Why can’t US students accuse Israel of genocide?

A grassy lawn at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a series of pro-Palestine chalk messages have provoked unfounded claims of anti-Semitism in local media outlets. (SK/Flickr)

On 6 September, students arriving for their first day of class at the University of Wisconsin at Madison (UW-Madison) came upon statements written in chalk near and around the university’s Memorial Union Terrace, a popular and scenic lakefront student center.

Just a few feet from the steps to the entrance of the student union were the messages: “Zionism is racism,” “Zionism is genocide” and “There are 5+ Zionist orgs @ UW – They have blood on their hands.” Other messages specifically named the organizations.

These messages in this high-traffic area of campus drew attention to UW-Madison’s normalization of Israel’s human rights violations through its serving as a home for student organizations that tacitly, or openly, support Zionism.

The reaction to the chalk messages on social media was immediate and coverage from news outlets soon followed.

At least 20 mainstream news outlets covered the story, with most using the claim of anti-Semitism to launch a smear campaign against the growing pro-Palestinian liberation activist community in Madison.

Yet not one outlet explored the difference between anti-Zionism – opposition to the ongoing settler-colonial and illegal occupation of Palestinian land – and anti-Jewish sentiment or bigotry.

Not one story put into context the number of Palestinian civilians killed by the Israeli military over decades of occupation, or the May 2022 killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by an Israeli soldier.

Neither was there any mention of the 15-year blockade of Gaza or the Israeli military offensives that terrorize its inhabitants every few years. Nothing about settlement expansion, the ongoing International Criminal Court investigation into Israeli crimes or the scores of artists and academics who have joined the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

Instead, a statement from the leadership of the Jewish Federation of Madison and the Wisconsin Jewish Conference, released on 13 September, demanded the university investigate who was behind the “hateful speech” to “ensure that any necessary education and accountability can be pursued.”

Jennifer Mnookin, the newly appointed UW-Madison chancellor, expressed her “tremendous disappointment” about the chalk messages and vowed to see that there be more opportunities on campus for “education about the harm caused by anti-Semitism.”

Perhaps provoking administrators’ ire the most was the use of the word “genocide.”

It was apparent that the optics of Israel – and Zionist organizations at UW-Madison – being accused of complicity in genocide was more upsetting than the actual genocide of Palestinian people.

In another statement, Vice Chancellor Lori Reesor and Deputy Vice Chancellor LaVar Charleston condemned the chalkings, stating that while the university has a “commitment to free speech,” the chalkings “violate our norms and actively work against the culture of belonging for which we are striving.”

Apparently, administrators didn’t go far enough attacking the “anti-Semitic graffiti,” as Charleston, who also serves as the vice chancellor of diversity and inclusion, became the subject of a call to be fired in a campus newspaper editorial.

Harassment and intimidation of pro-Palestinian activists

Since the chalking, Palestinians and their Turtle Island Indigenous allies in Madison have been harassed and intimidated.

One such incident occurred at a 19 September tabling event on campus, where some of the members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) were spit at, shouted at and called “terrorists.”

Though this incident was shared on social media and brought to the attention of the university and local media, not a single entity or individual reached out to the targets to discuss the harassment.

Among the few attempts to reach Palestinians, via SJP, involved one reporter asking to “preferably speak to a Jewish member.”

Another reporter was only interested in discovering who had written the chalk messages. And then the university reached out in an attempt to “educate” the students.

As of 5 October, UW SJP’s statement in response to the university’s backlash against the anti-Zionist chalk messages has been signed by 81 local and national organizational bodies and 437 individuals.

“As students who benefit from attending a university currently occupying Ho-Chunk land,” the statement reads, “we believe that it is every student’s moral obligation to speak out against organizations on campus that engage in or support colonialism, racism and genocide.”

However, consistent with the well-documented social media censorship of Palestinian and pro-Palestinian accounts, when the link to the statement was shared from the US Palestinian Community Network’s (USPCN) Twitter account, it was marked by Twitter as “unsafe” within 20 minutes of posting on 14 September.

The situation in Madison is unfortunately not unique. There is a long history of seemingly coordinated Zionist responses to explicitly discredit anti-Zionist actions, individuals and groups across the country.

Recently, the punitive hammer of organized Zionism came down on the University of Vermont’s president, with some media outlets calling to defund the university when he failed to satisfactorily respond to complaints about a student teacher who posted comments critical of Zionism on social media.

The brutal truth

UW SJP’s unrelenting response to the university could be viewed as part of a larger, more vocal anti-Zionist movement, as principled voices are resisting Zionism off campus and around the world.

Palestinian and allied resistance continues to grow more fearless: from UK-based Palestine Action working to shut down Israeli arms company Elbit Systems, to USPCN confronting normalization with Israel and challenging US legislators who are “progressive except for Palestine,” to Palestinian hunger strikers protesting wrongful administrative detention and to our fight simply to be able express ourselves in Madison, Wisconsin.

The once tried-and-true, dissent-quelling tactic of falsely labeling someone an “anti-Semite” could be losing some of its power.

Despite the overwhelming public condemnation of the anti-Zionist chalk and of anti-Zionists in Madison, our movement in support of Palestinian liberation has gained momentum and new allies.

This solidarity reminds us that the liberation of Palestinians is entwined in the liberation of all people living under colonialism and imperialism.

Palestinian revolutionary Ghassan Kanafani once said, “The Palestinian cause is not a cause for Palestinians only, but a cause for every revolutionary, wherever he is, as a cause of the exploited and oppressed masses in our era.”

What is needed now at UW-Madison is what is needed everywhere: for students and community members to stand in support of Palestinian liberation and in condemnation of Zionist attempts at repression.

When students or anyone else scrawls chalk messages criticizing the occupation and colonization of Palestine, they are telling the brutal truth. If that truth isn’t allowed in a university, what kind of precedent for liberation struggles are we allowing to be set anywhere?

Layal Khreis is an active SJP member in her senior year at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Ashley Hudson is a co-founder of Madison for Palestine and a member of the US Palestinian Community Network.

R.E. McGowan is a member of Madison for Palestine and a local activist for single-payer universal healthcare in the United States.