Antisemitic campus protests boiled over, but they only strengthened Jewish pride at University of Wisconsin-Madison | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Antisemitic campus protests boiled over, but they only strengthened Jewish pride at University of Wisconsin-Madison

The encampment at University of Wisconsin-Madison, laced with anti-Israel and anti-Jewish slogans, was painful, even frightening. Yet if it’s possible to imagine a silver lining, it was the Jewish pride on campus. 

“The rallies that we’ve had, and being together, has been so powerful and meaningful,” said Ariana Rosenfeld, who is entering her junior year at UW-Madison. In her youth, she attended Milwaukee Jewish Day School. 

“I’m proud of the response and how strong everyone has been. I feel proud to be a Jewish student at Madison,” Rosenfeld said. 

Ariana Rosenfeld

The Chronicle asked Rosenfeld and nine other undergraduate students with deep ties to Jewish community about their post-Oct. 7 campus. Among the students were Rosenfeld, who was very involved with BBYO-Wisconsin and Friendship Circle in the Milwaukee area; Ari Rosenblatt, a student from the San Francisco Bay Area, who chose to attend UW-Madison largely because of the strength of Hillel and the Jewish community; and Chloe Astrachan, who flew to Israel to volunteer after Oct. 7, over her January break.  

These students and others talked about a hard year, made so much better by Jewish community.  

A hard year 

“In the days following Oct. 7, I felt empowered to speak at Chabad in front of over 50 students,” said Maya Stagman, who is entering her junior year and has roughly 50 relatives in Israel. “In the middle of my speech, I began crying and couldn’t stop for weeks. I went to sleep every night praying for this nightmare to end – and I still do. After a much-needed winter break collecting my feelings and healing with the comfort of my family, I returned to school with the intention of continuing with life as normal, while continuing to pray for the war to be over and for the hostages to be released. I intended to finish my sophomore year on a positive note and in high spirits.” 

But Stagman said that when she learned in April that an encampment was coming to Madison, “I was triggered, and my mental state reverted back to those weeks following Oct. 7.” Stagman, of Boca Raton, Fla., also said she “walked to the library to study for finals, trying to focus on my studies while hearing and seeing the very people who want me dead and aren’t afraid to hide it.” 

Ezra Rosenthal, who was part of a group of Jewish students who met with Chancellor Jennifer L. Mnookin, said in an interview with the Chronicle that the encampment allowed antisemitism and protected it. This, he said, “makes me feel unsafe and targeted and like I’m not welcome on campus or that people on campus don’t want me there. Which is not something that I want to be thinking about or feeling during finals week, when I should be studying and getting ready for my finals.” 

Demi Batten, who helped plan vigils for Jewish students, put it this way: “Between this and Covid, this year has definitely been one of the hardest years of my life.” 

Lindsay Dubin, who graduated in May, was disturbed by the calls to “globalize the intifada,” which she said some people seem to think just means resistance. 

“However, to a lot of Israelis and Jewish people, it is a call for violence against Israelis and Jews as we’ve seen in the First Intifada and the Second Intifada. To us, it means suicide bombers and mass violence. It does not mean resistance to a lot of Jews and Israelis. So I did my best to avoid Library Mall at all costs. I didn’t want to walk past it. It was intimidating. And it was scary,” Dubin said.  

While several Jewish students interviewed similarly said they avoided walking past the encampment, Astrachan headed straight for it and walked through it. 

“I think I was more angry than scared,” Astrachan said. “But I think that that’s just my personality. I think everyone else was scared for me. So I should have been way more scared. But I was so proud to be standing there to be a voice for other people.” 

Astrachan visited the encampment repeatedly, at times with an Israeli flag or with a sign that read: “Bring them home.” 

During the encampment and protests, about a dozen Jewish students, including some of those interviewed for this article, came together and wrote a 23-page document with requests for the university. The requests included equal condemnation of antisemitism to other forms of hate and a first-year civics requirement to help students understand the importance of civil discourse. Included were written student testimonials.  

The chancellor held a meeting that included students who worked on the document, with leadership from Madison Hillel and Madison Chabad. The students were careful to call their list of items “respectful requests,” not “demands.”  

“That got a laugh out of the chancellor,” Rosenblatt said. 

“It was really great,” Rosenblatt added. “It was really nice to feel validated in our experience of how we were feeling and discuss ways in which the university isn’t showing up, but also the ways in which they are showing up, and being able to ask a lot of our questions. It was very, very nice.” 

The strength of community 

“I think that Hillel and Chabad at Wisconsin are both incredible and are always welcoming to students,” said Rosenthal, who praised the rabbis and other leadership at the two organizations. He said they “are always welcoming and trying to invite you in, and offering you meals, just talking to you if you ever need anything, and always there, which I think is very important and very loving.” 

On Oct. 7, terrorists entered Israel and brutally attacked civilians at a music festival and in their homes. They took hundreds of innocent hostages. Almost immediately, more than 400 people gathered on campus for a vigil. It was at Library Mall, where the encampment would eventually plant itself, but the vigil was a place for hugs, calls for peace and singing “Hatikva” by candlelight.  

Rosenthal started wearing a kippah on campus the day the encampment went up. One passerby in a car stopped and said, “bless your heart.” But when he walked by the encampment wearing the kippah, with nothing political, he said he was yelled at: “Free Palestine,” “from the river to the sea,” and one person yelled, “Zionists are Nazis.” 

Rachel Dallet of Whitefish Bay attended gatherings for Jewish students: “I left with the biggest smile on my face and the biggest sense of belonging, all of us just being on the same page. It felt good to just to sing and dance to Hebrew songs. It was nice. It kind of brought me back to camp days.” 

Students said hundreds of Jews could turn out for an event with a few hours’ notice. One campus text group for Jewish students had 450 people on it. 

“I would say it was traumatic in a lot of ways, and it was lonely in a lot of ways,” Astrachan said. “But it was also so meaningful because there’s such a strong community here through Chabad and through Hillel, that as alone as you felt, you knew you were never really alone because we had those places to go to. Through all the hate that we were seeing and experiencing, the amount of new connections I made with so many different people because of this is so incredible.” 

Most Jewish students on campus are pro-Israel, Rosenblatt said. 

“I think we have come out stronger than I could have ever imagined. Standing at events and speaking with fellow Jews, truly warms my heart and brings light to the darkness,” said Demi Batten, who graduated in May and is part of her San Diego Jewish community, back home. “I have met more Jewish students within the last couple of months than I have in my three years away from home. We have instantly connected and have created friendships that will last a lifetime because we were all there for each other through the hardships.” 

* * *

Click to Read More