UW-Madison students, staff react to Gaza protests on campus

Students and staff at UW-Madison react to pro-Palestinian protests, arrests and negotiations with Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin, including perspectives among differing campus community members.

By Marisa Wojcik | Here & Now

May 3, 2024

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Student protests on campuses around the nation have led to violent police crackdowns, so when pro-Palestine encampments sprung up on the University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campuses, organizers and officials weren’t sure what to expect.

“We have seen that the university has refused to take us seriously after months of protests, and so we are here to stay,” Dahlia Saba said.

“My people are suffering from a brutal bombardment that has lasted over 200 days, and they have full support from the American government. So here at UW-M, what can we do? Our job is to focus on every space that we enter and pressure to divest from Israel and cut all ties to Israel,” Ameen Atta said.

Protesters like Saba at UW-Madison and Atta at UW-Milwaukee, both Palestinian Americans, joined the broader campus movement to support Palestinians under siege in Gaza.

“Students at our university are extremely exhausted by the war and they do not want to participate in the war, and they also want the administration to openly acknowledge their relationship to that war, and I think that’s completely reasonable,” said Amadi Ozier, an English professor at UW-Madison who is serving as a faculty liaison for protesters.

Of the demands, students want the university to divest from companies that profit from selling weapons and equipment to Israel.

“We’re asking to know where our money is going, the money that we give this school, that the school makes off of us,” said Abbie Klein, a UW-Madison graduate student.

On April 30, the students put up tents in concurrence with campuses in other states and other countries.

“The tents are a symbol. There are people in Gaza who have lost their entire belongings, their homes, their livelihoods. They’re living in tents and now they are being bombed in tents,” said Sara, a UW-Madison graduate student participating in the protest who wanted to be identified only by their first name.

The tents also represent a breaking point for students.

“It’s interesting that we’ve only had the ear of the chancellor since the tents have been put up,” Sara added.

The encampment violates university policy, a sticking point for UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin, who initially refused to meet with students until the tents were taken down.

“It’s important to us that the focus is not on our right to protest or our right to be here,” said Abigail Smith, an undergraduate student at UW-Madison and member of Young Democratic Socialists of America. “The focus should be on our message and our message is to disclose the university’s funds, to divest from companies that are funding the genocide and for the chancellor to fully meet what our demands are, and we will not leave until we do that.”

On the morning of May 1, the chancellor authorized three law enforcement agencies to dismantle the encampment at UW-Madison and protesters resisted. More than two dozen students and faculty were arrested, popping Madison into national headlines. So far, UW-Milwaukee has not met the same fate.

“With the rising tensions in combination with finals season and all of that, it’s really, you know, had our minds completely scrambled,” said Zachary Ogulnick, a UW-Madison student and member of UW Hillel Foundation.

More students at the UW Hillel, a Jewish group on campus, take issue with the protesters’ methods and their message.

“These are people who have taken the administration hostage to a set of demands that are unreasonable and unmeetable by any stretch of the imagination. And so I understand why the chancellor might not want to meet them,” said Ben Newman.

“They have been screaming her name, saying ‘Chancellor Mnookin, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.’ From her perspective, I would see that as a threat. She’s a Jewish woman. All of these chants — antisemitic chants — they’re also threats,” Erika Klein said.

“Hearing the word genocide, knowing how it correlates back to the holocaust as Jewish students, is very upsetting,” said Jordyn Geller.

There are a number of Jewish students, faculty and community members who stand with the protesters.

“I am an Israeli-American and I am very, very disturbed by the fact that both of my governments supporting what is unquestionably a genocide currently against the Palestinian people,” said Esty Dinur, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace.

For Dinur, tens of thousands of Gazans killed in the war is history repeating.

“I’m the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who was also a Holocaust historian, and as I was growing up, among people with numbers tattooed on their arms, the big question was how could that happen with the whole world watching?,” she said.

A core issue for many, no matter their background, is the question of whether anti-Zionism equates antisemitism.

“That conflation of anti-Zionism or criticism of Israel with antisemitism is extremely dangerous,” said Tela Barr, another member of Jewish Voice for Peace.

“I’m Jewish. I grew up in a Zionist family, and I took time unlearning a lot of what I learned growing up and reconciling what I had been told, and I truly believe that what is happening here, what’s happening across the nation, across the world in terms of standing in solidarity with Palestinians, is not antisemitic,” said Abbie Klein. “In fact, it is holding so firm to our Jewish faith to leave the world a better place, to care for others.”

“It feels like in order to be what they consider a good Jew, you have to give up your beliefs of Israel and Zionism and support their cause fully, and it’s hard to do that when we’re hearing them chant these words that, again, may not meant to be harmful, but are,” Geller said.

“I mean, I don’t necessarily agree with every slogan that is being chanted here, but when you make coalitions with other organizations, you have to accept that you will not agree with everyone,” said Dinur.

Hours after police cleared the Madison encampment, new tents went up. By May 2, a group of protesters met with UW-Madison officials. As more talks linger on the horizon, no one can yet say what will come out of the conversations.

“I feel that the group of people who are out there in the encampment are — represent a small section of the population of 44,000 undergrad here,” Newman said. “I believe that most people actually don’t care that much.”

“If the university is dissatisfied with those demands, they can take it up with the values that they instilled in us,” said Sara.

Editor’s note: PBS Wisconsin is a service of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Educational Communications Board.

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