After Jewish students at the University of Wisconsin gathered to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah, a UW Jewish community space sidewalk was chalked with messages regarding the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
The message read, “Happy Hanukkah & happy day of int’l solidarity with the Palestinian people” with a Palestinian flag and “#Palestine Day” written in color at the bottom.
Hanukkah, or the “festival of lights,” is the eight-day Jewish holiday that takes place each winter and commemorates a battle in which a small Jewish army overthrew the Greeks in Israel, according to Chabad. On the first night of Hanukkah, the first of eight candles on the menorah is lit and a blessing is given.
Hanukkah is significant to UW, which houses a community of over 4,000 Jewish students on campus.
According to UW student Rachel Rosen, who is a political affairs head at the Badger Alliance For Israel, choosing to write the chalking on the first day of Hanukkah was “purposeful” and “disrespectful.”
“Given that it was the very first night [of Hanukkah], … they intentionally wrote ‘Happy Hanukkah,’ facetiously to be like, ‘Hey, Jews, like we’re talking to you,’” Rosen said.
In a public statement, UW Hillel said religious celebrations should not be an “opportunity to promote divisiveness.” Attempting to hold the diverse Jewish community responsible for the Israeli government’s actions is a “modern manifestation of antisemitism,” according to UW Hillel.
Additionally, Jewish celebration happening does not mean Israel and Palestine are being discussed, UW student Aly Orvis, who is a Lonnie Dounn Fellow at J Street U, a pro-Israel and pro-peace American organization, said.
“They’re not innately tied together, and frankly, making that comparison feels antisemitic,” Orvis said.
Conflating religion with politics
“They chose to write that in front of Hillel, implying some correlation between a diverse group of Jewish students and the choices of the Israeli government,” UW student Chloe Lipton said.
According to Channel 3000, antisemitic incidents are common at UW, and attacks against Jewish students are increasing.
Rosen said she wasn’t surprised when she got the email about the chalking.
“These sort of antisemitic attacks are trying to disguise themselves as social justice protests,” Rosen said. “Using the language of ‘Free Palestine’ they’re sort of trying to frame it like, ‘We’re not antisemitic, we’re just standing up for what the Israeli government is doing to Palestinians.’ But we can see that if their intention really was to help Palestinians, they would probably be acting differently.”
The incident mirrors centuries-old antisemitic tropes, Rosen said. One such trope is the dual loyalty accusation, an assumption that Jews cannot hold multiple political loyalties, used to cast Jewish students as “the other.” For centuries it has been used to commit horrific acts of violence against Jews and also to justify prohibiting Jews from voting in many European countries.
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In their statement, UW Hillel said they are committed to being an “open and welcoming space” for people of all religious, ethnic and cultural identities at UW and hope others would work to “ensure this campus remains a safe and inclusive space for Jewish students.”
The UW Jewish community has rebounded since the first night of Hanukkah. Rosen said she has seen cohesion in the days following the chalking.
“I think that by targeting a group, you end up bringing them close together because people find unity in the group,” Rosen said. “So if this person’s intention was to weaken the Jewish community in some way, I think it honestly would just have the opposite effect.”
Peter German, who is a member of Madison for Palestine, said he condemns the chalkings and their association of Judaism with the Israeli government.
“What we would absolutely condemn is the pure alignment of the Jewish faith with supporting Israeli government policies, which obviously they’re not linked because otherwise, I wouldn’t be here,” German said.
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In an email statement to The Badger Herald, UW spokesperson John Lucas said UW is aware of the recent chalking at Hillel and has been in contact with the Hillel staff.
“As a university, it’s our goal to create an environment where everyone is at home and feels welcome,” Lucas said. “We encourage respectful and courteous dialogue in our community.”
International Day of Solidarity for the Palestinian People
The conflict between Israeli and Palestinian people is an enduring conflict of human and land rights, rooted in over 100 years of disagreement, according to the BBC. Peace talks have been ongoing for over 25 years, but no solution has been reached.
November 29, which coincided with the second day of Hanukkah this year, is significant to some groups on campus and is the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.
According to the United Nations, the annual event began in 1977 and celebrates the 1947 resolution that partitioned Palestine into Arab and Jewish states with Jerusalem as a separate entity. The intent of the resolution was for the partition of Palestine to start in 1978 — except it never did.
Local organizations including Madison for Palestine, Palestine Partners, the UW chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine and the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project flew flags and signs on a footbridge over Campus Drive to celebrate the event, according to RED Madison. These events were part of a nationwide effort organized by the U.S. Palestine Community Network.
German said Madison for Palestine participated in multiple events for the International Day of Solidarity including a flag drop, social media efforts with the U.S. Palestinian Network and setting up flags outside the Capitol.
It is beneficial to have recognition from an international body like the UN of the basic rights and human decency of the Palestinian people because a lot of times, it is lost, German said.
“It is especially useful to have a distinct yearly day because unfortunately, a lot of student activism around Palestine flares up and dies off,” German said. “I feel like internationally, Palestinian solidarity is a useful reminder that we can’t just turn off the TV and forget that this is continuing to happen and that we need to stand in solidarity.”
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German, who is Jewish, said Hillel has been a very useful organization that has done great work for the Jewish community on campus, especially LGBTQ Jewish students. UW Hillel organizes Queer Jews at UW meet-ups and volunteer opportunities for UW students.
German said he feels he would be uncomfortable joining UW Hillel due to its alignment with the Israeli government.
“The biggest thing for me is that I want to be able to speak out on Palestine and not feel like I’m betraying other members of the Jewish community, which is a very difficult line to balance,” German said.
Hillel’s goal as an international foundation is to inspire a commitment to “Jewish life, learning and Israel,” according to the Hillel International website.
German said some individual chapters have broken away from that and adopted a more pro-Palestine approach, but Madison isn’t necessarily distancing itself from that policy.
“[The] Birthright trips and some of the actions they [Hillel] have taken have aligned them with the State of Israel, and a lot of times that involves cooperation with the state and government of Israel,” German said. “I occasionally attend the Beth Israel Center, and they don’t organize around Israeli action.”
Despite how some actions conflate Hillel and Israel, Lipton says it is possible to be pro-Israel without condoning the actions of the Israeli government.
“Jews can support the existence of Israel but not agree with all the government’s actions, and it was upsetting to see this separation go unrecognized,” Lipton said.
The consensus, it seems, from both arguments is that it is crucial to recognize the separation of Judaism and supporting the Israeli government.
“My stance, and the stance of many Jews, is not that Israel is the problem,” Rosen said. “Antisemitism that delegitimizes the existence of a Jewish state and masquerades as a social justice protest is the problem.”
Moreover, because the conflict has many complexities to it and spans a number of years, it can be confusing to follow, according to UW sophomore Alison Stecker, who said Jewish students should not be blamed for the decisions of the Israeli government.
“I don’t think anyone truly understands the extent of the issue, and the students here have nothing to do with the events taking place overseas,” Stecker said.
For German, though, it is difficult to navigate his identity as a pro-Palestinian Jew.
“There is a diversity of thought and opinion within the Jewish community,” German said. “I’ve had people tell me that if you’re not specifically Zionist, you’re not really Jewish. But I know that’s not true because it’s something I’ve been able to make a core pillar of my identity.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated Dec. 8 at 10:29 a.m. to more accurately reflect German’s stance on the chalkings and include additional comments from Rosen.