Choosing humility, not hate
The following message from Chancellor Jennifer L. Mnookin was emailed to the campus community on Nov. 2, 2023.
Dear campus community,
I am writing to share what is, to my mind, an extraordinarily thoughtful statement prepared by faith-based and community leaders who are on the UW-Madison Center for Interfaith Dialogue’s Faith Advisory Council. In it, they name a tension we are feeling acutely on our campus right now: the responsibility to ensure the right to free speech while simultaneously acknowledging that certain forms of legally protected speech can cause significant emotional harm to members of our community.
The leaders, representing a wide range of faith traditions, urge us to “speak freely, but with humility,” and to “act strongly, but do not harm.” Whether or not you are a person of faith, I am grateful for this call and echo the sentiments of the message.
These wise leaders remind us that “when passionate advocacy leads people to disregard the safety…of others, free speech can cause serious harm.” Please take a moment to read their statement in full.
We find ourselves in terribly challenging times. Many members of our community – particularly those with ties to Israel, the Palestinian Territories, or other parts of the Middle East – are experiencing acute emotional pain, fear and anxiety. Numerous Jewish, Israeli, Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students, faculty and staff have lost loved ones or have family members or people dear to them whose homes have been destroyed or who are in physical danger.
In separate conversations I have had over the last several weeks with Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students and Jewish and Israeli students, some have told me that they have experienced fear on our campus, or in Madison, based on their identities. Jewish and Israeli students have told me about having feelings of unease wearing a Star of David necklace or a kippah. And Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim students have shared similar discomfort with wearing a keffiyeh or hijab. And some in each group have told me that they have experienced worse – people calling them names, or, in one instance, throwing things at them. Students have expressed feeling that some of those who disagree with them vehemently about politics have also ceased to see or recognize their fundamental humanity.
Antisemitism is profoundly wrong, and we must condemn it forthrightly and without equivocation. In the wake of Hamas’s terrorist attacks in Israel and the increasingly lethal war in Gaza, we are seeing, nationally and globally, an alarming rise of antisemitism, and our campus is not immune. Reports of anti-Islamic and anti-Palestinian incidents have also increased, and this too is a terrible wrong that must be resolutely condemned. Let me be clear: No one should ever be attacked or disparaged based on their religion, identity or place of origin.
I recognize that we have further challenges because the exercise of lawful free speech and protest rights during a time like this further raises tensions and stokes fear. As a public university, the First Amendment applies to us directly. It is unlawful for us to restrict protected speech, even when it feels ugly or harmful. We have heard many calls for us to silence or punish speech that is, in fact, still clearly constitutionally protected.
While protest is an important element of free expression, I ask all of us, as members of the UW–Madison community, to exercise our precious rights to free speech with careful attention to the ways that words and actions can divide us and be intimidating.
As I and members of my leadership team have had multiple conversations with students connected to the impacted Middle East regions and representing a range of identities, we witnessed pain, but we also saw impressive strength. We heard a strikingly similar call from all of them: please recognize our fundamental humanity. The students said, in their own ways: Even if you disagree with us about the politics of the Middle East, do not treat us as less than human. Recognize our pride in our heritage and our identity. Recognize that we – and our families and our communities here and across the world – matter, and that we are suffering. And these students, to a quite astonishing degree, had a genuine sense of empathy for what their classmates who had different religions and different politics were going through now.
This is what I ask us all to try to do, even in these terribly fraught times: recognize each other’s humanity. I ask us all to be sensitive to the fact that many of our students are struggling with these global events in very personal ways. And I ask us all to work to find connection across difference, even when that is extraordinarily difficult to do. One of the students with whom I met this week followed up after our group’s meeting with the following aspiration, a prayer of sorts, which I share with you now:
“Events overseas should not compromise our commitment to compassion and empathy towards one another. Let’s strive to be a university that reshapes the narrative on this topic and promotes a message of hope, unity, and love.”
I understand that this student’s plea is no easy feat in such challenging times, yet in response, I say, amen.
Jennifer L. Mnookin
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