Jewish and Palestinian leaders criticized the university’s response to reported antisemitic messages written in chalk around the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s campus on the first day of classes.
Chancellor Mnookin and Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Lori Reesor asserted they understood Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) had taken responsibility for the chalkings.
SJP maintained that they had no involvement. However, SJP defended the message of the chalkings.
“[SJP] supports the message of the chalking, Zionism is a project of racism, and genocide and ethnic cleansing and stealing of terrority and stealing of homes,” said Julian Cooper, board member and representative from SJP. “We agree with that sentiment wholeheartedly but the chalking was not an SJP activity.”
On Sept. 13, Alan Klugman and Michael Blumenfeld from the Jewish Federation of Madison and Wisconsin Jewish Conference, called on UW to investigate who was responsible for the messages. Their statement was signed by Jewish and political leaders across the country.
“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,” the September statement said.
In her response on Sept. 16, Chancellor Mnookin reaffirmed the harmful nature of the messages chalked on campus and claimed that she understood SJP to be the group responsible for the chalking.
“[The chalkings] went beyond political views about Israel and Zionism and included antisemitic statements that wrongly and unfairly ascribed actions and beliefs to our Jewish students based on their participation in Jewish student organizations,” said Mnookin in a statement. “My understanding is that a student organization, Students for Justice in Palestine, has taken responsibility for these chalkings.”
Mnookin also claimed UW-Madison would reach out to SJP to address the harm caused by the chalkings.
“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,” Mnookin said.
Vice Chancellor Lori Reesor echoed this statement in an email to members and families of UW Hillel, one of the Jewish organizations referenced in the chalkings.
Cooper confirmed UW reached out to SJP and that the organization took no responsibility for the chalkings.
“The chancellors are only approaching this issue by finding someone to point a finger at, rather than addressing the real-life genocide of Palestinians,” Cooper said. “The chancellors should be proud of the anti-apartheid and anti-occupation activism taking place on their campus rather than try to silence it and discredit it.”
In an email on Oct. 3, the university announced they will not take a position on the Israel/Palestine conflict, but did not clarify why Chancellor Mnookin was led to believe that SJP took responsibility for the chalkings.
“We have not taken, nor will we take, a position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the university said.
Cooper believes that the university might have been misled to believe SJP took responsibility for the chalking because the organization published a statement in defense of the chalking.
“My personal opinion is that they probably made the assumption that when we defended the statement we were taking responsibility for it — which is not true,” Cooper said.
SJP chose to write a statement in defense of the chalking because the organization believes in the open criticism of Zionism.
“Criticism of the Zionist settler-colonial project, as well as the organizations on campus who have consistently demonstrated their support for it, is absolutely valid and necessary,” SJP’s statement said.
Madison for Palestine, a local Palestinian rights organization, also published a separate statement criticizing UW’s response to the chalking incident.
According to Cooper, the statement from SJP has amassed over 200 individual and organizational signatures, including one from Madison for Palestine.
“As students who benefit from attending a university currently occupying Ho-Chunk land, we believe that it is every student’s moral obligation to speak out against organizations on campus that engage in or support colonialism, racism and genocide,” the SJP statement said.
Editor's note: This story was updated on Friday, October 7, at 11:20 a.m. to remove the misuse of the word "alleged."
Noe Goldhaber is a staff writer for the Daily Cardinal specializing in campus and state news reporting.