By Annysa Johnson of the Journal Sentinel
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee officials said Friday that they will investigate whether student conduct rules were violated when Muslim and Jewish students clashed during a protest of a Jewish-sponsored event on campus Thursday.
One Jewish student was reported injured and a Muslim student was arrested by campus police in the incident on Spaights Plaza outside the UWM Union during an event meant to mark the 62nd anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel.
The event erupted into shouting and then violence after members of the Muslim Student Association confronted the Jewish students over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and a Jewish student attempted to throw a Palestinian flag in the trash.
Jewish students said Friday that they felt threatened and were seeking a meeting with university officials to ensure a safe environment for future events. And a small group of Jewish and Muslim students met on the plaza Friday to quietly discuss the conflict and how they might move beyond it.
“It was very difficult, but it was good to do,” said Diana Azimov, president of the Jewish Student Association who planned the Israel anniversary party and was offended by the protest – particularly a swastika that was scrawled along with other anti-Israel rhetoric on the plaza the night before the event.
“I think it says something about these groups that we could clash one day and the next day come together to share our feelings,” she said.
Yamin Masalkhi, who is president of the Muslim Student Association and participated in the protest, said that he apologized to the organizers, but that many members in his organization are of Palestinian descent and have strong feelings about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
“We didn’t go there intending to cause trouble, we just wanted to have a conversation,” said Masalkhi, who stressed their actions were personal and not affiliated with the Muslim Student Association. “Things unwound so quickly,” he said.
At one point during the confrontation, Masalkhi said, “some of the hotheads in our group” scaled a climbing wall the Jewish students rented for the event and unfurled a Palestinian flag atop it.
The flag was confiscated, and when one of the Jewish students attempted to throw it in the trash, a Muslim student struck him – though witnesses differ on how hard.
The Muslim students and members of Students for a Democratic Society – which is under investigation by the university for its role in a March protest on campus that turned violent – said they wrote anti-Israel political statements in chalk on the plaza pavement Wednesday night, but denied drawing the swastika.
“We saw a lot of things the next day that weren’t there the night before – the swastika, obscene remarks that don’t further anybody’s interests,” said Masalkhi.
Tom McGinnity, interim dean of students, said the university would likely try to pull the groups together to discuss the conflict.
And if an investigation confirms one student struck another, the attacker could be sanctioned up to and including expulsion.
But peaceful protest, even if it’s offensive to some, is protected by the Constitution and part of life at a college, McGinnity said.
“A university brings together all types of viewpoints and sometimes they’re loud. . . . But if your conduct infringes on the rights of others . . . if you get into a fight or a pushing match, you go from free speech to physical activity, and that’s not protected by the Constitution.”