MILWAUKEE – University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee officials report they have taken action, “to ensure it doesn’t happen again,” after the Chronicle contacted them for comment on anti-Israel emails sent by its Women’s & Gender Studies Department.
The emails, promoting off-campus, anti-Israel events, arguably fanned the flames of antisemitism at a time when Jewish students nationwide are feeling fearful.
In particular, the chair of the Women’s & Gender Studies Department sent emails to an official student email list, promoting off-campus, anti-Israel events. Many such events and rallies around the nation have been laced with antisemitism and apparent calls for the destruction of Israel. And there are rules that detail the appropriate use of such official email lists, given that UWM and its resources are an arm of state government.
There were no emails sent to the official list in support of Israel or Israelis after the Oct. 7 atrocities, according to UWM junior Allie Barry, 23.
“It was incredibly disheartening,” said Barry, who at school also goes by her Hebrew name, Aliyah. She said the emails gave her “a feeling of dread.”
Barry said the emails cut deep because students are now afraid to be visibly Jewish on campus, after a widely reported post-Oct. 7 increase in antisemitic behavior nationwide. “So, to see this coming from faculty and coming from the Women’s Studies department — that is supposed to be for equality, justice, education and knowledge — it was really upsetting,” she said.
“This kind of one-sided narrative, without condemning or acknowledging the atrocities on Oct. 7, is in a way supporting the use of rape as a tool of war,” Barry said. She wonders, is the message that rape is OK if the woman raped is Israeli or Jewish?
How it unfolded
In the weeks after Oct. 7, 2023, when women were raped and abducted by Hamas, the chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at UWM sent email blasts to students promoting events critical of Israel. These included a “Stop the Genocide Against Gaza” protest at Milwaukee’s Red Arrow Park, and an off-campus film, “Gaza Fights for Freedom.” The emails from Xin Huang, who is also an associate professor, were sent to UWM’s “Ws-undergradstudents” email list from a “UWM.edu” account.
Barry said she walked past one campus rally, hearing screams of “from the river to the sea” — a refrain often interpreted as a call to eliminate Israel and the Jews who live there. The psychology major has hidden her Hebrew name necklace on campus.
Typically, the “Ws-undergradstudents” list has been used to promote more mundane campus events, or news like a clothing drive, Barry said.
Barry, who is minoring in Women’s and Gender Studies, emailed Huang on Oct. 20 to ask her to reconsider sending the emails. It was Barry’s second such request that week: “I am reaching out again because the things you are sharing are incredibly one-sided and without any additional resources on the matter is irresponsible. Additionally, to say you are standing against genocide without condemning terrorists or recognizing the 1300+ Israelis and Jews who were massacred on October 7, or recognizing the 200+ hostages that were dragged from their homes by Hamas and taken into Gaza where they are still being held, dead or alive, is negligent.
“I urge you to please understand that there is a rise in antisemitism in response to what is happening in the Middle East, and the way you are conducting yourself and the information you are sharing with an entire department is one-sided and incredibly dangerous.”
When Barry started emailing and copying school officials for help, she was referred to the Office of Equity and Diversity Services, she said. She felt a subsequent meeting with that office was empathetic.
Ultimately, in an email to Barry, Huang wrote that “I am sorry that the emails have made you feel unsafe,” but did not discuss the incendiary information already shared. Huang wrote that going forward, only university programs would be shared “at this moment.”
In an interview with the Chronicle, Barry said Huang’s response felt “incredibly artificial. She basically said, ‘I’m sorry that you feel this way,’ which is incredibly invalidating, especially because a protest that she was promoting was to ‘Stop the Genocide Against Gaza.’ There was no condemnation of the atrocities that occurred on Oct. 7, that started this whole crisis. And there was no acknowledgment of the dangers that Jewish students and Jewish people everywhere are facing.”
School and Hillel response
Asked for comment, a UWM spokesperson promised action to prevent future issues.
“UWM is aware of the use of a departmental email list by an employee to share non-university related information, and the emotional impact that might have caused based on the subject matter,” said Angelica Duria, spokesperson for the university. “Once UWM leadership learned of the matter, several follow-up conversations were held to ensure it doesn’t happen again. UWM has taken additional steps to reinforce what constitutes appropriate use of such email lists and what information can be shared with those lists.”
“UWM recognizes that the Middle East conflict has left many students experiencing heightened concerns for their safety and well-being. The safety of everyone in the UWM community is our highest priority, and UWM is taking every possible measure to maintain a secure and supportive environment on our campus. UWM offers a range of support services, including counseling and group talk sessions. Moreover, the Dean of Students Office has been in direct contact with students and student organizations seeking support.”
Duria added that UWM supports the right to free speech and peaceful demonstrations, but not hate or discrimination, and that threats will not be tolerated. “Employees are always free to express and share thoughts on current events through their personal communications channels,” she said.
Rabbi Joshua Herman, executive director of Milwaukee Hillel, said he’s proud of Barry for the way she has handled the situation. He also wants to help the university see a bigger picture.
“It’s beyond the one faculty member that makes the one student feel unsafe. It’s beyond the one student group that’s saying antisemitic things at their protest. It’s an entire environment,” he said.
“It’s not just about making sure that a faculty member isn’t sending out this flier. It’s to make sure that all faculty members know that when they’re presenting one narrative or when they’re using words irresponsibly like ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘colonization,’ that it’s contributing to a climate that’s unwelcoming to Jewish students.”
Exchange between educators
A noteworthy Oct. 16-19 email exchange between educators and a student activist was shared to the official student email list, in addition to the aforementioned events shared to the list. In this Oct. 16-19 email exchange, the student activist sought to promote anti-Israel events and a “decolonize Palestine” website.
It’s not clear if the sharing of this conversation to all the students on the “Ws-undergradstudents” list was in error.
The Oct. 16-19 email exchange focuses on rules for the email list. It is possible that Barry’s requests for better behavior led to some of the discussion, but she is not part of the discussion or acknowledged in it.
In the exchange, which are public records obtained by the Chronicle along with other emails referenced in this report, department chair Xin Huang and an undergraduate advisor and program coordinator, Morgan Elizabeth Foster, declined to promote more anti-Israel materials (though the email exchange that was shared did include anti-Israel materials). They explained to the student activist that they must follow UWM rules and state law, which govern the use of official email lists. Huang quoted a list of guidelines, including: “We could let students know about events on campus that promoted a certain viewpoint, but we could not promote that viewpoint ourselves.”
A “Milwaukee for Palestine” virtual event, promoted to the email list on Oct. 17, called on people to “Join us to call our senators and representatives ….” Yet this rule was also on Huang’s list: “We cannot tell people to call their congressional representatives to express a particular political opinion ….”
In the Oct. 16-19 email exchange, Foster wrote to the student activist: “Believe me when I say that as an outspoken person, it is very difficult for me to stay silent on a range of issues and not let my personal feelings come through in UWM emails / social media.” She added that “we are as frustrated as you are about various policies” and would “discuss with my colleagues how to proceed and show our support.”
Huang wrote, “I echo what Morgan said ….”
Huang did not respond to a Chronicle request for comment. Foster referred the Chronicle to the UWM media services team.
Jewish students afraid
In her Oct. 20 email, Barry asked Huang, who she has never had for a class, to educate herself. She told Huang that sharing this information is “pushing dangerous rhetoric, and you are not condemning (Hamas) actions. This is a dog whistle for Jewish hate, which we are seeing and experiencing more and more every day.”
In her email, Barry detailed antisemitic incidents she had heard of, involving Jewish students at UWM and elsewhere.
“I have already expressed my hurt and concern, not only for myself but for every Jewish student and Jewish person in Milwaukee. I urge you to please seek out education and resources on what is happening. We are afraid and this is fueling the fire that we fear. We don’t have the luxury of voicing our opinions because of the violence that we face, and these rallies and protests and things you are sharing are contributing to that violence. We are mourning, and we are scared.”