US Dept of Education could stifle criticism of Israel at UW-Madison


ARVIND DILAWAR, TONE MADISON, MARCH 25, 2024

A group of people lay on the UW-Madison campus sidewalk covered with white sheets with red hand prints on them. Posters lay on the ground beside them with text. Another person holds a Palestinian flag.
Activists hold a die-in to protest Israel’s genocide in Gaza. Photo by Tsela Barr.
A “conservative watchdog” with no ties to campus triggered an investigation over protests of genocide in Gaza.

On January 29, the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into allegations that UW-Madison students were facing discrimination due to their “shared ancestry.” Although the DOE does not comment on pending investigations, UW-Madison’s assistant vice chancellor of university communications, John Lucas, explained in a statement that the investigation related specifically to alleged anti-Semitism and was triggered by a complaint from an off-campus group.

That same day, The Daily Cardinal reported that hundreds of UW-Madison faculty, staff and students had signed an open letter condemning the conflation of anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism, or opposition to Jewish nationalism, especially in light of Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza. Despite their appeal, such on-campus critics of Israel are now under the scrutiny of the DOE, which threatens to have a chilling effect on dissent.

“The complaints filed serve two primary purposes,” student organizers with the Wisconsin Coalition for Justice in Palestine (WCJP) write in a statement to Tone Madison, “to curb Palestinian activism on college campuses and to cultivate an atmosphere of fear.”

(Fearing reprisal, organizers at WCJP and Students for Justice in Palestine UW-Madison declined to share their names with Tone Madison.)

Since October 7, the DOE has opened at least 54 investigations into alleged “discrimination involving shared ancestry,” also known as Title VI investigations. In a press release, the department describes these investigations as covering both anti-Semitic and Islamophobic incidents, but further suggests that the former outnumbers the latter more than two to one.

The DOE investigation into UW-Madison was triggered by a complaint filed by Zachary Marschall, editor of Campus Reform, a self-described “conservative watchdog” of higher education. Marschall admits to having no connection to UW-Madison, but claims to be acting in defense of Jewish students “who are too afraid to speak out.” In addition to UW-Madison, Marschall’s complaints appear to have triggered DOE investigations at Arizona State, Binghamton, Brown, Indiana University, John Hopkins, Northwestern, and Temple.

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“I have filed 21 Title VI complaints against universities with the Office for Civil Rights,” says Marschall, “because I feel a moral obligation to do anything I can to combat anti-Semitism.”

Despite Marschall’s allegations of ant-Semitism, Campus Reform describes the complaintagainst UW-Madison as relating to expressions of solidarity with Palestinians, rather than attacks on Jewish students. Campus Reform also makes no mention of a neo-Nazi group that staged a march in Madison in November, stopping at the State Capitol and a historic synagogue along the way. UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin denounced the march, as did several other state and local officials.

The Madison Police Department and UW-Madison Police Departments both said they monitored the Nazi march but essentially claimed they were helpless to do anything about it. MPD spokesperson Stephanie Fryer described it as a lawful exercise of First Amendment rights, but  later cited it as justification for a new hate crimes task force.

Regardless of the provenance of the complaint to the DOE, the department’s investigation threatens to have an impact on on-campus opposition to the Israeli genocide in Gaza.

“The university will cooperate fully with the Department of Education’s investigation,” wrote Lucas in the aforementioned statement.

(Contacted by Tone Madison, Lucas declined to comment further.)

Investigations are just that—inquiries in which wrongdoing has yet to be determined—but the DOE has already been having an impact on campuses across the United States. In the wake of the department opening cases, university administrations have responded with everything from attempts at managing criticism of Israel to silencing it altogether. In particular, chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and campus branches of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) have been targeted for condemnation and even suspension—most prominently at Columbia University, which is currently being sued by the New York Civil Liberties Union for suspending on-campus chapters of both groups.

“Since the complaint, we’ve seen a greater scrutiny on the operations of organizations speaking up for Palestine,” say organizers with SJP UW-Madison, which is affiliated with WCJP. “There’s been an overarching assumption of anti-Semitism, despite no evidence provided that SJP has been anti-Semitic.”

“On the other end of the spectrum, however, we see events such as a soldier participating in the genocide justifying the deaths of thousands,” they continue, referring to a recent off-campus talk featuring a member of the Israeli military, “and the only response from the university is defense.”

Beyond the implications for freedom of speech for students, faculty, and staff, the DOE investigations may also have material consequences. Inspired by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which advocates nonviolent opposition to the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine, students are often the first to point out how their respective universities further warfare.

“Universities have always been a hot spot for activism—UW-Madison is no exception to this,” writes WCJP. “Time and again at UW, we’ve seen a reckoning amongst the students with their institution’s complicity in colonialism and dedicated activism with aims to end the university’s complicity. In 1967 we saw the Dow chemical riot, where students protested against the presence of manufacturers of napalm. In the ‘70s, we saw student organizers push for divestment from South Africa, a battle they eventually won. Today, we fight those same battles and that understanding of the university’s involvement remains unchanged—as does the university’s complicity.”

The University of Wisconsin System’s endowment is valued at nearly $3.5 billion, per its most recently published financial report—and faculty and students have been pushing the university to divest that endowment from Israel since at least 2004, according to Al Awda, the Palestine Right to Return Coalition. More recently, The Daily Cardinal reported activists disrupted an on-campus career fair featuring BAE Systems, Caterpillar and General Dynamics—all of which are profiting from the ongoing Israeli genocide in Gaza, according the American Friends Service Committee, an anti-war nonprofit. UWPD officers at the event attacked at least two activists, one in the course of an arrest, according to The Daily Cardinal.

Despite UWPD repression and DOE investigations, on-campus anti-Zionist organizing will continue, according to WCJP.

“Although the university has made attempts to slow organizing, and to create hurdles for Palestinian voices to speak,” writes WCJP, “we’ve seen the continual building of stronger movements on campus.”


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Author
ARVIND DILAWAR
Arvind Dilawar is an independent journalist. His articles, interviews and essays on everything from the spacesuits of the future to love in the time of visas have appeared in The New York Times, Time Magazine, The Daily Beast and elsewhere.


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