Sorrow and Resilience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
Editor’s Note: Hadassah Magazine asked college students to recount their experiences on their campuses in the wake of the October 7 attacks on Israel and the ensuing Hamas-Israel war. See other responses here and here.
It was Friday afternoon and I sat down at my desk to finish up a paper before welcoming Shabbat by lighting the candles and singing the prayers in my apartment. I live on the 11th floor of my building. All my windows were closed. I began typing and was immediately interrupted. “Glory to our martyrs,” I heard people shouting outside my window. “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free! Glory to our martyrs!” My fingers could no longer find the keyboard of my computer. Chills took over my body. I felt my heart beating faster. I began to sweat.
Just two weeks after the world witnessed the largest and deadliest attack against Jews since the Holocaust, students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison gathered to honor the massacre and praise the sadistic killers. I could not escape their chants. Where would I go? I was already in the comfort of my apartment and yet the hate-filled, antisemitic shouts of my peers seeped through my windows and into my space. No, it was not the same as retreating to a saferoom in Ashkelon or Tel Aviv when a rocket flies overhead, but the explosive and hateful words that I heard on my college campus found their target and caused pain and destruction.
It’s not just what I have been hearing from fellow students—some of them Jewish—who are showing up almost daily in great numbers at demonstrations and walk-outs on campus. It’s what we are not hearing from university leadership. It is that these acts of antisemitism are becoming normal and sometimes even encouraged.
Shortly after the October 7 Hamas massacre in southern Israel, I waited for school leaders to stand up for their Jewish students. Three days elapsed, 72 hours of Israel fighting off terrorists across the southern border and uncovering hundreds of dead bodies, and still no word from the university chancellor or anyone else in leadership. I have come to learn that Jewish students must be their own advocates. I emailed all my professors because I was scared and wanted them to be aware of the pain some Jewish students are grappling with and the isolation we feel on campus. Every one of them responded with compassion and have since been very supportive. Nevertheless, I have still been scared to walk into class and face the reality of what it means to be a Jewish student on campus today.
Here is what it means for me: fear that I will enter a classroom and my professor will begin the lesson by honoring the bravery of the Hamas “freedom fighters,” as happened to one of my fellow Jewish students; having to change my route home from class to avoid a mob of students holding signs that read “Resistance Is Not Terrorism”; being filled with sorrow as I watch Israel, the Jewish homeland, being forced to go to war without any recognition of the sheer evil that has made war necessary.
When the message finally came from Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin on October 11, I read each sentence carefully, waiting for the words that would demonstrate empathy for what Jewish students on campus are going through. In the entire 554-word email sent to all students, faculty and staff of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (a list of over 100,000 people), the words “Jew” or “Jewish” never appeared. A story of terrible antisemitism was told without mentioning the targets. It is with this same ignorance and manipulation that professors and student organizations throughout America can march on campus property inciting hate, violence and antisemitism with no consequence.
Jews seem to be the only people who can be terrorized, raped and murdered—and then erased. If the targets of these recent campus demonstrations were any group other than Israelis and Jews, universities would not hesitate even for a second to put an immediate end to them. Imagine a group of students gathering in great numbers in front of the library of any campus in America to express sentiments that were racist or homophobic. No university president would let such an incident go by without strong condemnation. Where is that same sense of justice and determination when Jews are targeted by hate and indifference?
For Jewish college students in the United States, it feels like there are no saferooms to hide in, no escape from the deep antisemitism present at the same institutions that pride themselves on diversity, equity and inclusion. Since the war started, I have promised myself that wherever I see hatred expressed against Israelis or Jews, in the classroom or on the commons, I will stand up for my people. I have no other choice. Still, neither the chancellor nor any other university leader has condemned the antisemitism that seems to be flourishing on campus.
This isn’t how I imagined my college experience to end. I will graduate in a few short weeks from this institution having lost almost all sense of community on campus. This war has proven to me that the only community in which I feel safe is among fellow Jews. In the past three weeks, I have attended campus gatherings organized by Hillel or Chabad that have given us the space to pray, to sing songs of peace, to grieve and to be reminded of the power we have together. Amid a heightened security presence, we have stood together closely and sung “Hatikvah,” and Oseh Shalom and to offer prayers of healing Israel. We have recited the Mourner’s Kaddish with tears streaming down our cheeks. We have wrapped our arms around each other.
Never in my life have I felt more strongly about my Judaism. The love and support that is fostered within our community is unlike any other. We are a strong people, a people of love, hope and peace. Being Jewish is the best thing that I am, and I will never let anyone break that. Am Yisrael Chai. B’yachad n’natzeiach—together we will prevail.
Ariela Hadassa Zweiback, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, grew up in Los Altos, Calif., and Jerusalem. While not on campus, she is part of the Jewish community in Los Angeles and the Stephen Wise Temple.