Letter asks UW-Madison to defend student's anti-white comments

The letter was written in response to a previous missive from the Brandeis Center calling on UW to impose stricter policies against anti-Semitism and condemn a student government leader's remark that "all white people are racist."

Palestine Legal recently sent a letter to UW-Madison claiming that allegations of anti-Semitism by student government officials is just a screen for "racist harassment" of students of color.

A pro-Palestine legal group accused a pro-Israel counterpart of “racist harassment” for challenging anti-Semitism in the University of Wisconsin-Madison student government.

The Louis D. Brandeis Center (LDB) sent a letter to UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank over the summer applauding her for condemning the Associated Students of Madison (ASM) after the student government passed a “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” (BDS)-inspired resolution demanding divestment from companies that do business with Israel—a vote that was preceded by an attempt to approve a bylaw change during Passover, when Jewish representatives were unable to attend.

According to The Badger Herald, ASM Supreme Court Chief Justice Will Olsen found that former ASM Chair Carmen Goséy and current Chair Katrina Morrison had violated the ASM constitution by “introducing legislation that members of the Jewish community had expressed interest in, when it was known that these members would not be able to attend due to religious observance.”

The Brandeis letter also raised several other concerns, however, requesting that Blank take “responsive actions consistent with UW nondiscrimination policies and Wisconsin Statute” to punish misbehavior and institute policies that more explicitly address “different manifestations of anti-Semitism.”

In addition to updating the student handbook to include a pledge that student government should be accommodating to students’ religious beliefs, the Brandeis Center asked that all ASM members undergo mandatory training on anti-Semitism and adopt the U.S. State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism.

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The letter also called on Blank to address Goséy's provocative declaration that “all white people are racist” in an open letter that she sent at the end of her term as ASM Chair criticizing the university’s approach toward students of color.

In addition to claiming that she was elevated to her leadership position as a “token for white supremacists,” Goséy encouraged “parents of color to rethink sending your children to this institution,” according to The Badger Herald.

“Such negative racial stereotypes are unacceptable, and is especially damaging to the campus environment when conveyed by a person with official stature, even within the student body,” Brandeis argued in its letter. “As explained in LDB’s Best Practice Guide, it is necessary for university leaders to exercise moral leadership by expressing their views of difficult subjects.”

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Palestine Legal (PL)—an organization that provides training, legal advice, and other support to pro-Palestine activists—responded earlier this month by sending its own letter to Chancellor Blank contending that the Brandeis Center’s letter was simply part of a “pattern of discrimination” against students of color.

Although Brandeis redacted the names of student representatives in its letter, PL insisted that by referencing the ASM Chair and Vice Chair, “the letter peculiarly singles out only two black student leaders, Carmen Goséy and Katrina Morrison, as well as [Students for Justice in Palestine], for alleged wrong-doing.”

According to the PL letter, in fact, not only did the Brandeis Center’s criticism contribute to “racist attacks and harassment” against Goséy, but the university “compounded” the problem by issuing a statement raising concerns about the April divestment resolution and condoning the “singling out of black leaders” by the Student Judiciary Committee.

“The university must recognize that when students, particularly students of color, organize for racial justice and against oppression, they do so at the risk of offending those who benefit from white supremacy and the status-quo, often leading to racist harassment and targeted discrimination,” PL wrote. “The university must be prepared to offer support to students of color who face this backlash. Yet the evidence suggests that the university has done the contrary, only further alienating and condemning Ms. Goséy for her activism.”

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Concluding with its own list of recommendations as a contrast to the requests made by the Brandeis Center, PL called on Blank to issue a statement both affirming the right of students and faculty to “advocate for Palestine rights” and condemning “the widespread campaign to undermine Palestinian rights advocacy on campuses.”

The letter also urged Blank to “meet with students who have been targeted by racist harassment and discrimination, including Ms. Goséy and members of SJP,” and to specifically reject demands that the administration condemn Goséy's remark that “all white people are racist.”

“Indeed, the university must take steps to ensure that Ms. Goséy and other students, particularly black students, feel safe and comfortable offering critiques of white supremacy and racial injustice without fear of retaliation by the university or harassment from individuals and organizations,” PL added, suggesting that in addition to the anti-Semitism training recommended by Brandeis, the school should also implement trainings that cover “all forms of oppression, including racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and Islamophobia.”

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“The way that the Jewish students and their allies were treated at UW-Madison in the wake of the BDS resolutions was awful,” Brandeis Center spokesperson Aviva Vogelstein told Campus Reform. “It’s unconscionable the way the letter frames the perpetrators as the victims.”

Contending that the PL letter is “riddled with inaccuracies,” Vogelstein noted that Brandeis frequently criticizes white supremacy, but cannot overlook other forms of racism, particularly those that target Jewish students.

“For example, the letter takes words out of context and laughably claims that we are upset because one of the students condemned white supremacy. In fact, we condemn white supremacy all the time,” she remarked, arguing that, “there’s a difference between condemning white supremacy and slurring a group of Jewish students with false accusations, which is what happened here.”

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“Palestine Legal is defending the outrageous claim, made by a UW student, that ‘All white people are racist,’” Vogelstein argued. “While we regularly speak out against white supremacists, we must also speak out against anti-white racism, same as we do with anti-black racism.”

While making clear that harassment of any kind is an unacceptable response to racism, though, Vogelstein also noted that any hostility that Goséy may have faced does not justify overlooking harassment endured by other students.

“It is unacceptable for any university to permit a hostile environment for members of any racial group,” she declared. “If any students were in fact harassed in the way Palestine Legal describes in their letter, we condemn such behavior and would urge the university to address it too.”

John Lucas, a spokesperson for UW-Madison, told Campus Reform that while there is no comment from the university on the letter from Palestine Legal, “we stand by our previous statements and our assessment of the situation last semester.”

“We are working with the Associate Students of Madison, UW Hillel, and others to improve relationships and climate around issues of race and religion on campus,” Lucas added.

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