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Stories from across Connecticut that contextualize the frustration, confusion, and hurt related to free speech and expression on campus.

Despite threats on and off campus, students find space in CT for dialogue on violence

Students attending a menorah lighting at a Jews for Ceasefire event at Yale University.
Reese Jacob Neal
Students attending a menorah lighting at a Jews for Ceasefire event at Yale University.

Trinity College student Tahseen Aliahmad and his two friends made their way to Burlington for Thanksgiving break in late November, with plans to stay with his friend’s uncle. Aliahmad, Hisham Awartani and Kinnan Abdalhamid had been friends since childhood, when they attended the same school in Palestine before coming to the United States. A few days after Thanksgiving, they were shot from an apartment window while on a walk.

They came back from their holiday break bearing multiple bullet wounds. Awartani is currently paralyzed from the chest down.

In the past two months, students in Connecticut and across the country have faced worrying limits on their free speech. They’ve also been on the other end of speech, receiving not just counter-speech, but also insults and serious threats.

In cases like the three students in Vermont, situations escalated to violence.

Reports of violence against students belonging to specific groups or backgrounds have risen since October. Students claim being spat on for wearing a keffiyeh, Jewish students have been threatened with death and rape by a classmate, and student organizations have been receiving threats over the phone for being Jewish, Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian. But as Islamophobic, antisemitic, and xenophobic sentiments also rise, experts posit that some threats come from far outside of the communities being threatened.

Many serious threats come from across the country, not the classroom

In November, a recent graduate who was a part of the University of Connecticut’s Students for Justice in Palestine organization received a voicemail threatening death. The caller used slurs, and said he “couldn’t wait to see [her] dead.”

Gary English is the faculty advisor of that student organization. He acknowledged that Islamophobia and anti-semitism exists on UConn’s campus, and that both have been on the rise.

He made the point that the voicemail the graduate had received came from far outside the bounds of the school; in fact, it came all the way from Oklahoma.

English warned that not every act of hate on campus is being enacted by other students with opposite agendas, and urged students to take that idea into consideration when addressing each other.

“People feel unsafe for a variety of reasons,” he said. He added that some incidents of violence on campus toward Palestinian, Arab, or Middle Eastern students do not come from Jewish and Israeli students, and vice versa.

“I would be willing to bet the mortgage that anti-semitic events on campus are the result of far-right extremist groups, not Arab and Muslim groups. And the harassment that Arab and Muslim students feel, I think, is from the same source.”

English said he thinks that source is – not always, but in some important cases – radical extremism from outside the affected groups. He included the recent shooting of the three Palestinian students in Vermont as an example. The Vermont resident in custody for shooting Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid, and Tahseen Ali Ahmad is Jason Eaton, a 48-year-old man who, according to his X profile, describes himself as a “radical citizen” who patrols “demockracy and crapitalism for oathcreepers.” Eaton pleaded not guilty.

Though authorities have not yet determined a motive for the shooting, English is also willing to bet that Eaton doesn’t have a personal stake in either Israeli or Palestinian issues. Rather, he thinks the suspect is a radical actor, just as Eaton described himself on social media.

Events like the Vermont shooting have put students like Jane at UConn-Stamford on edge. She’s part-Palestinian and has been insulted for wearing a keffiyeh on campus. English said he recognizes that, and hopes that understanding the origin of many violent threats can provide some amount of comfort. In addition, he urged students to use that understanding as a reason to promote healthy dialogue between differing campus groups.

After the voicemail from Oklahoma threatened the Students for Justice in Palestine alumni at UConn, Jessica Baden rushed to show her support. She’s the president of UConn Hillel, a campus chapter of the largest international Jewish campus organization.

“I immediately reached out, saying that I condemn all forms of hate,” she said. “And while we disagree on a lot of things. I hope that we can agree that this is awful, and I hope that your students are receiving the support that they need. And that we can do whatever we can to support you.”

Chancellor Terrence Cheng from the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system said he hopes to help create a campus environment that more easily allows for productive dialogue. As an administrator, he wants to be able to provide space for conversation amongst students who are feeling pain, sorrow, and frustration. He also acknowledges that the administration of colleges and universities in the state have work to do on that front.

“There's still a lot going on that maybe we're not capturing,” he said.

Cheng said that school administrators don’t yet have the common vocabulary to be able to properly talk about Israel and Palestine, though the mandate that created Israel as a state was put into effect 75 years ago.

“When it comes to this global, centuries-long conflict, I don't think we know how to talk about it. And I think that's starting to really show. We have to do a better job of being brave enough to bring those people to the table.”
Terrence Cheng, Connecticut State Colleges and Universities Chancellor

Hopes for dialogue lies with students

But some students think that the administration can only do so much. Danya Dubrow-Compaine is an organizer for the student group Jews for Ceasefire on Yale’s campus. She’s also heavily involved with Slifka, the school’s center for Jewish life.

“As much as people are saying that the administration needs to do X, Y, or Z to potentially

address divisiveness, I actually don't necessarily think that there's anything the university can do to address divisiveness specifically,” Dubrow-Compaine said.

She’s been working to hold conversations about Israel and Palestine at the Slifka center, which she describes as a “mainstream Jewish space” on campus. Though she says that there is, of course, tension within the space between opposing ideologies, spaces for conversation are opening up in the community.

“More than at any point in the past, [both] views are held within Slifka,” she said, “which for me is exciting, because it's like, you can't just write off our voices as these radical extremists that don't represent all Jews when actually, we make up a huge part of like this organization.”

Dubrow-Compaine also recognizes that not all dialogue is uplifting, and that it takes long-term, concerted efforts to establish rapport between students who disagree.

“In an ideal world, it would be great if people could do all of the amazing organizing work that they're doing and also engage in dialogue work,” she said. “But the reality is that dialogue work is really, really hard. It's really, really draining. It takes a really long time, and it doesn't always pay off.”

Student organizers in support of Palestine have expressed their frustration at organizing teach-ins about Gaza in conjunction with different departments at Yale. In particular, organizers faced trouble at an event held on Nov. 6, called “Gaza Under Siege.” Chi, the pro-Palestine organizer from the first installment of this series, said that certain agreements that had been made to protect those at the event were broken by the administration.

“There were certain protections that were supposed to be levied towards the organizers and the speakers at the event,” she said. ”It was actually very much imperative that these protections were actualized. Because these were three Palestinian women who decided to come because they were promised that they wouldn't be recorded.”

But, Chi shared that students who hadn’t registered for the event — which was required for entry — entered the space before students and speakers had been given the chance to properly exit, phones in hand and recording the space.

Some of those students have since claimed that they weren’t allowed in because they were Jewish, which Chi rejects. Campus officials maintain that some students weren’t able to join because the room had already reached capacity.

A statement released by the university writes: “Students and other community members of all backgrounds had an opportunity to attend the event, engage intellectually and respectfully, and ask questions and participate in the discussion… a small number of people listened from the hallway; because the speakers wore microphones, the discussion was audible outside the room.”

Despite that event, students continue to push for events that create dialogue — true to student Dubrow-Compaine’s sentiment. Student group Yalies4Palestine have co-organized at least two other events since early November. Jewish groups like the Slifka center continue to do the same.

At UConn, English was a panelist for “A Conversation about the Israel-Hamas Conflict,” held on Nov. 30th. He was a part of the event’s planning, and said it’s a part of a bigger goal to help facilitate conversation among students.

“Some of us have been pushing for [this] precisely because we want to model civil discourse on a difficult subject for students,” he said.

There are also times when students disagree, point-blank. Richard Wilson, founder of the UConn’s Human Rights Institute, said that when students can’t find common ground, he encourages them to to focus on their own cause, rather than attempting to stifle the voices of others.

“Protest and demonstrations and political passion is the lifeblood of democracy. I see universities as… places of democratic deliberation,” he said. “They should be places of civil discourse. They should be places where we can expand a wide range of views and explore those views openly with mutual respect, ideally.”

Legal scholar Wilson said it isn’t an administrator’s place to encroach on free speech. Nor is it the place of other students, or anyone’s. He also doesn’t think it’s appropriate to bring in the criminal justice system into institutions of higher education to rule statements by students out of order.

Instead, “I think we want to keep it as open and vibrant as we can,” he said.

“We're all people, and we all need to speak to one another, and have dialogue with each other in a way that respects our mutual humanity.”

Eda Uzunlar is WSHU's Poynter Fellow for Media and Journalism.