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Friday, May 24, 2024
Israel Flag Counter Protestors-1.jpg
A group of roughly 60 students with Israeli flags play music and dance on Library Mall on May 1, 2024.

Jewish students grapple with division surrounding pro-Palestine protests

Controversial rhetoric has led pro-Israel Jewish students away from pro-Palestine demonstrations on or near campus, while a smaller group of Jewish students in the encampment feel excluded from the Jewish community.

In 1966, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the most visible traditional Jew in the anti-Vietnam war movement, started his famous essay ‘The Moral Outrage of Vietnam’ by writing, “It is weird to wake up one morning and find that we have been placed in an insane asylum.”

University of Wisconsin-Madison freshman Rachel Shela said when she read the essay on May 3, it spoke to exactly how she feels on campus.

“I just feel so isolated,” Shela said. 

As the UW-Madison pro-Palestine encampment — organized by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and the Young Democratic Socialists of America — closes in on its two-week mark on Library Mall, Shela, who said she supports the rights of Israelis and Palestinians but neither of their governing bodies, does not feel she has a space on campus. 

She said she has concerns about antisemitic rhetoric among the pro-Palestine groups but doesn’t feel comfortable taking part in a pro-Israel counter-protest, either.

The encampment has been peaceful except for when police used force to raid the camp. 

Many Jewish students say antisemitic rhetoric behind chalkings, chants and banners in Madison isolates them and makes them feel unsafe. It is unclear who is tied to these incidents. 

The chalkings come as local groups, including Anticolonial Scientists and Mecha de UW-Madison, held chalking events near the Capitol in Madison this week as part of Week4Palestine, an annual weeklong event advocating for Palestinian liberation.

Some Jewish students within the encampments also feel alienated from those in the campus  Jewish community and echoed an SJP Instagram statement that said  “Jewish students were not safe during the police crackdown.” 

“In a climate in which ‘Jewish safety’ is being used to justify repression of student activists fighting against genocide, we refuse to have Jewish identity weaponized,” the statement read.

Jewish students say last week’s antisemitic incidents make them feel unsafe in Madison

Chalk endorsing Hamas, Hezbollah and Houthis, all of which are designated by the U.S. as terrorist groups or organizations, was found at the Dane County Farmers’ Market on Saturday. Hezbollah and the Houthis promote and act upon antisemitic and anti-Sunni Muslim philosophies. 

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Chalkings included “Al-Qassam you make us proud, kill another soldier now,” “Power to Al-Qassam” and “Al-Qassam show us how, kill another soldier now.” Other chalkings said “Power to Hezbollah,” “Power to Ansrallah [Houthis] Seize them All,” “Down with ‘Israel’ down with ‘USA’” and “All cops are Zionists.”

Two people marching as part of a group from Capitol Square to Library Mall carried a “Glory to the Resistance” banner depicting Hamas spokesperson Abu Obeida, the spokesperson of Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas militant group on May 2. The group later entered the encampment space on Library Mall and chanted “Zionists are Nazis,” “Israel is not real” and “USA is not real.”

Some chants at the encampment were fiercly critical of Israel. Protesters shouted “Israel go to hell” and “smash the settler Zionist state.” Another chalking inside the encampment read “Do not be complicit in a modern Holocaust.”


Chalk on LIbrary Mall
Chalk reading "Do not be complicit in a modern Holocaust, free Palestine!" is displayed on Library Mall on April 29, 2024.


Newman said Jewish students have a variety of opinions on the Israel-Hamas war but are unified in opposition to Hamas. He said the chants were “shocking” to hear.

“We're quite unified in the fact that Hamas are butchers, they're a deplorable organization,” Newman said. “If we were in Israel on Oct. 7, we would have fallen victim to them.”

Sophomore Sophie Small has been coming to the protests since April 29 to observe and engage in conversations but said she’s not affiliated with SJP. She is involved with the Jewish community as an intern at Hillel and a religious school teacher at Temple Beth El in Madison.

She thinks the incidents don’t represent the majority of protesters but felt a small group might support Hamas’ actions.

“The people carrying that sign, I'm willing to bet they knew what they were doing, and I'm also willing to bet people at this encampment didn't know what it meant,” Small said.

SJP student organizer Abbie Klein, who is Jewish, said the group “can’t control when or how that imagery is going to come,” in reference to the Hamas banner, and said she wanted to recenter the group’s “goal to end a genocide.” 

Small said she condemns Hamas in the “strongest language” possible but also thinks people may not understand what it means to support them.

“There are people who are saying that Hamas is okay, because it's ‘any means necessary,’ and that makes me sick to my stomach. And there are people who are saying that Netanyahu is okay, because of any means necessary for the sake of the Jewish people,” Small said. 

Jewish students reported that an outside agitator raised-hand Nazi salute towards them on April 29 on Library Mall. He was not part of the pro-Palestine protest despite claims otherwise from some professional media outlets, Wisconsin Watch reported in a fact check on May 1.

The individual admitted to using the salute in a video obtained by The Daily Cardinal. UW Police Department (UWPD) is investigating the incident, the department said May 1.

UWPD is also investigating a May 1 incident as a possible hate crime where a student who was displaying a pro-Israel sign reported that an unknown man with a knife attached to his waistband approached her on Library Mall on May 1 and said, ‘Jews shouldn’t be on campus,’” according to a Wednesday UW Police Department report

UWPD did not provide details about the identity of the alleged perpetrator, and there is currently no evidence that pro-Palestine protesters were involved.

Jewish students taking part in the encampments struggle with feelings of ostracization, take part in pro-Palestine activism

Small said she is grappling with the National Students for Justice in Palestine’s statement in support of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel that killed at least 1,200 civilians, took more than 230 hostages and led to dozens of reports of sexual violence. She said the Nazis chant was antisemitic and that she also wishes there were chants to free the hostages Hamas is holding captive. 

“I know that I want people to stop dying, and so maybe I don't align myself with SJP and I don't agree with their remarks and the way they phrase them, but maybe I agree with what they're fighting for,” Small said.

There are a number of Jewish students taking part in the encampment, but they are the minority of Jewish students. Pew Research data shows the majority of Jews are emotionally supportive of Israel, but support differs among generational divides, with younger Jews trending less supportive of Israel.

Forty-five of American Jews say “caring about Israel is an essential part of what being Jewish means to them, while an additional 37% said it was “important, but not essential” according to Pew Research’s study of Jewish Americans in 2020. 

The survey found younger adults were less attached to Israel, with 35% of Jews ages 18-29 saying that caring about Israel is important to their Judaism on some level, compared to 52% of Jews over 65 who felt it important.

Mia Kurzer, a Jewish pro-Palestine protester, was part of a group of more than 30 students and community members who organized a “Liberation Shabbat” Friday evening. 

As the sun set over the camp, roughly 50 protestors joined the group, which lit candles, recited the Jewish candle blessings and sang Jewish prayers including the Shema and the Lecha Dodi hymn before passing out Challah and grape juice.

“People want to show that there are Jewish students here, and we are in solidarity with students of Gaza because there are no more universities there,” Kurzer said.

Kurzer and Mari G., another Jewish pro-Palestine protester at the encampment, said they were met with hostility by the Havdalah organizers after joining in prayer.

They were wearing their yellow safety marshal vests, which identified them to pro-Israel students as taking part in the encampment. 

After saying prayers, the Jewish students started playing pop music on a speaker, which Kurzer said the encampment organizers hadn’t agreed upon. She said she went into the circle to tell them to stop, and though they immediately turned the music off, was “met with yelling and hostility.” 

She was later physically pushed away by a man in the circle and the student next to her refused to link arms during prayers.

“I have experienced more antisemitism at this encampment from Zionists than I have my entire life, and I’ve experienced antisemitism before,” Kurzer said. “This is part of a broader pattern that we are seeing here at UW, and across the country, and around the world.”

Mari G., another Jewish pro-Palestine protester at the encampment, said she and other organizers “felt intimidated by other Zionist Jewish students.”

“Many Jewish Zionist students have questioned why Mia and I are at the encampments, literally saying we’re on the wrong side,” she said.

There is disagreement about the rhetoric behind chants, but many believe they have antisemitic sentiments

Students are in disagreement about chants and chalkings including “long live the revolution, long live the fighters” and “glory to the resistance.” Elkin said it’s hard to know how protesters intend its use.

“Do they mean that Oct. 7 and the murder of 1,200 Israeli civilians was something to be proud of... [do they mean] the resistance of college students against the current system where Israel is receiving unconditional aid from the U.S. government? I don't know,” Elkin said.

Sara, one of the SJP media representatives, said she can’t comment on behalf of people who wrote chalkings or said chants

“It would be a little misleading to think that it's like any call for resistance is specifically an endorsement of Hamas,” Sara said.

Other chants have been about the intifada, including “There is only one solution, intifada revolution” and “Globalize the intifada,” which Britannica said refers to two uprisings of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip “aimed at ending Israel’s occupation of those territories and creating an independent Palestinian state.”

“You're really ignoring the tremendous human suffering that was a direct result of the Intifada, and you're calling for more of it, you're calling for more terrorism, you're calling for more targeting of innocence,” Rohr Chabad House Director Rabbi Mendel Matusof said.

Sara said most protesters say Intifada for its literal definition of “revolution” and noted there are a lot of Arabic-speaking activists there.

Pro-Palestine protests in Madison have expressed minimal pro-Hamas sentiment, with the encampment at UW-Madison mostly focusing on human rights violations committed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in Gaza and specific demands for college administrators to divest from defense companies and distance themselves from Israel.

More than 34,500 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed since Oct. 7, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in their death toll number. The United Nations reported 1 million Palestinians were forced to leave their homes within one week after Israel issued evacuation orders, actions the U.N. deemed a breach of international humanitarian law. Last year was the deadliest on record for Palestinian children in the West Bank, according to UNICEF

“This is not about Hamas,” said Klein. “This is about the genocide of Palestinians, and that's what our encampment is focused on.”

Jewish students say demands and negotiation methods are “unrealistic” 

Small said she agrees with removing a police presence from campus but said it would be antisemitic to cut study abroad programs in Israel while maintaining research and abroad programs in other countries with human rights violations, such as Russia and China. She lived on an Israeli Kibbutz outside of Jerusalem for a semester in high school in what she called “the most useful learning experience” of her life.

“I’m a history major, I'm a religious studies major, how the hell are we supposed to learn if we cannot go to those places?” Small said.

Elkin said the police’s Wednesday morning use of force against protestors was “a very selective use of enforcement,” noting that law enforcement did not escalate situations when neo-Nazis came to Capitol Square in November or when partiers flipped a car over at the Mifflin Street Block Party in April.

Shela said the amount of force was “very disturbing” and said that despite disagreeing with the views of Palestinian Professor Samer Alatout, who was arrested by the police on May 1, it had “nothing to do” with the fact that she saw it as an inappropriate level of “force that was inflicted upon him.”

“When people look back, they will see this as a moment when a real debate about university and government complicity in the oppression of Palestinians and the protests made it happen,” Elkin said. “I struggle with that because I think that there are some areas where the conversation about antisemitism should occur, but on the other hand, thousands of thousands of innocent Palestinians have been murdered.”

Newman has been involved in counter-protest organization efforts, including planning a counter-demonstration where protestors sang the Israeli national anthem, recited Jewish prayers and danced to loud music on Wednesday evening. 

Additionally, he helped organize a fundraiser for Israel that will continue donations to three foundations every hour the encampment stands. These include the Hostages and Missing Families Forum,   Magen David Adom and Lone Soldier Center

Newman said he is disappointed in what he said was a lack of respect pro-Palestine protesters have for the university administration and said it’s “embarrassing” for Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin that she negotiated with them.

“Chancellor Mnookin made the mistake by negotiating with these protesters who have this unreasonable set of demands,” Newman said. “How is she supposed to negotiate with people and why do they expect her to negotiate in good faith when they give her no respect?” 

On Friday afternoon, students promoted the fundraiser with signs and held Israeli flag and posters calling for the return of the hostages held by Hamas after Oct. 7, and the group held a Havdalah religious service, which marks the end of Shabbat, on Library Mall on Saturday.

Newman and 11 other Jewish students also met with campus administration Monday to present requests to campus officials, including Mnookin, to address issues of “intimidation, harassment and antisemitism from encampment protesters and outside agitators,” according to a statement shared with the Cardinal.

Kurzer said there were Jewish students present at campus negotiations with encampment organizers and campus administration. 

Students disagreed over the meaning behind rhetoric at protests and the extent of their advocacy, but there is one clear agreement among the different factions of Jewish students on campus: it’s hard to be Jewish right now.

“It has been the hardest week of friendships,” Small said. “It is so hard to be Jewish right now because I think that Jews are very much in disagreement about this.”

Finneagan Ricco of the Cardinal contributed reporting to this story.

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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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