Hamas’ recent terrorist attack on Israel has prompted an increasing disconnect between myself, my campus, and the law school community. Being the Vice President of the Federalist Society, a Jew, and a Zionist does not make it easy to fit in, but in recent weeks, campus life has become even more difficult.
There are three main contributors to my current experience as a Jewish law student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: the university administration, which struggles to show support for Israel and for Jewish students; the law school, which has telegraphed indifference to the attack; and Jewish organizations, which have stepped up to fill in where the university has remained silent.
The university’s first response to the horrific news of the Hamas attack was a minimalist one that made no mention of Hamas or a terrorist attack. On October 7, the university posted an Instagram story with a message that said, “To our students affected by recent acts of violence in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, we are here to support you.”
In response, the campus Chabad Rabbi wrote an Open Letter to the Administration in which he explained, “Unfortunately, the UW has made it worse. By acknowledging the acts of terror under the guise of ‘violence in Israel and the Palestinian Territories’, the administration itself seems to lessen the abhorrence of the terrorism by giving it the guise of a political dispute.”
On October 11, the chancellor of the university issued a more substantive statement. The statement offered her sympathy but did not show much support to the 5,000 Jewish students on UW’s campus. Rather, the chancellor expressed the “fraught” nature of “Politics in the Middle East” and questioned her role in commenting on world events. The school expressed no such qualms when it made recent statements on George Floyd and the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard decision.
The law school—the place that is supposed to be my immediate community—has made me feel like a stranger. This does not come as a shock as the law school has shown a tendency to disregard its Jewish students. Its DEI consultants openly dismiss Jewish students’ accounts of anti-Semitism, it schedules journal deadlines on Yom Kippur, and it excludes Jews from its Legal Educational Opportunity Program—a coalition of ethnic minority legal groups, except for Jews. Given these past and continuing actions, it would have come as a surprise if the school had shown support for its Jewish students.
Instead, both law school administrators and student groups have taken this terrorist attack as an opportunity to air their grievances against and criticisms of Israel. On November 7, the Global Legal Studies Center and Human Rights Program hosted a presentation titled, “International Law and Humanitarianism in the Israel/Gaza Conflict.” And on November 15, the Socialist Law Students of Wisconsin hosted a reading group on “Israel’s Legal System of Apartheid.”
A few days after the attack, while walking home from class, I came across a protest in the center of campus with students chanting and cheering on the slaughter of over 1,400 Jews, as well as the capture of both American and Israeli hostages. Students shouted slogans such as “Glory to the martyrs” and “We will liberate the land by any means necessary.”
On October 17, the Students for Justice in Palestine group on campus held a “Free Gaza” event which prompted Hillel, a national Jewish organization on campus, to send an email stating, “We have been made aware of a ‘Free Palestine’ demonstration scheduled for this evening. In the interest of your safety and the well-being of our community, we, in consultation with our communal leaders and experts, encourage you to consider that the most effective response is to refrain from attending and engaging with the demonstration.”
Both Hillel and Chabad, the two most prominent Jewish organizations on campus, have taken it upon themselves to pick up where the university has left off. Both continue to advocate on behalf of Jewish students' interests and to ensure Jewish students’ safety. The organizations remain vigilant: Chabad has increased its building security, and Hillel continues to send emails and social media updates of possibly dangerous protests to avoid.
As protests and marches have continued throughout the last month and slanted discussions on Israel continue to crop up, neither the university nor the law school has made any effort to denounce pro-terrorism or anti-Israel sentiments or offer reassurance to Jewish students. Other university leaders, such as the University of Florida’s Ben Sasse, have offered strong messages directly addressing their Jewish communities. In Sasse’s letter, he emphasized his commitment to protecting free speech, but also the safety of UF’s Jewish students. UW-Madison is a similarly situated public state university with a sizable Jewish student population, but it has yet to offer a similar response.
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