related to the Israel-Palestine issue, something that Jolly's article barley touched on.

For her part, Al-Khatahtbeh, described Jolly's commentary as having "anti-Semitic undertones, questioning Hillel's funding and criticizing the 'Jewish nature on campus' that [al-Khatahtbeh], as a Muslim Arab-American, was offended by."

Al-Khatahtbeh says she selected the Jolly opinion piece for publication anyway because she refused to censor opinions, even she disagreed with them.  She also noted that other bigoted arguments also had faulty reasoning, and she had hoped that publishing the editorial would result in productive dialogue.

However, al-Khatahtbeh alleges the Hillel's members engaged in "bullying," in an effort to control the Targum and what it says.

Cabredo wrote an explanation of why he published the editorial to begin with: "The Daily Targum does not practice censorship and hopes to create conversation about issues on campus."

However, as Cabredo noted, "elements in [Jolly's editorial] relay discriminatory undertones that do not reflect the values and goals of [the Daily Targum]".

Also, Cabredo pointed out that Jolly's article had suggested that Rutgers Hillel was a Rutgers-funded student group, which it is not.  The organization is privately funded, owns its new property next to the DKE house outright, and had rented the old one from the New Brunswick Theological Seminary.

The site of the future Hillel House is currently used as a Rutgers parking lot. It is unclear when the University will vacate that property as part of a land swap between New Brunswick Development Corporation, Rutgers, and the Seminary.

At least four letters to the to the Targum editor were published in response to Jolly's, all of them critical of it.

Michael Guggenheim found the article "very poorly written and incredibly offensive".

The Alliance to Advance Interfaith Collaboration at Rutgers University panned Jolly's piece as "hateful" and "factually inaccurate," writing that Jolly's comments played into negative stereotypes about Jews and money.

Sarah Beth Kaye, a reporter with New Brunswick Today, wrote a letter of her own pointing out that Jolly's editorial violated the Targum's own rules of conduct for commentators and suggested that the author's anger was misplaced, noting that New Brunswick was poorly maintained mostly because its politics were "rife with corruption and exploitation."

Ira Jacobs provided a little historical background to show how far the Rutgers Hillel had come in the past forty years: "[In the early 1970s,] the Rutgers Hillel "building" was a second-floor walkup on George Street, midway between the Rutgers and Douglass College[s]. Religious services were sometimes held in the rabbi's home due to a lack of space."

Chabad House, another Jewish organization at Rutgers, supported Hillel in a letter written by Rabbi Yosef Carlbach, calling Jolly's article "ignorant and factually deficient", noting that "normally, [Chabad's] policy is to accentuate the positive on campus…[however,] we strongly take exception to [Jolly's] article both in its content and in its spirit." 

Furthermore, Chabad had recently completed its own new, entirely privately-funded building, Carlbach said, noting that Chabad allowed people of all religions to walk through its doors and partake of its facilities. 

Carlbach also pointed out that the Rutgers Targum had been founded by Jews and that the Targum's name is also of Jewish origin.  A "targum" was originally an explanation of the Jewish holy scriptures by a rabbi in Aramaic, which Jews commonly spoke some 2050 years ago.

The Muckgers article said that the Targum's board of trustees has become more closely involved in managing the paper's content in recent years and that the controversy over "censorship" was more than simply an argument over the Coleen Jolly piece.

Skylar Frederick, the editor-in-chief for most of al-Khatahtbeh's tenure as Opinions Editor told College Media Matters, "[Al-Khatahtbeh] saying that we were censoring her was untrue in the fact that the Board has the right to do all of that… We are students and we need someone to look to, and it just so happens that because we’re independent we don’t have someone directly in the university who we’re forced to talk to."

Muckgers also reported that the Rutgers student government was investigating censorship claims, saying that they considered Jolly's anti-Hillel piece to be "poorly thought-out and downright illogical" and the Hillel's response to be "over-blown and immature."

The firestorm over Jolly's commentary is just the latest high-profile flare-up in a longstanding ideological dispute that has fractured some of the most politically active forces on the Rutgers campus.

On October 6, hundreds of dorm students received "eviction notices" from Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), beginning with a startling sentence: "We regret to inform you that your suite is scheduled for demolition in the next three days."

The message continues: "If you do not vacate the premise within this time frame, we reserve the right to destroy all remaining belongings under Code 211.3B. We hereby release any liability for damage to any persons or effects including gross negligence. You will receive an invoice for the charges of demolition and waste removal soon."

The messages looked somewhat official. They had a municipal case and warrant code in one corner. 

Nearly a thousand students received the notices.  Although the message clarified that it was not actually an official document, many Israel supporters took offense great offense and pushed for bias charges against the SJP.

"[The fake eviction notices] were so real-looking, in fact, that many students were, at first, led to believe that they were being evicted from their place of residence. The notice, a publicity stunt by Students for Justice in Palestine, was distributed to spread propaganda, create confusion, and to gain attention," said Rabbi Esther Reed of the Hillel in a letter to the editor published October 14, 2013.

Al-Khatahtbeh alleged that Rabbi Reed was given the unprecented authority to choose which day the Targum published her letter, avoiding having it published on a Friday, when readership is lowest.

Reed, whose mother is a Targum board member and journalism professor at Rutgers, wrote in the letter, "SJP's actions were a blatant violation of the university code of conduct regarding how groups may or may not solicit students on campus."

Hillel rabbi Akiva Dovid Weiss concurred, "No student felt safe this morning when they awoke and read the 'eviction' notice placed under their doors."

Weiss recommended suspending the Students for Justice in Palestine from campus.

A Rutgers committee would eventually clear SJP of violating Rutgers' anti-harassment policies with mock eviction notices.

According to Rutgers official Sarah Luke, the Bias Prevention Education Committee had found "that the [eviction-notice] incident did not constitute a violation of the student life policy prohibiting harrassment."

Luke said that Rutgers does not punish students for expressing controversial views, including those offensive to other students.  Liz Jackson, a lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which works with SJP, says that recent court decisions back up this finding.

According to Jackson, "Criticism of Israel is not 'bias' that targets Jewish students, but is protected political speech, and the kind of expression to be expected on a college campus."

Janine Puhak, writing for the Rutgers Targum, noted that the fake eviction letters had been for "purely demonstrative purposes", while also asserting that the letters "are the norm in Palestine and have been since 1967."

Rutgers student Hadiya Abdelrahman asserted, in the Targum, that the notices were not propaganda, but a reflection of the reality that "Palestinians’ historical existence on their land is threatened everyday as they face eviction, demolition and ultimately homelessness."

Abdelraham defended the Students for Justice in Palestine's eviction notices, saying, " If the students felt a few seconds of uncertainty in a place they have called home for the past five weeks, then that means these students will ultimately have empathy for Palestinians who continue to feel uncertain and unsafe in a land they have called home for hundreds of years."

"Palestinians do not have the luxury of exhaling a sigh of relief a few seconds into the reading."

The "eviction notice" movement among supporters of the Palestinians had actually started in Manhattan, at New York University, in Greenwich Village, where historical preservationist movements are strong.

The movement subsequently spread to campuses such as Harvard, Florida Atlantic, and, allegedly, the Berkeley campus of the University of California, many times sparking controversies.

A vigorous debate took place at Harvard last March, and Florida Atlantic University ultimately disciplined a pro-Palestinian group after initially ignoring it.

The sanctions came, not because the supporters of Palestine had sent eviction notices against university rules, but because the same group had also heckled Israeli Colonel Bentzi Gruber.