April 18, 2022
Dr. Radenka Maric
University of Connecticut
Dear President Maric,
We write jointly with Natalie Shclover on behalf of the StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department and Center for Combating Antisemitism, divisions of StandWithUs, an international non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public about Israel and combating antisemitism. We wish first to express our gratitude for the steps you have taken in the wake of the recent incident involving the harassment of Natalie based on her Jewish/Zionist identity, including your email to the University of Connecticut (UConn) community condemning the blatant antisemitism of the students responsible as “unacceptable in any context.” Such statements are a crucial first step, especially in the current climate of rising antisemitism, to help ensure that Jewish and Zionist students feel equally valued and protected as members of the campus community.
As an initial matter, while we understand that there is confusion for some about the nature of Zionism, it is important to note one thing that is beyond dispute: for most Jews around the world, Zionism and Israel form an integral part of Jewish identity. Israel is the birthplace of Jewish ethnic identity, language, culture, and religion, and Jews have maintained a constant presence there for over 3,000 years. Zionism represents the Jewish people’s unbreakable bond and age-old desire to be free in their ancestral home. On a political level, Zionism is a liberation movement supporting Jewish self-determination in the Land of Israel. Jews endured over 1,900 years of oppression and violence across Europe and the Middle East and still live in a world plagued by antisemitism. It should be noted that half of the world’s Jews actually live in Israel. In this context, Israel’s existence and well-being are vital to the Jewish people’s safety, survival, and human rights. Here in the U.S., numerous polls show that for the overwhelming majority of Jews, their connection to Israel is central to their Jewish identity. As a result, smearing and demonizing Israel should be no more acceptable than targeting any other part of the identity of Jewish students and faculty.
Indeed, as your statement to the UConn community correctly acknowledged, the harassment Natalie endured was about something much deeper and more personal than the removal of flyers wrongly posted in sections of the library. And while much of the rhetoric involved in the overall situation may have given the appearance of a mere heated political debate, in fact, Natalie was vilified because of the perception that she was a Zionist and, in the minds of the “mob” attacking her, Islamophobic for her expression of that Zionism. In short, this was blatant antisemitism directed at the very heart of Natalie’s identity. Further, we do not know the exact rationale used by the Chordials in illegally removing Natalie from the group without due process. Perhaps it was a gut reaction based exclusively on political speech and false claims of Islamophobia. However, given the current political climate, it might have been because of Natalie’s Zionist identity. Regardless, her removal warrants mediation, investigation, and a conclusion by the university.
To be clear, we recognize and support the importance of upholding the right to freedom of speech, including healthy and robust political debate, even when the exercise of this right includes the communication of offensive ideas. That said, we also hold firmly to the view that when protected speech includes the expression of bigotry, including anti-Jewish bigotry (which, on campus, often involves anti-Israel rhetoric that crosses the line into anti-Zionist forms of antisemitism), it should be immediately condemned by the school’s administrators—as such—to ensure that Jewish and Zionist students are not left feeling alienated and/or targeted.
With these things in mind, as well as the specific facts of the matter at hand, we wish to take this opportunity to request that you take the next vital step of meeting directly with Natalie and StandWithUs to address the larger issues surrounding this incident in the hopes of preventing further such occurrences at UConn. This experience has deepened Natalie’s resolve to be an active participant, in partnership with the administration, in the process of making the UConn community an environment in which students, including Jewish and Zionist students, are able to openly and freely express their identities without fear of reprisal in the forms of harassment, intimidation, and/or marginalization.
Among the issues we would appreciate the opportunity to discuss are:
· Consideration of new provisions within the policies applicable to student organizations clarifying that membership decisions may not be made on (a) the basis of any aspect of identity, including race, religion, ethnicity, and national origin, or (b) a member’s protected speech;
· Bullying and harassment policies specifically as they pertain to social media messaging;
· Implementation of a mediation procedure or other due process mechanism for resolving student-related disputes, such as Natalie’s dismissal from the Chordials without a fair opportunity to be heard; and
· Adoption and implementation of additional proactive safeguards to help prevent the recurrence of this type of situation.
We are most grateful for your proactive approach and look forward to hearing from you to schedule a time to meet. In light of Natalie’s upcoming matriculation from the university, we hope that such a meeting will be possible on or before May 2, 2022.
Roz Rothstein Natalie Shclover
CEO & Co-Founder Student
StandWithUs University of Connecticut
Yael Lerman Carly F. Gammill
StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department StandWithUs Center for Combating Antisemitism