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Jewish leaders: UWM should have made 'strong statement'

May 18th, 2010

Leaders of the Milwaukee Jewish community expressed disappointment in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee because of its “lack of outrage” following the disruption of an April 29 Israel event on campus that was organized by Hillel Milwaukee.

A cultural event, Israelpalooza was held on Spaights Plaza to celebrate Israel Independence Day. Read a Chronicle report about the event.

The statement, signed by professional and volunteer leaders from the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, Hillel Milwaukee and the Jewish Community Relations Council, expresses disappointment in university officials for failing to ensure its students' safety and for its lack of response.

The complete statement, issued Monday morning, is below:

 

A Statement on Behalf of the Milwaukee Jewish Community

On behalf of the Milwaukee Jewish community, we wish to offer a response to events that took place at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee on April 29 and to the manner in which the UWM administration reacted to these events.

On April 29 student members of Hillel Milwaukee organized an event to commemorate the 62nd anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel. The students followed University procedure, and the event was University sanctioned. However, when students arrived on the morning of April 29, they discovered that, during the night, graffiti had been chalked around the area where the event was to take place. Some of the graffiti expressed political, anti-Israel sentiments, and some of it was anti-Semitic in content, including a drawing of a swastika – a clear act of hostility and intimidation and a cruel taunt to our local Holocaust survivors and their families. There was at the outset some confusion over whether University officials initially saw the swastika, but even after media broadcast coverage, the University has failed to issue a statement of outrage over this inflammatory image.

As the event progressed, pro-Palestinian individuals organized by the Muslim Student Association taunted the Jewish students, shouted at them in a threatening manner and surrounded them closely, contrary to University policy. One young man carried a Palestinian flag to the top of a climbing wall rented for the event and hung it there; when another pro-Palestinian young man thought that a Jewish student was preparing to throw the flag away, he assaulted the student, who was later treated for a serious injury. University security staff were either unable or unwilling to control the students’ actions.

The events – including the image of the swastika -- were reported in the media. Jewish students on campus expressed fears for their safety; some said they no longer felt safe and welcome on the UWM campus, cited other anti-Semitic incidents and, sadly, spoke of giving up the display of their religious symbols on campus.

In the days that followed, Hillel Milwaukee’s Executive Director and the Interim Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council phoned and visited with several University administrators. They made a number of suggestions and requests: for enhanced security, sensitivity training for dormitory staff and for a strong statement by the University. They were told that a number of concurrent investigations into possible misconduct had been launched, and that a statement from the University was imminent.   Although communications were respectful and positive, a strong statement has not been offered.  

We are deeply disappointed both by the incidents of April 29 and by the lack of outrage on the part of University officials. Common sense has been abandoned, and further, there is a failure to distinguish: between free speech and hate speech; between anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitism; between spoken disagreement and physical violence; between political expression and deliberate intimidation; between academic freedom and rhetoric that threatens acts of terror.

Most of all, we are saddened that there has been no strong statement from officials that the University is a community where mutual tolerance and respect for the opinions of others form the groundwork for an orderly, high-level exchange of ideas. A unique opportunity has been lost: this was the “teachable moment,” when the University could have confirmed its standards for embracing diversity and raising the level and civility of discourse between opposing viewpoints. Indeed, the University’s own “Non Academic Offenses” list, displayed on its website -- and including prohibitions against endangering the personal safety of others, harassment and disruption of University-sanctioned events -- has been flagrantly ignored, with no accountability. 

We value the University as a key partner and an essential component of our rich and diverse Milwaukee community, and we will continue to support the University as it grows and excels. But today we need to say clearly that our valued partner has disappointed us deeply.

 

Jerry Benjamin, President

Milwaukee Jewish Federation

 

Richard H. Meyer, Executive Vice President

Milwaukee Jewish Federation

 

Mark Goldstein, President

Hillel Milwaukee

 

Heidi Rattner, Executive Director

Hillel Milwaukee

 

Judy Kristal, Chair

Jewish Community Relations Council

 

Kathy Heilbronner, Interim Director

Jewish Community Relations Council