Harassment and violence at UWM — an isolated incident?

After the April 29 disruption and attack at an Israel Independence Day celebration at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, many are asking if the anti-Israel incident was an isolated event or indication of a larger problem for Jewish students on campus.

The campus has attracted occasional controversy with anti-Israel speakers and events. Last fall, it was one of just a few national venues for a BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) conference.

And on April 29, as Jewish students arrived on UWM’s Spaights Plaza for their Israelpalooza event, they discovered anti-Israel graffiti blanketing the plaza in sidewalk chalk. The Muslim Student Association and Students for a Democratic Society took credit for the graffiti but not for its most incendiary message, a swastika followed by the equal sign and a star of David.

During the event, two members of MSA ascended the climbing wall that had been rented for the event. One of them hung a Palestinian flag atop the wall.

The pro-Israel students took the flag down, and when one student, Simeon Joseph, attempted to throw the flag in a trash can, MSA member Suliman Sarsour attacked and struck Joseph, according to a report by UWM security officer Jaime Castro.

Is the event part of a pattern of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish behavior on campus? Since that day, Heidi Rattner, executive director of Hillel Milwaukee, has received “unconfirmed reports” of anti-Semitic incidents that took place previously.

“We’re trying to get a full and accurate picture,” said Kathy Heilbronner, interim director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.

“We are vigorously pursuing the conversation to find out. People want to know,” she said, adding that she, Rattner and other Jewish leaders have been engaged in “many conversations” with university officials to respond to the event.

They requested a series of steps from the university: a “strong, unambiguous public statement to media condemning the events of April 29 and clarifying university policies”; “establishment of a reporting system so that students can freely communicate to UWM if they are harassed or intimidated, regardless of the situation”; training by the Anti-Defamation League for dormitory personnel; ADL sensitivity training and education for UWM administration, law enforcement and other appropriate campus groups/individuals; and a commitment by UWM to uphold its Code of Conduct.

 
‘A positive step’

On May 17, the university fulfilled the first of those requests. UWM Chancellor Carlos E. Santiago released a statement addressed to UWM faculty, staff and students.

His message came one day after an earlier statement signed by Rattner, Heilbronner and four other Jewish community leaders criticizing UWM’s handling of the incident.

According to the Jewish community leaders’ statement, after this incident, “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.”

Moreover, the statement contends that university officials displayed “lack of outrage” over the incident and made “no strong statement” about it.

This statement was signed by Jerry Benjamin and Richard H. Meyer, president and executive vice president, respectively, of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation; Mark Goldstein and Rattner, president and executive director, respectively, of Hillel; and Judy Kristal and Heilbronner, chair and interim director of the JCRC.

In his letter Santiago wrote, “I want to reaffirm the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as a place for the free exchange of ideas and perspectives. Such exchanges, however, should be made in a civil, peaceful and constructive manner. UWM does not tolerate violence as an expression of any viewpoint.”

Moreover, “I have asked Interim Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Jim Hill to lead a group in conversation this summer and fall about the creation of programs that will enhance our campus community’s commitment to a culture of safety, civility and respect in the exchange of ideas and opinions.”

In a telephone conversation on May 18, Heilbronner called Santiago’s statement “a positive step … in that [UWM administrators] have publicly stated willingness to create a climate of inclusivity and respect and that they are not going to tolerate violence on the campus.”

Rattner was satisfied by the administration’s handling of a subsequent Israel-related event. On May 12, Hillel Milwaukee set up a table in the student union for the signing of a petition on behalf of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2006 and being held in the Gaza Strip. Rattner said there was “adequate security” and “no interference or disruption” of the two-hour event.

 
‘Ongoing conversations’

Heilbronner and Rattner said they will be monitoring how the university administration follows up on the incident.

Among those follow-up plans is an online system for reporting hate crimes, including anti-Semitic behavior. This system is already in development, Vice Chancellor Hill told Heilbronner and Rattner in a meeting.

“The university needs to conduct its own investigations to determine whether there were violations” of the student code of conduct, said Heilbronner. “We want to make sure the university enforces its own codes.”

Rattner said university officials told her that they would “try to complete an investigation of the incident in a few weeks.” She said that UWM’s director of student activities, Eric Jessup Anger, will investigate student groups, and Tom McGinnity, interim dean of students, will investigate “acts of misconduct by individuals.”

Though misconduct may be difficult to prove, stakes are high for student groups. According to the published “Student Organization Manual” of February 2010 (available online), “Student organizations found in violation of the Wisconsin/Administrative Code (Chapter UWS 18-Conduct on University Lands and/or UWS 17.09), Board of Regents policies, UW System policies or UWM policies, rules and regulations, including the Discriminatory Conduct Policy, are subject to sanctions imposed by the University Administration. Sanctions may range from an official warning to revocation of an organization’s charter.”

Both Heilbronner and Rattner said they were “having ongoing conversations” with the university’s administration.

“We’re going to be working proactively to follow up with the university as they put this into place,” said Heilbronner.

“My goal is to be a partner with the university community to enrich the lives of Jewish students on campus,” said Rattner. “We are hopeful that next year all students will have more opportunity for academic freedom and civil debate.”

Formerly op-ed editor, Leon Cohen has written for The Chronicle for more than 25 years.