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UConn students hold rally to fight antisemitism on campus

“This university does not have an isolated issue with antisemitic hate, but rather a rapidly growing atmosphere of hate towards the Jewish community that has gone unchecked.”

By Stacey Dresner

S

TORRS – After a reported seven antisemitic incidents this school year on the campus of the University of Connecticut Storrs – three that occurred during the week of Passover – UConn Hillel last week held “A Solidarity Gathering to Fight Antisemitism.”

The 90-minute gathering, held on UConn’s Student Union Lawn on Monday, April 5, was attended by representatives of the state’s Jewish community, UConn’s president, and UConn student leaders who vowed to be allies with the university’s Jewish population.

The gathering was held in response to three antisemitic acts in October of 2020 and four more incidents that occurred in February and March of 2021.

On Oct. 7, “The Third Reich” was written on a white board on the door of a student’s dorm room. Later in the month, a student reported seeing a swastika carved on a wall near an elevator in the same building. And Chanukah and Kwanzaa decorations were vandalized on a holiday display bulletin board in the same complex.

In February of this year, a swastika was drawn in a bathroom in the UConn biology building. In March, three incidents were reported: a swastika painted on the outside of the chemistry building, directly facing the Hillel building; a swastika and “SS” painted on the Philip Austen building; and a verbal assault of a Jewish student wearing a kippah and carrying a box of matzoh. 

More than 150 masked and socially distanced students and community members attended the rally to decry the incidents. Fifty more watched via Facebook live.

“It is important for all of us to speak out each and every time there is an attack on members of our community,” said UConn President Thomas Katsouleas. “It’s important because those who commit these heinous acts need to know that we won’t tolerate them, and they to know that we will call them out every time. It is also important for those who are victims to know that they have our support and our love.”

Despite Katsouleas’ words of support, a number of students expressed concern that the UConn administration has not done enough to battle antisemitic incidents on campus.

When UConn’s administrators failed to condemn or address the October antisemitic acts with the entire student body, Hillel leaders sent a letter signed by 311 students to President Katsouleas’ office.

“Previously, the UConn administration has been swift and strong in responding to other such acts of hate on our campus,” the letter stated, citing a July 23rd message addressing the University’s response to anti-Black racism, in which Katsouleas and UConn Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer Franklin Tuitt, “eloquently stated that teaching and learning is what we do best as a university: ‘Through education and scholarship we address the needs of our students to understand and contextualize the world around us, empower them with that knowledge, and address the misperceptions that underlie bias and bigotry.’”

“As a Jewish community, we are left wondering why these actions have not warranted the same response,” the Hillel letter concluded. “The UConn administration that so adamantly, and appropriately, addresses and condemns hate towards other communities on campus needs to equally address and condemn the hate towards UConn’s Jewish community.”

Eventually, the UConn administration responded to the criticism. O  n Oct. 30, Katsouleas, Tuitt, and Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Carl Lejuez sent a letter to the entire campus community.

“Our University is committed to an environment that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive. Recent reports of a series of anti-Semitic incidents on our Storrs campus undermine that goal. We denounce in the strongest terms acts of violence, hate, and intimidation aimed at members of our Jewish community,” the letter read in part. 

“These recent reports were all acts of physical damage to property, including swastika graffiti. These are undeniable symbols of antisemitism that elicit painful reminders of the Holocaust among our Jewish students, faculty, and staff. These acts and other discriminatory acts this semester are deeply upsetting and leave a scar on members of our community whose beliefs or identities are targeted,” the letter continued.

But at the solidarity gathering, it was clear that many Jewish students at UConn do not think that response has been enough.

“It is unfortunate that feel we need to be here today to declare condemnation of antisemitism, but it is inspiring to see how many of you came there to show your pride in being Jewish or your support for the Jewish community,” said Dori Jacobs, UConn Hillel president. “The seven reported antisemitic incidents on campus this past year are not isolated incidents; they are part of a world-wide rise in antisemitism. As Jews it may be in part our responsibility to educate others about our experiences, religion and culture. But I do not believe that as students it is our job to fight for safety on our own campus.

Sarah Soucy, a senior at UConn, who in early April posted a message on Instagram talking about feeling unsafe on the UConn campus, gave a powerful statement.

“I am Jewish and I am not alone when I say that I am unbelievably scared to be a Jew at the University of Connecticut right now,” Soucy told the crowd. “The first reason for this is the rising rates of antisemitism in our community. This year we have seen antisemitic graffiti on campus…students being harassed, and followed for wearing yarmulkes. … Patterns like this only reinforce the data that despite being only two percent of the population Jews make up the majority of religious-based hate crimes in this country. 

Still, she said, “despite months of community action and calls for action, the university has failed to produce any form of sustainable change in combatting antisemtism… 

We cannot dismiss these acts of hatred because they aren’t bad enough. Every act of antisemitism is horrific and traumatic. It is clear that the university has done nothing of substance to stop this. What will it take? Will it take an incident like that in New York City this past week where a young Chasidic couple and their infant child were all slashed across their face with a knife for being Jewish in public? Will it take a shooting at a place of worship that we’ve become so desensitized to? Will it become another slew of calls of bomb threats into JCCs and synagogues around this country where preschoolers were evacuated rapidly from their classrooms because of so much hate and antisemitism? We are worth more than being told to sit and wait behind red tape. We deserve action and recognition and justice and respect.”

Student government representatives were on hand to show support for the university’s Jewish community.

“Thank you all for being here today to stand here in solidarity against violence and hate against the Jewish community at UConn,” said Mason Holland, UConn Undergraduate Student Government President-Elect. “I understand what this community is going through. As a member of the black community, we have been subject to some of the same persecution over this past year. I support all of you who are here today, I love you all and respect you all. The USG is committed to standing with you all, advocating with you, to learn from you and support you in any endeavor.”

“We’ve seen over this past semester alone, this university does not have an isolated issue with antisemitic hate, but rather a domestically and rapidly growing atmosphere of hate towards the Jewish community that has gone unchecked,” said Michael Christy, USG chief diversity officer-elect. “It is not enough for us to rely on the Jewish community to condemn these incidents on their own. It is not enough to put out a general statement condemning these incidents without planned action. …It should not have taken seven incidents of antisemitic attacks for us to be here today calling for action. It is each of our responsibility as members of this community to insure that this behavior does not continue, students, staff, faculty and administration.”

The USG have called on UConn administrators to devise a plan to deal with the slew of antisemitic acts by April 9. Steps that the USG is asking the administration to take include: “defining unequivocal acts of antisemitism as such and not just as ‘acts of bias and bigotry’”; a proposed one-credit course on antisemitism; transparent communication on the status of investigations; and training on antisemitism for administrators, faculty, staff and students.  

Several of the Jewish Federations around Connecticut have already offered funding in support of the initiative to offer the course on antisemitism. Two Federation directors attended the rally and spoke in support of the UConn Jewish community.

Said Judy Alperin, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven. “I wanted to be here with you today so that you all know that you are not alone. There are many, many people throughout Connecticut and beyond standing in solidarity. We will continue to raise our voices and speak out against the forces of hate as this Hillel has loudly proclaimed ‘Enough is Enough.’”

David Waren, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, addressed Hillel’s Dori Jacobs, who had participated in a webinar co-sponsored by the Federation about combatting antisemitism on campus just two weeks earlier.

“We really thought this had already been addressed with finality, at least for this year, and here we are after four more incidents,” said Waren. “In response, we stand in solidarity with them today, with leaders from across this campus and across this state on 24 hours notice to address security needs, combat antisemitism and extremism and insure that this campus community remains safe, inclusive and welcoming for all of its residents.” 

Waren announced that the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford will launch a new security initiative “that will encompass Hillel and will provide training, security assessments, law enforcement relationship initiatives and securing of funding.”

Edina Oestricher, executive director of UConn Hillel, praised the students who organized the rally.

“I’m so in awe of them. Their leadership and activism is so inspiring. And I’m really hopeful that this is another step closer to the work that we want to do with the administration to create a more welcoming, inclusive and safe campus here,” she said.

A Ledger phone call  to the UConn Police department after the gathering, seeking information on the status of the investigation, was met with a response by the UConn administration.

“Antisemitism, like all forms of hatred and bigotry, has absolutely no place on UConn’s campuses. The University proudly supports all those who gathered in solidarity on the Storrs campus this week not only to condemn these vile acts, but to express the shared values that truly reflect our community,” Stephanie Reitz, university spokesperson and manager of media relations, told the Ledger. “UConn Police and others are actively investigating the incidents, and the University has been reaching out to offer support to affected students, employees and organizations, including at UConn Hillel.”

Main Photo: On April 5, students gather on the campus of UConn Storrs for “A Solidarity Gathering to Fight Antisemitism.”

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