To My Fellow Students and Members of the UConn Community:
By: Natalie Shclover
Those of you who know me personally know that, throughout my nearly four years here, I have always been a staunch advocate for free speech.
My parents grew up in the former Soviet Union, where they did not have the luxury of condemning the oppressive regime that governed their lives, and where they had the word “Jew” stamped under Nationality in their passports, defining who they could and could not be under a system of institutionalized discrimination. They fled to the US as refugees in the nineties so that I might have a chance at a better life. I have never taken this for granted. I was raised to speak up against injustice, and it’s been a part of who I am for as long as I can remember.
Like many of you, I have taken immense pride in being a part of a diverse and vibrant community here at UConn. Our university promises to encourage freedom of expression through civil discourse, stating that “debate surrounding discussion of difficult and controversial subjects is a key component to our university.” Throughout my nearly four years here, I’ve seen the administration deliver on this promise, voicing its support for many minority groups and encouraging tolerance among the student body.
However, in light of a recent series of experiences on campus, I am forced to call into question the University’s commitment to this promise and my fellow students’ understanding of it.
In Mid-February, the UConn University President Dr. Radenka Maric announced in an Instagram post that she would be taking a trip to Israel alongside Connecticut State officials, including Governor Ned Lamont. The purpose of the trip would be to further the state’s and university’s cooperation with Israel’s innovation ecosystem. Scrolling through the comment section of this post, I was disheartened to see a flood of negative comments, many of which were not respectful expressions of political beliefs, or nuanced criticisms citing factual information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but ignorant and inflammatory words, some of which invoked age-old antisemitic tropes. I saw comments that characterized Israelis and Zionists as “greedy” and others calling for “another Intifada” (a wave of Palestinian protests that have in the past been characterized by suicide bombings and countless civilian deaths on both sides).
In an effort to add my voice to the conversation and provide context about the conflict, I responded to a comment that said “Free Palestine” with my view, which is that Palestine cannot be truly free until the Palestinian people are freed from Hamas, the US- and EU-designated terrorist organization that currently holds political power in Gaza. The group is openly committed to the destruction of the State of Israel, and Palestinian civilians suffer immensely because they are caught in the middle between this threat and Israel’s defense against it.
Shortly after my comment, I received a direct message from a fellow student saying that “No one cares about my opinion like they didn’t in the 40s,” a clear reference to the tragic events of the Holocaust, where my ancestors were among the 6 million Jews systematically and heinously murdered by Nazis.
The following week, on February 28th, I came to the university library to study between classes and found it covered with hundreds of fliers. The fliers were a response to Dr. Maric’s announcement. They pictured a map of Israel with red and green on either side, an image of our university President on the left, and a disturbing image of a child being strangled on the right. It stated, as fact, that Israel is an apartheid state, and that the University’s recent ventures show complacency with an apartheid regime.
To me, from what I know about the state of Israel, this read as a misleading oversimplification and gross mischaracterization. Israel is a country where an Arab Supreme Court Justice sent a Jewish President to prison and oversaw recent national elections, where the third-largest faction in parliament consists of Arab parties, and where affirmative action programs exist to counter discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities.
The posters were everywhere, covering the floor, scattered on every table, and even taped to the insides of printers. Looking at the library, where I’d come to study multiple times a week over my years on the UConn campus, I felt unsafe and unwelcome. The layer of discomfort created by this message was impossible to ignore. I could not focus on my work and left the library with a pit in my stomach.
While the student organization that distributed this message was within its rights to display it in the library, there are rules that govern canvassing, posting, and solicitation on our campus. These rules are in place precisely to allow students and organizations freedom of expression on campus while also being mindful of keeping communal spaces inclusive of all students. They apply to all student and faculty organizations, designating which areas are appropriate for posting fliers to prevent campus buildings from becoming several-story billboards for any one message. After calling Student Services and consulting the university policies, it was evident that nearly every flier I saw in the library had been placed in violation of these rules. In accordance with the guidelines, it’s acceptable to move improperly placed posters aside or even discard them.
I returned to the library later that day with my boyfriend, Zacharia El-Tayyeb, who is of Muslim faith and Jordanian descent. Together, we collected several copies of the poster that were not affixed to surfaces and not in use by other students to make space for those who needed a place to study or felt, as I did, disturbed by what the imagery and words were promoting. We also discarded a couple of fliers that had been improperly placed on bulletins in groups, many of which seemed to intentionally cover posters advertising events hosted by Jewish groups on campus, like Hillel, Chabad, and even Hebrew lessons by UConn faculty.
On the third floor, Zach approached a group of four female students and asked if they were using the fliers on a neighboring table. They stated that they were, but directed him to the bulletin board, where four of the fliers were hanging, in violation of the posting rules, which clearly state a policy of one poster per organization per bulletin. Zach began to remove the excessive fliers when he was confronted with profanity and screaming from the women. They asked for his name and he gave it to them: “Hi, my name is Zacharia El-Tayyeb, and I don’t agree with how this message is being distributed.”
Responding to the commotion, I approached the group. I acknowledged that our actions were, in part, an expression of our personal beliefs, but attempted to explain the intentions behind what we were doing–to keep the campus a safe space, in accordance with university policy.
The situation escalated, and the students began a verbal attack on Zach and me, calling me a “Jew,” a “f*cking b*tch,” a “white supremacist” and a “f*cking Zionist.” As we’d find out later, this portion of the incident was being recorded.
Before I continue this account, I think it is important to pause here to acknowledge the dangerous implications of these words.
Calling a Jewish woman a white supremacist is dishonest and abhorrent. Historically, Jewish people have been among the groups most commonly targeted by white supremacy, which thrives on antisemitic conspiracy theories.
It’s also appalling to hear the word “Zionist” used as a slur. Using Zionism derisively in place of traditional antisemitic slurs is ignorant and poisonous to productive dialogue. Numerous polls have shown that Zionism is integral to the American Jewish identity. Using “Zionist” as a slur alienates most of your Jewish peers. Therefore, while opposing Israeli government actions and policies is not antisemitic, conflating Zionism, the Jewish right to self-determination, with these actions and policies, is inherent antisemitism.
Before we left the library, Zach approached the students alone. He identified himself as a practicing Muslim and urged the students to seek peace in prayer.
The video of the interaction in the library was then posted to Instagram and TikTok, going viral among UConn students. It doesn’t show us laughing as we tear fliers off the wall, or verbally harassing the women behind the camera. What the video actually shows is us being berated with hurtful slurs and insults as we try, in calm voices, to explain our intentions in collecting and moving fliers in accordance with school rules.
Yet, the video was falsely captioned on many accounts with claims that we had been harassing Muslim students in the library. Based on these false claims, the vast majority of which came from people that weren’t there to witness the actual events, I was swiftly dismissed–without any due process or chance to voice my side of the story–from The Chordials, an a cappella group that I had been a member of since my freshman year, an organization that I had poured my heart and soul into, serving in several executive positions, including President.
Within an hour of the encounter, which for more reasons than one was deeply distressing and painful, I had received hundreds of hateful messages. Messages from people I see around campus, as well as fake burner accounts, calling me bigoted, racist, a b*tch, a “disgusting human being”, and a “dirty f*cking Jew.” One claimed to have emailed my future employer. Another publicly posted my campus address to YikYak, threatening my physical wellbeing and exposing me to yet another vector for harassment.
In the days that followed, I was truly fearful for my safety. I couldn’t fall asleep at night. I was scared to go to class with the people behind those anonymous accounts that continued to bully me. I alerted campus police to the harassment, but I knew there was only so much they could do.
I am left now with an awful feeling of isolation, having been ostracized by the communities I so valued being a part of. The harassment and defamation of my character didn’t just come from an angry mob of internet strangers; it came, in large part, from friends and classmates. I also have not heard back from the university regarding my bias incident report, which was filed over two weeks ago. I am deeply saddened and disillusioned.
My favorite thing about a cappella is how different voices can meld together to produce a quality of sound that just one type of voice could never achieve. When we audition new members, we look for people whose singing will stand out, people who have a unique and special something to contribute. As a part of The Chordials, I always celebrated voices that were different from mine.
As a student on this campus, I have always tried to do the same–striving to understand classmates with opinions that are different from my own and make room for their experiences. At a time when I depended on this understanding from you, my fellow students, I was not given the same courtesy. Instead, I have been harassed, threatened, and bullied for expressing a difference of opinion. Your behavior has revealed a selective intolerance for Pro-Israel beliefs on this campus, an intolerance that I believe is a disgrace to this university and what it stands for.
The conflict in the Middle East is an incredibly complex issue, and I respect the fact that different people may have very different opinions on it. I also believe that discourse and conversation are the only ways to see and understand other perspectives, as opposed to hateful and hurtful language and cancel culture. Discourse is how we move forward. It is how we understand the nuances of other perspectives and grow to appreciate that we can reach a state where we disagree on an important issue but respect each other nonetheless. Ostracism and cancel culture are how we perpetuate division and prolong hate, and, unfortunately, both have become endemic to our campus.
I am hurt that my years of investment into the UConn a cappella and broader university communities were discarded in a matter of a few hours. I am now a couple of months from graduation, and as much I would have loved to close my college experience as a member of the community I helped create, I am not hoping to dissuade you of the judgments you’ve chosen to accept about me. What I hope is that this letter will open your eyes to the problematic campus climate that my experience exemplifies, just as you’ve opened mine to many issues of discrimination in the past. I believe that through open minds and investment in our own self-awareness, we stand a chance at upholding a standard of acceptance, tolerance, and unity at UConn.
Originally published in Times of Israel