On the afternoon of Feb. 28, when it seemed like her life was falling apart, Natalie Shclover, a senior at the University of Connecticut, scrolled through the dozens of messages that were being posted about her online. One in particular stood out: “This should be a warning for all of the dirty zionists on this campus.”
The message was posted anonymously on YikYak, a social media network popular on college campuses, and was part of a wave of online invective that had been building around her since the early afternoon. That’s when Shclover and her boyfriend had an argument tangentially related to the Israel-Palestine conflict with four other students at a campus library. After one of the four students recorded a snippet of the exchange, several of them posted it on their social media accounts, alongside captions accusing Shclover, who is Jewish, and her boyfriend of Islamophobic harassment. (The four students, as well as Shclover’s boyfriend, are Muslim.)
The video did not seem to support the accusation. It showed Shclover arguing briefly and then turning around. As she walked away, one of the four students shouted expletives at her, including “[expletive] Zionist.”
But the substance didn’t matter. The video spread throughout campus in minutes. Then came the threats, the public denunciations, the posting of her address online, the ejection from her a cappella club, anonymous outreach to her future employer, and an article in the campus newspaper that reported the accusation as fact without so much as a comment from Shclover.
It all happened in one afternoon — about four hours, in fact. By evening, she was afraid to leave her room.
Shclover’s story is an extreme example of a phenomenon that Jewish students and activist groups say is becoming increasingly prevalent on college campuses: Jewish students feeling ostracized or, like Shclover, actually under attack for their presumed support for the state of Israel. The extremity of Middle East politics seems to have taken root, with new force and ferocity, on some campuses — and their many social media extensions.
Jewish students have begun compiling their stories — from campuses in California, Texas, the mid-Atlantic, and New England — on social media accounts that update several times weekly. A survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League and Hillel found that nearly a third of Jewish students personally experienced antisemitism on campus or from a classmate last year.
“What we’re seeing on campuses across the country,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the ADL, “is a kind of virulent anti-Zionism that purports to be about Palestinian rights, but in reality results in the marginalization and the demonization of all Jewish students.”
The issue is thorny. It pits free speech rights against the value of fostering campus climates that offer welcome to all. It prompts harsh scrutiny of the actions of some young activists genuinely worried about Palestinians’ plight. And it asks a lot of Jewish students, who feel pressured to endure what feels like antisemitism but may in fact be sincere, if sometimes overzealous and confrontational, criticism of a powerful state — Israel.
Pro-Palestinian activists say Israel upholds an “apartheid” regime that confines Palestinians to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where living conditions, for many, are miserable and the Israeli military has killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians. Jewish groups say a double standard — rooted in antisemitism — applies. Why don’t campus activists reproach other nations accused of trampling human rights — China and Saudi Arabia, for example — with the same fervor, they ask.
“I completely disagree that anti-Zionism is in any way related to antisemitism,” said Khaleel Rahman, president of the UConn Muslim Student Association, whose members were among the students who clashed with Shclover at the campus library. “We try to be clear.”
Tufts University president Tony Monaco believes the distinction is not easy to tease out. “The line between political speech and antisemitic speech can be difficult to find and isn’t the same for everyone,” he wrote after commissioning a 2021 study of the campus climate for Jewish students.
An administrator at another Boston-area university has noticed a “ratcheting up” of the intensity of Israel-related rhetoric on campus during the past decade, and especially in the last several years. She said she no longer feels comfortable wearing a Star of David on campus.
The causes of the increasingly fraught climate are not entirely clear, but the effects are acutely felt by some. One Boston-area college student told her rabbi that she is afraid to wear her Star of David on campus. A student at Tufts said her engineering club used photo software to remove a reference to Israel from her T-shirt before posting a group photo online. At Rutgers, the members of a predominantly Jewish fraternity watched from their house as four carloads of anti-Israel protesters rolled by shouting “baby killers” and “terrorists” at them.
None of this means Jewish students spend their days cowering in their dorm rooms. In interviews, many said that Jewish campus life remains vibrant at New England colleges. Nevertheless, students described feeling that when it comes to overt displays of Jewish identity, it’s better to be safe than sorry. “I’ve heard horror stories from other campuses,” said Zach Silvers, a Harvard freshman.
The issue is regarded as pressing enough that last month more than 40 university presidents gathered in New York to discuss how to combat rising antisemitism at their schools.
One of the presidents was Monaco, of Tufts. Last year, he assembled a committee to study the campus climate for Jewish students. In January, in an e-mail to the Tufts community, Monaco wrote that more than half of Jewish respondents to an undergraduate survey said they had observed some form of antisemitism at Tufts.
“Disturbingly,” he wrote, “we also heard from some Jewish students who felt that, in order to be welcome in student organizations supporting social justice, they had to hide their Jewish identities.”
In March, the Tufts chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, a national pro-Palestine group, urged the entire student body to sign a pledge to boycott a variety of Jewish-identified campus groups.
The campaign prompted an outcry from some Jewish students and advocates who argued that it crossed a line, moving beyond political activism to directly targeting and isolating Jews and Jewish life on campus. Two students — who lead one of the targeted groups, Friends of Israel — wrote in an op-ed in the campus newspaper that the pledge had the effect of separating the Jewish student body into “’good’ and ‘bad’ Jews.”
A representative of Tufts SJP said in an e-mail that the targeted groups were not chosen for being Jewish, but because “they all support the Israeli occupation of Palestine.” (The targeted groups support — or at least do not disavow — some version of a “two-state solution,” which SJP rejects because it “fails to recognize Israel as a settler colonial state and Zionism as a white supremacist ideology,” the group wrote in its pledge.)
Monaco condemned the pledge, writing in a March statement that SJP’s “campaign is divisive and harmful. It doesn’t help foster important conversations — rather, it shuts them down while ostracizing fellow students.” (The pledge also called on students to boycott a class on Israel-Palestine called Visions for Peace.)
Jewish students at Tufts and other campuses said that many campus clubs, even those that are not explicitly political, have taken a hard line on Israel, which can create an obstacle — even a litmus test — for some Jewish students’ participation.
“There’s a lot of really good work being done [on campus] on a lot of progressive issues that oftentimes is looping in a heavy component of anti-Israel activism,” said Ben Shapiro, a recent Tufts graduate. “That inherently is going to make the majority of Jewish students feel that they have to check a part of their identity at the door.”
As co-president of Tufts Friends of Israel, Shapiro found it difficult to work with other student groups. Once, he approached a medical students club about co-hosting an event for an Israel-based nonprofit that provided heart surgery to children in developing countries. In an e-mail response, the club told him it had “no interest in co-sponsoring events with Friends of Israel. The occupation of Palestinian land does not align with our mission of health equity.”
The Tufts senior whose shirt was Photoshopped by her engineering club to remove the phrase “I Dig Israel” — a reference to an archeology trip to the Holy Land — said the episode was “representative of the culture of the school generally. It’s assumed that everyone would agree that no one should be talking about Israel in a positive light.”
The student, who said her parents became Israeli citizens after fleeing the 1978 Iranian Revolution, found the incident upsetting. “There are many positions of the Israeli government I don’t agree with,” she said, “but I understand why Israel has to exist.“
“Being Israeli literally saved my parents’ lives,” she said.
Jewish students and activists said a double standard sometimes applies, with censure more easily meted out for students viewed as supportive of Israel than for others.
And then came the Natalie Shclover episode.
The contretemps at the library started because of some fliers. After UConn’s interim president, Radenka Maric, who is Jewish, announced plans to travel to Israel, the Muslim Student Association papered the library with fliers in protest. Some, Shclover said, appeared to be placed deliberately to cover up fliers from Jewish groups.
Rahman, of the MSA, said he and a helper deliberately avoided obscuring any other fliers, but said he could not speak to how other group members may have hung the fliers.
Shclover called UConn student services, which told her that groups could only post one flier per bulletin board and that she could remove any extras. When she returned with her boyfriend, Zacharia El-Tayyeb, they got in an argument with the four other students — and soon the video of Shclover’s purported harassment was everywhere.
One of the four students said in an interview that El-Tayyeb and Shclover approached them in an aggressive manner, which El-Tayyeb and Shclover deny.
On social media, students tagged Shclover’s a cappella group. “Natalie’s the president of uconn_chordials,” an anonymous user posted on YikYak. “LMAOO NOT FOR LONG.” That afternoon, Shclover was summoned to a Zoom meeting where the Chordials’ vice president, with the backing of most of the group, expelled her.
Meanwhile, the messages kept coming. “Dirty [expletive] Jew rip up another poster and I’m coming to UConn myself,” wrote one man. (Shclover did not rip up any fliers.)
Someone anonymously contacted Shclover’s future employer about the incident. The company’s chief of staff said it did not pursue the matter.
In the evening, the Daily Campus, the student newspaper, published an article under the headline “Muslim students harassed in library,” without contacting Shclover or El-Tayyeb for their side of the story, a Daily Campus editor said in an interview. “That’s obviously not best practice in journalism,” the editor added.
In the weeks that followed, Shclover was too afraid — from online threats to her safety — to go to class.
On March 19, Shclover published an “open letter to the UConn community” on the website of the Times of Israel, an English-language news site based in Israel, telling her side of the story.
“I am left now with an awful feeling of isolation, having been ostracized by the communities I so valued being a part of,” she wrote. “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.”
In a letter to the campus community on March 28, Maric, UConn’s interim president, said that no one involved in the library incident had violated the student code of conduct. Noting that Schlover had been called a “[expletive] Zionist,” she wrote: “It is entirely possible for words to be protected speech under the First Amendment but still deeply harmful and inconsistent with our community’s values, which this was.” A spokesperson said the university is reviewing its policies related to hate speech.
Shclover wasn’t satisfied with Maric’s letter, which she felt came too late — or with the university’s response generally.
Shclover said she has chosen to speak out to call attention to what she regards as a persistent problem.
“I know this will happen to someone else,” she said.
Mike Damiano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.