Opinion: Take UW-Madison off worst colleges list for Jews

 

Did you know there’s a list of the 40 worst colleges for Jewish students? Algemeiner.com, a Jewish news site, has published it.

I bring this up to question the contents. Algemeiner, if you’re going to publish such a list, could you please actually put the worst colleges for Jewish students on it, not the best? Ridiculously, University of Madison – Wisconsin, one of the best schools for Jewish students in the nation, is number 39 on the list.

In explaining its decision, Algemeiner correctly points out that “swastikas and other white supremacy symbols were found on the University of Wisconsin, Madison campus over the past year.”

Rob Golub

Rob Golub

Yet in February, 2016, after swastikas on a dorm room door garnered a great deal of media attention, we spoke with the student victim and he told us the perpetrators were small-town students who do not hate Jews and did not realize the gravity of their actions.

“It was a prank. Their intent was not to be necessarily threatening or make me lesser than anyone else,” Jewish student Jonathan Walters, of Brooklyn, New York, told the Chronicle. They all later started getting together “to play NHL video games more times than I’d like to take credit for,” he said. “We are friends.”

In addition to that incident, there was anti-Semitic graffiti found on buildings in Madison last year. School officials and authorities appear to have reacted with sober professionalism, as they should. Arrests were made.

We must take on hate and intolerance. Yet labeling Madison or anywhere else a “worst” college, based largely on the actions of one person or even a few people is frankly unfair. It gives the perpetrator too much power. It turns a couple of swastikas into emotional weapons of mass destruction. Why should the graffiti of one anti-Semite make some east coast Jewish family out there think twice about choosing Madison?

It’s easy to label a Midwestern school anti-Semitic, based on one or a few incidents. From the coasts, all of fly-over country can seem anti-Semitic if all one does is judge us based on an occasional incident in the media.

The reality is that the vast majority of Wisconsinites have zero interest in engaging in acts of anti-Semitism. This is the state that has simultaneously had two Jewish U.S. senators, the state where public officials are enthusiastic to help connect an eruv. (See story, this edition.)

Madison has a huge Jewish student body. With an estimated 4,200 Jewish undergraduates, about 13 percent of students are Jews, according to Hillel International’s College Guide.  It’s got the seventh-largest Jewish population on the Guide’s Top 60 list of public institutions.

Resources at the school reflect the existence of a large Jewish student body, with several Jewish-themed sororities and fraternities and organizations like Madison Hillel, Jewish Experience of Madison and Chabad.

 Bascom Hall at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. 2014 photo by Phil Roeder.

Bascom Hall at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. 2014 photo by Phil Roeder.

There’s even Jewop, a student acapella group of both Jewish and non-Jewish students that you’ve got to hear to believe.

I reached out to Madison sophomore Hilary Miller, a former BBYO-Wisconsin Region (Jewish youth group) president in the Milwaukee area, for her take on Madison and anti-Semitism. She’s active with Chabad and Hillel in Madison.

“Never have I felt threatened or unsafe as a Jewish student,” she said. “Jewish life really has felt no impact at all. It is upsetting that we get such a bad rep for being considered a bad school for Jewish students, because that really is not the reality.

“Bad things like the graffiti as well as pro-BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) rhetoric happens at most campuses; that is not unique to Wisconsin. In fact, I would argue that those things are rather mild at our school compared to others from what I have heard from friends at different universities out west and out east!”

We need to take anti-Semitism seriously in America. I’m reading an excellent book, “Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939,” on the rise of Adolf Hitler to power. It’s terrifying how small and seemingly harmless he was in the beginning. I’m still in the 1920s, decades before World War II. It’s chilling to watch him go from frustrated artist, to rabble-rouser for a handful of followers, to leading rallies for thousands in southern Germany.

Social media today has become a nest of anti-Semitism. Hate groups appear to have inched closer to the mainstream.

Those groups belong on a “worst” list, not Madison.

Rob Golub is editor of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle