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Jewish UW students, groups respond to pro-Palestinian encampments

Jewish organizations expressed concerns for student safety, while some Jewish students showed up to support the protests

A woman walks with a sign that says "Jews Say Not In Our Name."
Deborah McCants, a Jewish Voice for Peace member and a UW-Madison alumna, carries a sign through the Library Mall where students are demonstrating in support of Palestinians on Tuesday, April 30, 2024, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

As pro-Palestinian encampment protests entered their second day at the Universities of Wisconsin-Madison and Milwaukee Tuesday, some Jewish students and organizations expressed concern about what the protesters’ message meant for them.

But the protests also exposed a division within the student body, as some Jewish students participated in the encampment, saying they felt compelled to speak out because of their heritage. 

The Madison and Milwaukee campuses’ centralized Jewish student organizations, known as Hillels, both posted statements of concern for student safety. 

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The UW-Madison Hillel said on social media Monday night that it would open its doors to Jewish students who felt uncomfortable, unsafe or wanted community.

“No student’s right to be safe, to pursue their education, and to be proud of their Jewish and Israeli identity should ever be compromised,” reads a post on the group’s Instagram page. “When a cause aligns with terrorist organizations taking pride in the protests and actions, and when language calls for violence against an entire identity, religion and people — it becomes hate and discrimination.”

The Milwaukee Hillel called on the university administration to “do more to support Jewish students on campus.”

Two people stand under a tent where food is stored. A sign says "the people's kitchen."
Food donations are distributed to pro-Palestinian protesters Tuesday, April 30, 2024, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The arrival in Wisconsin of a student movement that has gripped other campuses for more than two weeks coincides with the Jewish holiday of Passover. WPR’s requests for comments from the Hillel offices were met with holiday out-of-office responses.

The protesters at the Madison encampment say they’re protesting Zionism, not Judaism. 

“We’re concerned that a lot of pro-Palestinian speech is deemed to be antisemitic, when in fact it is simply anti-Israel or anti-Zionist ideology,” said Asifa Quraishi-Landes, a professor at the UW-Madison School of Law and part of a group of faculty supporting the protesters. 

She said that conflating those two ideas means students “expressing solidarity with Palestinian human rights” have faced dangerous and sometimes physical consequences. 

At the launch of the UW-Madison protest on Monday, which began with chanting and speeches before students erected tents on the iconic Library Mall, some Jewish students came out in support of the movement. 

Some held Jewish-themed signs such as “Not in our name” or “Genocide is not a mitzvah” — the Hebrew word for a commandment or good deed. 

A person sits on the ground and uses a laptop.
A protester works on a laptop during a pro-Palestinian demonstration Tuesday, April 30, 2024, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Encampments enter second day

The UW encampments remained peaceful through Tuesday afternoon. In Milwaukee, students played catch and read books around about 30 tents. Some had established a barrier of tables and plywood, while campus police cars hovered nearby.

In Madison, students used laptops and painted signs under a blue sky and held a teach-in during the afternoon. Hundreds of students streamed by on their way to other spots on campus. Some wore graduation paraphernalia, a reminder that final exams and commencement are around the corner. 

That calm atmosphere contrasted with with a quiet fear that some parents of Jewish students said they felt from afar. Jill Grover, a New York City resident whose daughter, Jordyn, is a freshman at UW-Madison, said she is angry that the school is allowing the encampment to continue. 

“This is helpless because we’re far away from Madison, Wisconsin, and we can’t step up and help our kids,” she said. She disagreed with the argument that anti-Israel ideology can be separated from antisemitism. 

“Anti-Zionism is the elimination of the Jewish state. You eliminate the Jewish state, where do those people go?” she said. 

Four people paint signs on the ground.
People make signs during the pro-Palestinian demonstration in the Library Mall on Tuesday, April 30, 2024, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

But one Jewish student at the encampment, who declined to share their name for safety concerns, roundly disagreed. 

“As a Jewish student of color on this campus, I feel completely safe,” they said. “What makes me feel unsafe is that the university refuses to acknowledge that Israel is committing terrorist acts against Palestinians.”

That student also said their Jewish heritage was part of what they brought to the protest.

“I have family members who have died in the Holocaust. And I think they would be proud if they were alive today to see me standing up to the ongoing genocide against Palestinians, and really making sure that when we say ‘Never again,’ we actually mean it,” they said. 

Plywood, folding tables and cardboard create a barrier in the grass on UW-Milwaukee's campus. A brick campus building is in the background with a blue sky.
Pro-Palestinian protesters in the encampment at UW-Milwaukee used tables and plywood to build a barrier around the encampment on Monday night. Evan Casey/WPR

A divide among communities

Those conflicting perspectives reveal divisions among Jewish communities on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some of which have become amplified in the six months since Oct. 7, 2023. That’s when Hamas militants entered Israel and killed about 1,200 people.

Israel responded with military actions that have to date killed about 33,000 people, according to Gaza health officials, initiating what human rights groups call a “humanitarian catastrophe.” Gaza officials say more than 20,000 of the dead have been women and children. The Israeli military says about 13,000 Hamas fighters have been killed.

A large Palestinian flag is drawn on the ground.
A protester draws a Palestinian flag with chalk Tuesday, April 30, 2024, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

According to the Pew Research Center, there’s a generational divide when it comes to support for Israel’s response to the Hamas attacks. 

Just over half of Jews under 35 call Israel’s military actions “acceptable,” and 42 percent call it “unacceptable.”

Those differences in belief contribute in part to how students experience the presence of anti-Israel protests, chants and slogans. For example, some Jewish supporters of Israel say the chant “From the river to the sea” is a call to wipe out Jewish residents of the region, while some pro-Palestinian activists say it’s a call for liberation.

On Monday, a student at Columbia University — the first campus to set up an encampment, two weeks ago — filed a lawsuit against the school for failing to provide a safe educational environment for Jewish students. 

Meanwhile, some students — including the Jewish supporter of the UW-Madison encampment who did not share their name — argue that focusing on the nature of the protests, rather than their underlying calls for universities to withdraw financial support for Israeli companies and programs, is a distraction.

It’s unclear how long students on both campuses will remain in the encampments. While both demonstrations have remained peaceful, the administrations at both schools have said that camping on campus is prohibited. 

A black sign in the grass reads "Civil Rights Act (checkmark, End Vietnam War (checkmark), End apartheid in South Africa (checkmark), Free Palestine, almost there!" Behind the sign are tents and lawn chairs with people scattered about.
UW-Milwaukee students, staff and faculty protest in an encampment for a second day in support of Palestinian statehood on April 30, 2024. Evan Casey/WPR

Editor’s note: Evan Casey contributed reporting to this story.