UWM cannot afford to forget Israelpalooza

In my college days in the mid-1980s, the cause de célèbre among lefty activists was South African apartheid. Sometime during the last 10 years or so, defending Palestinian rights became a litmus test for liberal campus activists.

These days, however, the popular movement on college campuses throughout the country has become more insidious — not a movement in defense of Palestinians or critical of Israel’s policies but a campaign against the very existence of Israel.

Though not new, that strategy of delegitimization and demonization has gained traction and set a new tone at universities throughout the country, including both politically charged campuses like the University of Wisconsin-Madison and quieter campuses like the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

It translates to events such as last fall’s U.S. Campaign BDS Campus Conference at UWM, one venue on a small national tour of the growing movement that encourages boycotts of, divestment from and sanctions (BDS) against the Jewish state.

That climate, I fear, is demonstrated in the university’s sluggishness in handling the disruption of Hillel Milwaukee’s April 29 Israel Independence Day event on campus. (See story, page 1.)

I arrived at the event just before noon, well after the plaza had been transformed with chalked graffiti into a landscape of anti-Israel messages and not long after students from the Muslim Student Association entered the event space and turned the birthday celebration into a political conflict.

In a May 10 opinion article he wrote for the UWM Post, MSA President Yamin Masalkhi, said, “Our group had planned to engage in a debate to express our side of the issue and learn more about what the students of Hillel had to say in turn.”

But the attempted “debate” (over Israel’s existence?) got out of hand when MSA students refused to lay off and the administration kept its distance, culminating in the assault of a Jewish student.

How might the event have unfolded differently if UWM had helped Hillel members remove the graffiti, which included a swastika, an unquestionably threatening anti-Semitic symbol?

Under the guise of protected speech, the university allowed a situation to develop that amounted to intimidation and harassment. Absent was the distinction between free speech and bullying. Missing was the foundation of respect that ensures civil discourse and safety in a diverse campus community.

“We don’t invite speakers to campus and allow their voices to be drowned out by protests. We allow students to protest, but we find appropriate ways for them to do so,” said Hillel’s faculty advisor Rachel Baum, Ph.D., in a May 10 letter to Interim Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Jim Hill.

“Certainly, students should not be able to come and disrupt the event of another group – particularly when both groups are official university student groups. Otherwise, we are not modeling free speech for our students. We are teaching them that the loudest, most aggressive voices win. As an educator, this is not the model I want my students to learn,” wrote Baum, adjunct assistant professor in Jewish studies.

Unfortunately, even after the violence, the university’s response was left wanting. UWM officials waited more than two weeks to make any public statement about the event, thereby exacerbating Jewish community worries that the administration doesn’t take seriously the issues this event raised.

In a letter to faculty, staff and students on May 17, UWM Chancellor Carlos E. Santiago said:

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.”

That’s the right message, but Santiago and his staff need now to take action and demonstrate that they understand the depth, complexity and urgency of this issue.

Next steps, according to the recommendations of Hillel Milwaukee and the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, are the full implementation of a reporting system for students who feel harassed or intimidated; sensitivity training for dormitory personnel and other campus officials; and the enforcement of UWM’s existing Code of Conduct.

We — the Jewish community and others who care about diversity, civil discourse and security on campus — need to be persuaded that UWM is a safe place for students of all races, ages, religions, nationalities and lifestyles.

Many American campuses have become unfriendly places for Jews and supporters of the Jewish state. I’m waiting for UWM to prove that it won’t allow our local campus to follow suit.