Conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro shared his perspective on the Israel-Hamas war, transgender identity and free speech Monday evening during a talk at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The event, “Stop Being Apologetic About the Superiority of Western Values,” was sponsored by Young Americans for Freedom at UW-Madison (YAF), the Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership, the Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy (CSLD) and GOP Badgers.
More than 1,150 viewers filled Memorial Union’s Shannon Hall to capacity, with over a hundred student and community members protesting outside.
Shapiro, an Orthodox Jew and vocal supporter of Israel, opened the conversation by condemning the “Western left’s” response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel, which killed more than 1,400 civilians and took more than 200 hostages.
He asked why “people in the West” are excusing Hamas, “barbarians” who he described as “today’s Nazis” and looking “to find” evidence of Israeli error.
Additionally, Shapiro said non-U.S. citizens who support Hamas should be deported and questioned “the bizarre spectacle of queers for Palestine.”
Shapiro also criticized UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin’s statement on the attacks, where she noted the “exceedingly fraught” nature of Middle East politics and said she was “skeptical” people “in roles like [hers] should frequently comment on global or world events.”
He called Mnookin’s response “vague” and accused the university of hypocrisy, citing official comments on other human rights issues, such as the 2020 George Floyd protests.
“The murder of Jews, however, that’s a different story. That's a little sensitive,” Shapiro said. “Why the double standard?”
The event transitioned to a question and answer session between Shapiro and audience members, where he answered questions on Israel, trans rights and freedom of speech. Organizers screened student questions, asking for the question and if it disagrees with Shapiro.
One student asked if cutting funding in regards to DEI efforts across the UW System is “worth it,” especially in regard to decreasing enrollment and educational opportunities at smaller campuses.
“I feel like there's a ton of people who don't really care and they want to go to the smaller school in their hometown,” the student said.
“You’re asking the wrong guy. I think that every major university in the United States should cut its liberal arts department and tell people to get a life,” replied Shapiro, who graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 2004.
Some students in the auditorium silently held up their hands, which were painted in red, during the event. Some of those students were affiliated with Students for Justice in Palestine-Madison, which has held protests and demonstrations in the weeks since the Oct. 7 attacks.
The crowd, which gave Shapiro a standing ovation when he arrived, interjected with jeers and heckles at various times.
Prior to the event, UW-Madison Dean of Students Christina Olstad gave a “first warning” discouraging any disruptions.
“It is our expectation that you will allow the speaker's presentation and subsequent question-answer exchanges to occur without disruption,” Olstad said. “Any disruptions to the event will be handled swiftly with responsible individuals subject to disciplinary action and or other citations for the disruption.”
UW-Madison YAF chairman Harrison Wells said YAF worked with Olstad on her address prior to the speech.
Wells praised Shapiro for focusing on Western values and “shutting down antisemites” during his talk.
“Tonight went great,” Wells told The Daily Cardinal. “We had a full house. No protesters inside except for peaceful nonviolent disruption, which is all right.”
Wells said UW-Madison could do “more” to support conservative students on campus, citing support for “non-partisan, nonpolitical or left-wing groups.” He said he didn’t feel adequately supported by UW-Madison and asked for “less undue burdens [and] less roadblocks.”
Protests outside Memorial Union
A crowd of about 100 counterdemonstrators gathered outside Memorial Union to protest Shapiro’s talk.
The Young Democratic Socialists of America at UW-Madison (YDSA) organized the protest to show “a little bit of resistance” through a peaceful demonstration, an organization spokesperson said.
Protesters participated in pro-Palestinian chants and spoke out against Shapiro’s stance on the Israel-Hamas war. The YDSA spokesperson, who identified themselves under the pseudonym Tasha, said Shapiro’s rhetoric is harmful to marginalized groups on campus and that this protest was a way to “show a little resistance” in support of these groups and bring the community together.
“[Shapiro’s] kind of speech doesn’t have a place on our campus,” Tasha told the Cardinal. “They say they’re for free speech, but at the end of the day they’re trying to silence you by making you afraid of speaking.”
In a statement prior to the protest, YDSA raised concerns about Shapiro's rhetoric and how it might propagate hate.
Shapiro’s critics have said his views on identity and race are hateful. Shapiro has argued that homosexuality should not have been removed as a mental illness from the Diagnostic and Statistical of Mental Disorders and said being transgender is a mental illness, though the American Psychological Association does not classify it as one.
The visit is the latest in Shapiro’s fall lecture series. Shapiro has worked with Young America’s Foundation for nearly 10 years and has spoken on more than 60 campuses, according to YAF’s website.
Shapiro last visited UW-Madison in 2016. After the event, UW-Madison in a statement said it was dedicated to promoting speakers who represent a variety of viewpoints and was disappointed that some attendees were not respectful of the discussion.
Volunteers handed out protest guideline flyers prepared by the Dean of Students’ office and UWPD before Monday’s event.
Campus news editor Liam Beran contributed to this report.
Anna Kleiber is a state news reporter for The Daily Cardinal.
Gavin Escott is a senior staff writer and photographer for multiple desks at The Daily Cardinal. Throughout his time at the Cardinal, he's written articles for city, state, campus and breaking news. He is the current host/producer of the Cardinal Call podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @gav_escott.
Rachel Hale is a senior staff writer who covers state politics and campus events. Before getting involved with The Daily Cardinal, she was a culture editor at Moda Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @rachelleighhale.