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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Students braid challah at a UW Hillel Foundation student event. 

Jewish students found community after the Oct. 7 attacks. But for many, loneliness persists

Students speak of “paralyzing” feelings of loss, university support and finding strength in solidarity after the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack.

For most University of Wisconsin-Madison students, Oct. 7 was a day for celebration. It was homecoming weekend, and the Badgers beat Rutgers University 24-13. Yet, horror grew throughout the day for Jewish students who woke up to texts about Hamas’ overnight terrorist attack on Israel. 

UW-Madison freshman Rachel Shela was at the game when she received a text concerning a friend of a friend, Maor Gratzyani, who had gone missing. Several days later, Gratzyani was confirmed dead at the site of the massacre. 

“I started to shake and started to panic, and I just ran out of the stadium,” Shela said. “I was on the steps in Camp Randall sitting by myself in a ball, sobbing uncontrollably.”

Shela is one of roughly 4,000 Jewish students at UW-Madison grappling with the events between Israel and Hamas — students who face a balancing act between mourning, fielding nonstop social media exposure and passing their final exams. 

As the devastation continues to scar Jewish and Palestinian communities two months later, student activists find themselves caught in a war of words while seeking solace among their peers.

Students sought community to ease sorrow in first hours after Hamas attacks

The morning after the attack, Jacob Bigelman, the president of Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, couldn’t focus on studying. He left the library to meet with students Justin Shemian and Jessica Medwin about planning a vigil. They reached out to UW Hillel for support, started an Instagram page and spread the word through Jewish Greek life organizations.

A few hours later, hundreds of students, many wearing blue and white, poured out to hear from speakers, light candles and sing Oseh Shalom, a song about peace, and the Israeli national anthem, HaTikvah. It was the first event organized by student group Badgers B’Yachad, formerly Badgers Against Hate.

“I've never felt more proud to be a Jew than I have in the last two weeks,” Bigelman said in October. “Now's not the time to tuck in your star if you wear it on your necklace. It's time to wear it out.” 

UW-Madison student Jacob Bigelman, president of Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, photographed at UW Hillel Foundation.

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Shela was “astounded at the way the Jewish community came together.”

“There was this communal acknowledgment that all of us are in pain, all of us are grieving. That made me feel really connected to the Jewish community here,” Shela said.

For students with personal connections to Israel, the grief is still raw. 

Senior Libby Cohen is coming to terms with the loss of Netta Epstein, a 21-year-old Israeli-Canadian who was killed by Hamas gunmen at Kfar Aza kibbutz

Libby for rachel article
Courtesy of Libby Cohen

She spent four summers with him at Minnesota’s Camp Herzl and remembered him as an “energetic” and “positive” camper who always had “a lot of ruach” — the Hebrew word for spirit. In his final moments, he saved his girlfriend’s life by throwing himself onto a grenade, blocking its explosion, according to The Times of Israel

“Everyone in the Jewish community knows someone who has been killed, or is fighting or is hiding,” Cohen said. 

She said the feeling of loss is “heavy and paralyzing.” 

Evyatar David, an IDF soldier who staffed UW Chabad’s summer Birthright trip, was among the hostages taken from the Tribe of Nova music festival.

“My friend was kidnapped by terrorists, and there are people who celebrate this in my community,” said Liam McLean, a UW-Madison law student, former senior class president and the spring 2023 commencement speaker. McLean was on the Birthright trip and connected with David over a shared love of house music. 

“It's a lot to handle,” McLean added.

College campuses became hotbeds of controversy following Hamas attacks 

Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin denounced the “vicious terrorist attacks by Hamas” on Israeli civilians in an Oct. 11 statement sent to students, faculty and staff.

“I worry, too, that these devastating developments will fan the global flames of both antisemitism and Islamophobia, making peace and justice in the region even more elusive,” Mnookin wrote.

Senior Yuval Lerman appreciated the statement’s acknowledgment that innocent civilians “were targeted because they were Jewish.” He said he’s grateful not to be at the University of Pennsylvania or Harvard, where administrators came under fire from donors and ignited social media backlash after not initially condemning Hamas’ actions as a terrorist attack.

University of Pennsylvania President M. Elizabeth Magill resigned on Saturday following intense pushback after her testimony at a congressional hearing in which she evaded answering whether students who called for the genocide of Jews should be disciplined.

More than 30 student groups at Harvard signed a Palestine Solidarity Committee letter holding "the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence."

In the initial days after Oct. 7, most interviewees said they felt safe on campus. But rising antisemitic events around the country and in Madison have heightened tensions and fear.

A group of students on Nov. 7 reported having rocks thrown at them from a building on State Street following a vigil for Israel, and on Dec. 8 individuals disrupted a Hanukkah celebration at Hillel with political slogans and obscenities. 

Feelings of fear came to a peak on Nov. 18, when approximately 20 neo-Nazis, part of a group called the Blood Tribe, marched up State Street to the Wisconsin State Capitol building. The group waved swastika flags, gave Nazi salutes and chanted antisemitic rhetoric and threats, including “Israel is not our friend” and “there will be blood.” 

The group later stopped in front of the fourth-oldest surviving synagogue structure in the United States, James Madison Park’s Gates of Heaven, which is no longer actively used. 

Mnookin, Gov. Tony Evers, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes Conway and several lawmakers condemned the demonstration.

Students and Jewish leaders on campus denounced the rally’s invocation of antisemitic tropes related to Israel. Lerman, who followed the rally for a few blocks, said the rhetoric “didn’t sound new.”

UW-Madison senior Yuval Lerman photographed at UW Hillel Foundation.

“Chanting ‘there will be blood’ while covering your face and heiling Hitler sounds no different to me and my Jewish friends than chanting ‘from Madison to Gaza, globalize the intifada’ while also wearing a mask,” Lerman said. “I don’t think enough people understand that this rhetoric towards Jews coming from within the student body emboldens the Nazis to come to our campus in the first place.”

UW Hillel CEO and Rabbi Greg Steinberger held similar sentiments.

“Students have now witnessed hateful displays from the extreme Left and Right of the political spectrum that blames Jews and calls for the extermination of Israel,” Steinberger said. “That channels antisemitic tropes of power and control.”

Within 24 hours of the neo-Nazi rally, more than 1,000 UW-Madison Jewish alumni raised $15,000 to sponsor Shabbat dinners at Hillel and Chabad for the rest of the year and signed an open letter supporting Jewish students on campus.

Earlier that week, Lerman was one of the UW-Madison students who attended a March for Israel on Washington D.C.’s National Mall, during which tens of thousands of supporters gathered to show solidarity with Israel and condemn rising antisemitism. 

Lerman said it felt like a community event, even with a large group of people.

“People were singing together, getting emotional listening to the speeches, and expressing love and support for Israelis who feel incredibly isolated right now,” Lerman said. 

Steinberger said Hillel is seeing “a concerning uptick” of on-campus antisemitic incidents involving the targeting or harassment of Jewish students, including protests that use “coded language” and terms including “colonists and zionists” to harm and threaten Jewish students. 

The organization is preparing “for additional waves of hateful behavior on campus and on social media” while remaining in communication with law enforcement to provide additional event security, he added.

Student activism is shaping students’ experiences

University leaders have been responsive and concerned with Jewish students’ well-being since Oct. 7, in Steinberger’s view.

​​“Our community was gutted, and students appreciate that campus leadership has shown up at our events and programs to show their concern and support,” Steinberger said.

Hamas’ attack came exactly a month after Shela’s first day of college. She previously attended the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York City and took part in a Nativ gap year program in Israel. 

This is the first time she’s dealt with a tragedy in Israel in a space where the majority of those around her don’t understand what she’s going through — something she said made her freshman year transition difficult.

“Time is frozen for you, but the world just keeps moving,” Shela said. “This has been one of the most isolating times in my life as a Jewish person, especially coming from Israel and New York, where I was surrounded by Jews.”

Campus protesters have called attention to what Palestinian students say is a disparity in narratives regarding the conflict. Three hours prior to the candlelight vigil denouncing Hamas’ attack, the collective Madison for Palestine held a demonstration in “support of the Palestinian resistance,” according to an Instagram post.

Two days later, a video of protesters on campus chanting “Glory to the martyrs” reached over 2.7 million views on Twitter and sparked widespread outrage, in part because the user misheard the chants as “Glory to the murders.” 

“That's a chant that should send shivers down anybody's spine, not just a Jewish person’s spine. Suicide for a terrorist cause is chilling,” said Lerman, who clarified he took issue with referring to Hamas terrorists as martyrs, not Palestinian civilians. “That's like saying, ‘Glory to the martyrs for the people who crashed the planes into the twin towers.’”

Some Palestinian groups, including chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, view the use of martyrs as referring to any Palestinian “killed as a result of Israel’s actions,” according to the Rice University student newspaper The Rice Thresher. An Al Jazeera report says the term is “used by Palestinians to describe anyone killed by Israelis.”

Demonstrations have remained largely peaceful, but Steinberger expressed concern over chants for “resistance by any means necessary” and calls for “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

Many Jewish groups view the phrase “from the river to the sea,” which refers to the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, as a “rallying cry for terrorist groups and their sympathizers” calling for the destruction of the state of Israel and its people, given that groups including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Hamas have used the phrase. 

Palestinian activists say the phrase is part of a “call to see a secular democratic state established in all of historic Palestine.”

Madison for Palestine and Students for Justice in Palestine UW-Madison did not respond to requests for comment.

Polarization leaves many students walking on eggshells

The polarization of the conflict has made support for Israel a wedge issue for Jewish students and divided activists on the left. Some who condemned Hamas’ attack struggled to defend the devastating toll of Israel’s counterattack on Gaza, where civilians are without food, water, electricity and medicine. 

The United Nations said 1 million Palestinians were displaced in a single week following Israel’s evacuation orders and that the actions were in “blatant violation” of international humanitarian law. To date, more than 16,000 Palestinians and 1,400 Israelis have been killed since Oct. 7, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza and Israeli officials. 

In November, 105 hostages taken captive in Hamas’ assault were set free in return for the release of 240 Palestinians from Israeli prisons as the result of a ceasefire arrangement and separate foreign negotiations.

Junior Peter Fishman said he supports Israel’s right to exist. But to him, its treatment of Palestinians and occupation of the West Bank constitute an apartheid state. He said his criticisms prompted people to use rhetoric that he’s “a self-hating Jew.”

“I'm very proud to be a Jew and I’m happy that there's a Jewish state,” Fishman said. “But its current policies are despicable, and I think should definitely be condemned in relation to Palestinians.”

Talking about Israel on campus has been anxiety-inducing, students said. McLean said it’s challenging to develop a cohesive perspective on current events amid misinformation propelled on social media. 

He’s noticed people criticizing each other’s responses to the conflict but said that sharing “negative responses to somebody else's pain” won’t help.

“It's your times like this when you know that Jewish history is being refined,” McLean said. “It feels like we're walking this line, because at the end of the day, as diaspora Jews, especially on college campuses where critical thought is encouraged, and you have a voice, it's just all so difficult to navigate.”

As they check their phones for updates about friends and family, many students struggle to prepare for exams and show up for class. 

“Every time I did put a pen to the paper, I felt guilty. Like, ‘Why am I doing this instead of doing something for Israel right now?’” said Lerman, whose grandma lives alone in Tel Aviv. “In those few days after the attack happened, I just couldn't hold in my head a normal conversation.”

Students continue to take solace in their community, going with friends to discussions and dinners at Chabad, meeting with university counselors and attending challah bakes at Hillel. Lerman and his friends held a Shabbat dinner with close friends. Cohen, who runs a sourdough bread company out of her apartment, donated the proceeds of part of October’s loaves to Chabad’s IDF fundraiser.

But as they lean on each other, Jewish students also realize that in many ways, they are alone in their grief. 

Recalling when she sat crying outside the football game, Shela said other well-intended students, many in a state of drunkenness, asked if she needed help. 

“You know, I did sort of need help. But how do you tell people there's a war halfway across the world and people I know have people missing or probably murdered? That's not something you can say,” Shela said.

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Rachel Hale

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.

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