University of Wisconsin-Madison administrators are working to educate members of Students for Justice in Palestine on the harm caused by their antisemitic messages, after the messages were chalked around campus overnight before the first day of the fall 2022 semester, according to officials.
Administrators revealed their efforts with Students for Justice in Palestine in a Sept. 16, 2022, letter to Wisconsin faith and community organizations, after more than 30 of them issued a joint statement condemning the antisemitic chalkings.
The Sept. 13, 2022, joint statement from faith and community organizations condemned the “demonization of the Jewish community” and called for the “UW Administration to conduct an investigation,” after the antisemitic chalk messages were found on sidewalks at school.
Administrators at the University of Wisconsin-Madison issued an apology to the school’s Jewish students after graffiti targeting what perpetrators called “Zionist” student groups was spotted in multiple locations around campus. University officials called the graffiti antisemitic and initially said they did not know who had drawn it.
Response of faith groups
“We are appalled that on the first day of classes at UW Madison, the campus community awoke to find multiple sidewalk chalkings around campus that targeted several Jewish student groups labeling them as ‘racist,’ ‘genocidal’ and invoking the antisemitic trope of ‘having blood on their hands,’” reads the statement from faith and community groups. “As Wisconsin faith and community organizations committed to fostering an environment of belonging for all people, we stand against all forms of hatred and bigotry, and today we must reaffirm that we stand against antisemitism.”
Signatories to the statement include:
- Anti-Defamation League, David Goldenberg, Midwest regional director;
- Lutheran Office for Public Policy in Wisconsin, Rev. Cindy Crane, director;
- Milwaukee Jewish Federation, Miryam Rosenzweig, president and CEO;
- Roman Catholic Diocese of Madison, Most Reverend Donald J. Hying, bishop of Madison;
- Wisconsin Council of Churches, Rev. Kerri Parker, executive director;
- and groups representing Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, individual houses of worship, among others.
“This hateful speech scrawled anonymously under the cover of night falls outside the bounds of dialogue,” the statement continues. “The demonization of the Jewish community, and specifically Jewish students and their Jewish organizations is a direct assault on Jewish identity. This is especially dangerous given the recent increase of antisemitic incidents both on the UW Madison campus, and across the nation.”
The faith and community organizations thanked the administration for “naming” the antisemitism, but called for an investigation, adding that “it is important to identify whether a UW student organization, individual students or an outside group is responsible, and ensure that any necessary education and accountability can be pursued.”
“It is essential that the UW Administration address the full inclusion of all Jewish campus community members as an integral part of their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Hatred towards any identity group has no place on campus, and hatred targeting Jews is no exception,” the groups wrote in their statement.
Three days later, Chancellor Jennifer L. Mnookin responded that “ … as a member of the Jewish community myself, I deeply understand the corrosive impact of antisemitism, both in general, and in this instance ….
“We at UW–Madison care deeply about being a place where all of our students – including our substantial Jewish community – feel a strong sense of inclusion and belonging.”
Mnookin emphasized the importance of education.
“My understanding is that a student organization, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), has taken responsibility for these chalkings,” she wrote. “Our Student Affairs leadership has reached out to SJP’s leadership and will be speaking to them to emphasize the impact of their actions and the harm caused by these chalkings. Because our speech rules as a public educational institution protect even deeply offensive speech, this engagement will be educational rather than disciplinary. But it is critical to name and discuss why actions like these hurt our community.”
Marc Lovicott, spokesman for the UW-Madison Police Department, said his department agreed with the university assessment that acknowledges the impact of the chalkings, but also understands they represent free speech, which is a core value at the school. No crime was committed and there has been no police investigation, he said.
Mnookin added that she is meeting with Rabbi Mendel Matusof at Rohr Chabad House and Greg Steinberger, CEO and president of Madison Hillel, and others, to discuss the experience of being Jewish on campus. She wrote that she recognizes that antisemitic incidents are on the rise nationwide, which is “of concern to us as an institution and to me personally.”
“These labels are antisemitic: they attribute broad actions or beliefs to Jewish student groups,” UW Vice Chancellor Lori Reesor and Chief Diversity Officer LaVar J. Charleston said in a joint statement immediately after the incident.
“To those Jewish students and others affected, we are sorry for the impact this had on your first day of class at UW,” Reesor and Charleston continued. “We truly strive to create a campus where every student feels they belong, and this kind of messaging harms that goal and aspiration.”
Steinberger, the Hillel Madison leader, told Madison.com that the messages were “a frightening and painful way to start the year,” and that Jewish students “were targeted for their interests and they were singled out by an intentional and hateful act designed to cause harm.”
In their statement, the school administrators said that while the graffiti was protected under campus free speech, “Just because something isn’t prohibited doesn’t make it a good idea.”
Andrew Lapin, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, contributed to this story.