UW-Madison Faith Leaders Call for Humility – not Hate – when exercising our First Amendment Right to Speak about Israel-Palestine

We, the members of the Center for Interfaith Dialogue’s Faith Advisory Council at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have something to say about the power of speech to create both benefit and harm. At this moment, we are most concerned about current events surrounding the socially and politically divisive topic of Israel-Palestine, but our words apply to anything that generates passion, tension and even violence.

We cherish our constitutional right to free speech. But something has gone wrong in society when stereotypes are used to justify bullying, intimidation and harassment. No one should be afraid to visit their house of worship, attend a rally, wear a particular item of clothing or in any way express their identity. But when passionate advocacy leads people to disregard the safety and privacy of others, free speech can cause serious harm. Sometimes that harm is irreversible. All too often it sparks violence – even the murder of children, as happened recently and tragically in Chicago. We are writing to caution against these sorts of abuses of our right to speech.

As we watch the temperature rise on the painful topic of Israel-Palestine here in Madison, we collectively make this request to the members of each of our respective religious communities on campus, and throughout Wisconsin:

Speak freely, but with humility.
Act strongly, but do not harm.

All of our spiritual traditions command us to speak the truth – especially against injustice. But they also remind us that we are all human, and therefore fallible. That means we all will inevitably have different understandings of things, and sometimes those differences will not be resolvable. But perhaps there is an opportunity in this reality. The Quran speaks of the “nations and tribes” of humanity as a divine blessing – a means by which we can “get to know one another.” (Quran 49:13) Similarly, the Talmud praises Hillel for his patience and forbearance in sharing the teachings of his rival Shammai before sharing his own. (Eruvin 13b). And in the Christian New Testament we can read: “The wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peace-loving, gentle, accommodating, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap the fruit of righteousness.” (James 3:17-18)

In other words, it is inevitable that we will not agree on some very important things, no matter how good the argument. Knowing and embracing that reality is essential to building a harmonious society. Right now, many members of our Madison community are in extreme emotional pain because of the terrible violence that has harmed – and continues to harm – members of their families and communities in Israel and/or Palestine. And some have experienced personal harm in the clashes of opinion that have erupted in response here at home.

We all want to be heard, but it is important to remember that the demand “listen to me” must be accompanied by “and I will listen to you.” Every major religion and spiritual path has a version of the golden rule. Without mutual respect for each other in times of intense difference we cannot build a society or a democracy. Such mutual respect includes not protesting at each other’s places of worship and community centers.

To be clear, we are not asking our communities to be silent in the face of what we find to be unjust. We only ask that when we interact with those who have an opposing belief, that we see their humanity first and make the effort to hear them. Not to change our own minds, but to take this opportunity to become aware of the experiences and feelings of those different from us. It might even make us more conscious of how our own words are received by (and can potentially hurt) others. Our respectful dialogue with them gives them the chance to do the same.

Today, our society is painfully fractured both socially and politically, and it gets worse with every new fissure of disagreement. Americans desperately need a new model for how to talk to each other across our differences. We on this Council believe that our different faith-based communities could be the model for how it’s done. To take the first step, please remember to:

Speak freely, but with humility.
Act strongly, but do not harm.


Masood Akhtar, President and Founder, We Are Many – United Against Hate

Rev. Michael Burch, The Crossing

Josh Didier, Campus Collective Christian Ministries

Rabbi Judy Greenberg, UW-Hillel

Fr. Gregory Jensen, Ss. Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Church

Balvir Kaur, Member of the Sikh Society of Madison, Wisconsin

Jampa Khedup, Member of the Wisconsin Tibetan Association​

The Rev. Bobbi Kraft, St. Francis House Episcopal Student Center

Rev. Erica Liu, Pres House Campus Ministry

Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, Executive Director, Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice

Ginger Morgan, PhD, Pres House Campus Ministry

Prof. Asifa Quraishi-Landes, Professor of Law, UW-Madison

Dr. Ulrich Rosenhagen, Center for Interfaith Dialogue, UW-Madison

Rabbi Andrea Steinberger, UW-Hillel

Fr. Eric Sternberg, Saint Paul Catholic Student Center