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Sunday, February 25, 2024
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Campus faith leaders emphasize tolerance, open discussion at Diversity Forum

Christian, Jewish and Muslim panelists discussed religious diversity and coexistence to close the two-day forum.


By Carter Burg

The University of Wisconsin-Madison capped off its 2023 Diversity Forum with a conversation among faith leaders Wednesday about how to respond to acts of hate, interfaith respect and the lived experiences of religious students.

The forum, held in the midst of the Israel-Hamas war, was originally meant to dispel myths surrounding on-campus faiths. 

However, in light of the conflict in Gaza, the discussion was modified “to address the role that religion plays in shaping our intersecting identities and how despite religious differences we might be able to move forward,” said UW-Madison Chief Diversity Officer LaVar Charleston.

The panelists, Rabbi Andrea Steinberger, Reverend Erica Liu and constitutional law professor Asifa Quraishi-Landes, began the forum by discussing their personal paths to positions of leadership. All three panelists connected their experiences being children of immigrants and said faith can be an integral part of intersecting identities. 

Steinberger commented how she and many Jewish people consider their faith more as a “peoplehood, a culture or a family.” The rabbi went on to argue faith is about more than just theology but is instead an identity millions of individuals wrap themselves in. 

A point of contention arose, however, when Quraishi-Landes chided the other panelists for equating their religious experiences with that of a Muslim woman in America. 

Quraishi-Landes drew on episodes from her childhood — such as when a teacher lectured the class on why they “couldn’t trust Muslims” — to emphasize how Muslims and Arab-Americans face a different breed of discrimination than Jewish people or Christians. 

Quraishi-Landes specifically identified a sense of alienation shared by Muslim kids and how they are often ostracized for events they don’t even fully understand, such as 9/11 or the conflict in Gaza. 

“The whole world is talking about them, and they don’t know what to say,” Quraishi-Landes said.  

The conversation then shifted to getting students to engage in respectful dialogue, a topic that the panelists widely agreed on. Steinberger praised “the diversity of ways that a person can be made in God’s image,” while Liu recognized how “our well-beings are tied up together.” 

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The other panelists nodded along as Liu discussed how intractable differences can be respectfully acknowledged, a mindset she called “holy friction.” 

“Holy friction looks like people from different backgrounds coming together and staying there,” Liu said. “They don’t exactly see eye-to-eye, but they are committed to loving one another despite the world's expectation that they hate each other.”

The violence in Gaza lurked beneath the surface, with panelists often dodging direct mentions of their various, often opposing, opinions. However, there was a strong agreement that “the antidote to violence is conversation,” as Steinberger put it. 

All three panelists signed onto a previous letter decrying the violence in Gaza and appealing for respect on campus. 

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