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Sunday, February 05, 2023
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Photo by Max Fihma

‘Harmful and confusing’: UW-Madison community reacts to antisemitic Halloween costume

A person dressed as Adolf Hitler roamed the State Street area Saturday night, sparking anger and confusion among the campus community.

University of Wisconsin-Madison students were outraged after someone roamed State Street in an Adolf Hitler costume amid Halloween festivities Saturday evening, numerous social media posts and interviews with The Daily Cardinal revealed. Some feel betrayed by the university’s lack of initiative in responding to the antisemitic incident. 

Scores of community members brought to light the situation last night by posting on Reddit, expressing their horror over the person’s costume choice. Both UW Hillel and the Rohr Chabad House reached out to students Sunday afternoon about the incident to offer support. 

UW-Madison student Trevor Lyons was walking to dinner with his friends when he noticed the individual’s costume. He and his friends were angered and bewildered by the person’s costume, finding the situation “hard to process” and not knowing what to do amid the confusion and uproar. 

“We couldn’t believe that somebody would actually do this and that they would be brazenly walking around in the middle of downtown [Madison] on Halloween dressed like that,” Lyons said. “The whole situation was just harmful and confusing.”

Upon speaking to police officers, Lyons and the surrounding street goers became increasingly upset and confused. Lyons recalled the officers protecting the person from potential attacks, and while most of the officers were understanding, they couldn’t prevent the individual from exercising free speech. 

“[The officers] said to us, ‘We get that you’re angry, upset, but there’s nothing legally that we can do to stop him unless he threatens you explicitly,’” Lyons said, adding that the costume-wearer “threw off the whole night.” 

Max Fihma, a UW-Madison student, saw a fight ensue between the individual wearing the Adolf Hitler costume and passersby. After watching the police break up the melee, Fihma’s reaction to the officers’ response was mixed. 

“One or two cops said some very insensitive remarks about how this is American and you have the freedom to do whatever you want,” Fihma said. “But for the most part, the Madison police officers were very sensitive and helpful.” 

The Madison Police Department released a statement Monday saying they interviewed the individual as part of their investigation and have learned that the person has cognitive impairment due to a past traumatic brain injury. 

In a statement, Rabbi Mendel Matusof of Chabad underscored that a holiday celebrating debauchery and dark humor should have no place for hateful actions. Matusof stressed that antisemitism is not a Jewish issue but an antisemite’s issue, and he encouraged students to seek comfort through the community. 

“Henya and I at Chabad are here for you. The Hillel is here for you. Your Jewish peers and community members are here for you,” Matusof said. “Reach out and feel the community’s embrace, it’s comforting.” 

Hillel also issued a response Sunday afternoon and encouraged people with information about the individual to contact the Dean of Students Office, the Madison Police Department or the University of Wisconsin Police Department. 

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Although Lyons and Fihma feel support from UW-Madison’s Jewish community through organizations like Chabad and Hillel, they emphasized that the university needs to do more to support students. 

“It doesn’t feel like the university is there for me in the slightest,” Fihma said. 

The university announced in a statement Sunday night that they are aware of the incident and believe the individual is not a UW-Madison student. 

“UW-Madison stands against antisemitism and all forms of bigotry and discrimination,” the statement said. 

Lyons noted the recent antisemitic messaging found across campus, explaining that the university should step up and support the Jewish community amid the rise of incidents across campus. Both Lyons and Fihma said they were targets of unrelated antisemitic comments Saturday night. 

“It’s up to the university to come back and say, ‘We don’t allow this. We stand by the massive Jewish population that is at this school,’” Lyons said. “I think the response should be strong. It’s not something that’s so hard.”

On Monday, the Madison Children's Museum stated that the individual is a museum employee and has been suspended while the incident is investigated. 

"This is completely unacceptable and runs counter to everything the museum believes," the museum said in a statement. "We stand against antisemitism and all forms of bigotry and discrimination."

The museum confirmed on Tuesday that they have terminated the individual's employment. 

Editors' note: This story was updated at 7:25 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 31, 2022 to add statements from the Madison Police Department and the Madison Children's Museum. The story was also updated at 11:15 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 2 to confirm that the individual was fired from the museum. 

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