Chalk messages targeting Jewish student organizations were left across the UW-Madison campus in seven locations on the first day of school Wednesday.
Written in bold letters, the message read: “Zionism is racism. Zionism is genocide. There are 5+ Zionist orgs at UW. They have blood on their hands.”
Vice chancellor for student affairs Lori Reesor and chief diversity officer LaVar Charleston issued a statement Thursday condemning the incident.
“These labels are antisemitic: they attribute broad actions or beliefs to Jewish student groups,” they wrote. “To those Jewish students and others affected, we are sorry for the impact this had on your first day of class at UW.”
Citing free speech, Charleston and Reesor said the chalk messages are not illegal or against campus policy. However, they said statements targeting students “violate our norms and actively work against the culture of belonging for which we are striving.”
"While we do not know who created these chalkings, and acknowledge the impact they had, nonetheless we also acknowledge they represent free speech which is a core value at UW," they said. "Our expectation is that we engage across differences and discuss varying views and ideas with civility and respect and that did not happen here."
The chalk appeared to single out specific student groups, including UW Hillel and UW Chabad, two community centers serving over 4,000 Jewish students at UW-Madison. They also targeted TAMID — which offers business learning in Israel — Badgers Alliance for Israel, and J Street UW-Madison — a pro-Israel, pro-Palestine group.
Zionism is a movement which believes Jewish people deserve sovereignty in their ancestral homeland of Israel. Palestinians also lay claim to the land.
In a statement, UW Hillel said targeting Jewish organizations because of their “connections to Israel is an attack on the identity of Jewish students.”
Last year, following the first night of Hanukkah, the message “Happy Hanukkah & Happy International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people” was tagged on the center’s sidewalk.
Liz Ely and Raphy Jacobson, leaders of the J Street UW-Madison chapter, defended the organization in a statement Wednesday. They wrote that equating Jewish people’s right to self-determination with racism and genocide is an “appalling and divisive charge.”
“We’re deeply worried about the impact this will have on all Jewish students and members of each of the targeted groups,” they said. “It should go without saying, but it’s possible to identify as pro-Israel and Zionist and still hold any number of wide-ranging views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
“The idea that we or any of the groups targeted are advocating genocide and racism by virtue of supporting Israel’s existence is absurd,” they added. “Some of these groups listed have little focus on the Israel-Palestine conflict, others hold deeply divergent views. Whatever the authors hoped to achieve, they’ve only made Jewish students on campus feel more unwelcome.”
In March, three antisemitic incidents at UW-Madison were also reported to administrators. That included a swastika etched onto a bathroom stall in a residence hall, antisemitic slurs yelled at a student on Langdon Street and an individual being harassed for “looking Jewish.”
Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin tweeted she was “tremendously disappointed” about the chalking.
“It's critical that we be a place where we robustly engage in discussion about ideas,” she said, “but it's equally critical that we refrain from targeting each other based on identity.”
According to a survey from the Anti-Defamation League, which polled 756 Jewish undergraduates across 220 four-year colleges and universities across the U.S., one in three students experienced antisemitic hate in the 2020-21 academic year. The number of antisemitic incidents reported was an all-time high.
Of the 32% of Jewish students who said they faced antisemitism directed at them, nearly 80% reported it happened to them more than once during the 2020-21 academic year. The most common incidents were offensive comments and damage or defacement of property.