STORRS, Connecticut — University of Connecticut sophomore Ari Gerard arrived at his seminar class three hours early on the morning of the November 8 walk-out initiated by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). He figured he’d be able to avoid seeing and hearing their chants: “Resistance is not terrorism,” and “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free.”
“It made no difference in the end,” he said. “They were loud enough that I could hear them from inside the lecture hall.”
Anti-Israel blowback has been rampant on campus since Jewish students at UConn held their first candlelit vigil on October 8 to honor those 1,200 in Israel who were murdered and the 240 kidnapped by the Hamas terror organization, which rules the Gaza Strip.
The sheer brutality of the October 7 massacre initially captured global attention: Families were burned alive in their homes, 260 revelers at a music festival were killed in cold blood, and in addition to widespread reports of sexual assault, the terrorists tortured and dismembered many of the victims, which included women, children, babies, and the elderly. Israel has vowed to remove Hamas from power amid an ongoing military campaign.
As Israel’s war with Hamas progresses, the climate at UConn has become increasingly tense. So far, the university has escaped the spotlight cast upon many other institutions nationwide: donors haven’t threatened to pull funding en masse, there haven’t been threats of physical violence and the UConn chapter of SJP can still operate.
But walking across campus means passing posters depicting rifle-toting men dressed similarly to Hamas terrorists with the words, “Resistance isn’t terrorism — victory to Palestine.” It means going on Instagram and seeing comments calling for the eradication of Israel. It means seeing hostage posters vandalized and passing chalk messages that say: “Antizionism does not equal antisemitism.”
“I’m tired of dealing with it; it’s a mental torment. They are constantly outside yelling,” said Gerard, a finance major.
Gerard was one of eight Jewish students to participate in a roundtable discussion with The Times of Israel on November 8. From a variety of backgrounds and with differing levels of engagement with Judaism and views on the war, they spoke about what it’s like attending university at a time when antisemitism has moved from a whisper to a shout.
What the student reported aligned with a recent survey of Jewish college students by the national Jewish campus group Hillel International. According to the survey, 56 percent of polled Jewish college students said they feel scared on campus, and 25% of those students said there has been violence or acts of hate on their campus since the war began.
About 2,000 of UConn’s almost 19,000 undergraduates are Jewish, and there are several Jewish organizations on campus, including Huskies for Israel, Hillel and Chabad. The university meal plan offers kosher food at no extra cost. Until the war erupted, the Jewish groups coexisted with the UConn chapter of SJP, which didn’t respond to requests for comment.
There were some antisemitic incidents in the past. In 2020, the words “The Third Reich” were written on the whiteboard on the door to a student’s dorm room. There were four incidents in 2021, including one just before Passover when a swastika was spray-painted on the chemistry building.
Nevertheless, the overall atmosphere was nothing like it is now, said freshman Julianne Katz.
“It’s just a very awful, painful thing to feel like everyone hates you and wishes you were dead. You end up feeling sad all day and so alone. I feel very unsafe on this campus,” Katz said.
The following roundtable conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.
The Times of Israel: What was it like to be Jewish on campus before October 7, and what previous experience, if any, have you had with antisemitism?
Jessica Baden, college senior and UConn Hillel president: When I got to campus as a freshman it was fine. As the years went by, pro-Palestinian rallies became a bit of a concern, especially after the May 2020 flare-up between Israel and Hamas. But really, it was pretty quiet here.
Maya Mazor, Israeli exchange student: I did not know what to expect coming here. I knew there were some Israelis. I knew there were Jewish students and that I would not be alone. Mainly, I thought it would be a cool and fun university to go to. When I got here I was shocked to see that there were no security guards on the campus, and there was no fence. Then I thought maybe I wouldn’t be so safe.
Leo Gold, senior: I didn’t have much experience with antisemitism or pro-Palestinian sentiment when I was growing up. Since October 7, there has been a rise in the day-to-day tropes about Jews. I hear people make comments out loud that Jews have money, that Jews have all the power. I kind of thought the northeastern part of America wouldn’t have this kind of antisemitism; it was something I attributed, wrongly, to the South.
Laura Augenbraun, senior: There weren’t a lot of Jewish people at home. It was lacking in a Jewish community, and I thought coming to UConn would give me that community. There was always tension between different groups on campus, but it was well hidden. Not anymore.
Troy Sweet, junior: There have always been these little [antisemitic] things. Like a year ago someone put up posters showing an Israeli soldier strangling a kid.
Yana Tartakovskiy, junior: I remember my resident adviser posted pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel stuff in 2021. I saw that and felt if there was an antisemitic incident I could not go to her. I felt ostracized.
Julianne Katz, freshman: I’m observant. I came here and everything was fine at first. My roommates, who aren’t Jewish, knew I was observant, but they were always supportive. It wasn’t an issue.
What happened on the morning of October 7?
Mazor: October 7 is my birthday. I was supposed to go to New York City with some friends. Then I started getting messages on WhatsApp: “Is your family okay? Are they safe?” I didn’t know what they meant. I called my parents and my sister in Beersheba; they were all okay. I don’t know anyone personally killed or kidnapped, but the thing about Israel is, it’s so small. You know someone who knows someone. My boyfriend was drafted.
Katz: It was Shabbos and I was getting WhatsApp messages. I wondered why someone would be texting me. They know I’m observant and I won’t answer my phone. Then I saw what happened. It’s like the world just came crashing down. I have a friend in the army.
You held a vigil. What happened when you gathered, and what happened in the aftermath?
Baden: We gathered for the first time on October 8 at Spirit Rock (one of three boulders on campus that students can paint to promote the free exchange of ideas and opinions). We painted it blue and white and wrote a message of peace in Hebrew, English, and Arabic. The next morning we saw it had been painted over in the colors of the Palestinian flag with the words: “No Justice, No Peace.”
A few days later people put fliers up on campus accusing Israel of the airstrike on the hospital. Then, posters went up saying, “Take a stand with Israel: See all the great things Israel is doing,” with a QR code to scan. If you do, you see pictures of dead babies, burnt bodies and calls for violence.
Gold: Our vigil was peaceful. We had candles, we held signs. It was about solidarity and quiet. Then the next morning, [SJP] were outside the library, chanting on megaphones. The tone was different. They are calling for our destruction.
What else have you personally encountered on campus?
Katz: A friend from class has posted [on social media] a couple of times. Some of [the posts are] about how US taxpayers are funding genocide, or how Israel has only killed around 13 Hamas members, but thousands of Palestinians, or how Israel is using the cover of Hamas to commit mass genocide. I responded to a few of them — all in a respectful and civil way — but she either doesn’t respond back or sends me something completely unrelated a couple of days later.
Sweet: I just got an alert that Huskies for Israel is going to host a survivor from the Nova music festival and someone posted a comment under the announcement: “I hope they learned their lesson.”
Tartakovskiy: I feel like there is an actual war in Israel and here there is another sort of war. I feel like why do I have to defend myself all the time? Why do we have to prove the atrocities? I can’t openly show my Star of David.
Augenbraun: I used to write for The Daily Campus. It’s a student-funded, independent paper. I don’t write for them anymore. Since October 7, its opinion pieces have been skewed, in your face, anti-Israel, with op-eds that say Israel shouldn’t exist.
Do you think SJP should be banned?
Gerard: I absolutely think the administration should ban SJP on campus. UConn SJP and SJP international’s activities over the past month have been crystal clear in highlighting their antisemitic roots. On October 7, UConn SJP posted numerous Instagram posts/stories praising the attack and calling for support for the “Palestinian resistance.” They do not align with any of the university guidelines or ideals and have no place on campus.
Tartakovskiy: I don’t think SJP should be banned because to some extent we need an expression of different opinions. I think there needs to be more oversight from the administration on what they say, specifically when it becomes hate speech, and also I think it should be looked into where they get their funding from.
Katz: I think there can be a student group in support of Palestinians, but they need a restructuring that includes no use of phrases like “Free Palestine from the River to the Sea,” or sayings such as “Intifada Revolution.” There need to be rules such as no ripping down fliers of kidnapped civilians. They should be able to respect the existence of Israel, Israelis and Jews, while still spreading support for a Palestinian state and for Palestinians.
Baden: While I strongly disagree with their stance, I believe in free speech. The problem is, that they teeter the line of hate speech. While the SJP on our campus makes me extremely uncomfortable, they have not done anything violent or threatened violence and to my knowledge have upheld our university policies. On the other hand, I think SJP worldwide promotes hate and has inflammatory responses while also negating the idea of dialogue which is not helpful to anyone.
Where do you fall regarding calls for a ceasefire?
Tartakovskiy: I think that all hostages should be released before any consideration of a ceasefire.
Katz: I don’t believe we can have a ceasefire without the safe return of every single hostage. People seem to forget that we had a ceasefire prior to October 7, which Hamas broke, and they said they will continue to break. I don’t see how there can be a ceasefire with terrorists who won’t stop coming for us. It is unfortunate, and I wish there could be one, but I think the only way to help Israelis and Palestinians is to dismantle and destroy Hamas.
Baden: I am against it while there are still hostages. It is not a true ceasefire if our hostages aren’t released. I wish there was a possibility for a pause or end in the fighting but I don’t believe it would be successful or the right message to be sent. Hamas is a terrorist organization, not an army protecting a country.
Many of you said you don’t feel safe here on campus. Are you changing your behavior?
Mazor: I get text messages and calls from family asking for me to come back [to Israel]. They are worried about the antisemitism here. I keep telling them I am safe. I want to complete my program, but it is difficult inside the classroom. I used to not think twice about saying I am from Israel. Now I think twice. I try to keep a low profile.
Katz: I feel like I have to hide myself but I also won’t hide myself. I’ll wear my IDF sweater to class but I don’t wear my “I stand with Israel” T-shirt to the gym anymore.
Gold: I feel like October 7 flipped it for me. I tried not to be visibly Jewish before. Now I wear my SWU bracelet every day. If they yell at me and harass me, so what. It’s emboldened me. Our physical safety isn’t a thing yet, but it’s a very hostile environment. It’s hard.
Augenbraun: I used to wear a Star of David and a chai but I noticed people in class looking at it. It’s made me more paranoid. It’s causing me anxiety. I was going to meet my parents at a Middle Eastern restaurant in Hartford and my parents suggested I not wear it.
Baden: I present really calm. But I feel it in my body and schoolwork is a big challenge now. Honestly, I feel a little numb to it. I have a friend, Omer Neutra, who is a hostage in Gaza. I don’t know how to process this. I don’t know if he is alive or dead. Sometimes I just cry in the car.
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