After members of the Jewish Student Union spent nearly four hours Tuesday promoting Jewish Heritage Month, a man wearing a swastika armband rode his bicycle nearby, prompting outrage from students and members of the Jewish community.
Although the JSU members did not see the man approach Turlington Plaza — they were packing up to leave when the man was spotted by another student — Jackie Bontjes, JSU’s vice president of programming, said she felt scared.
“When I saw it I was immediately very thankful that I wasn’t out there tabling, because I don’t know what would’ve happened if we were still out there,” she said.
Video and photos of the man standing on Turlington Plaza and riding his bicycle circulated on Facebook throughout the day, eliciting dozens of comments that condemned the use of the symbol, and some that defended the man’s right to uncensored expression.
UF spokesperson John Hines issued a statement noting that while the First Amendment protects personal political expression, UF does not encourage hate on its campus.
“However, it is critical to recognize that swastikas are symbols associated with the Holocaust which exterminated six million Jews as well as multitudes of individuals from other persecuted groups on the basis of their race or religion,” the statement read. “The University of Florida encourages inclusion and respect, not hate.”
In a separate statement, Rabbi Berl Goldman and Chanie Goldman, co-directors of the Lubavitch-Chabad Jewish Student and Community Center, condemned the swastika as “the symbol of the Nazis, an expression of Anti-Semitism and hate.”
But apparently Tuesday’s incident wasn’t the first this week.
On Monday night, a man dressed in a swastika-emblazoned jacket was sighted at a club downtown, Rabbi Goldman said. He said he believes different men were involved in the incidents, and he is unsure if the men coordinated with each other.
“I am not certain they know each other,” he said.
UF Hillel CEO Rabbi Adam Grossman also condemned the man’s use of the swastika.
“It is not only unacceptable, but also the antithesis of the embracing and diverse Gator Nation,” Grossman said.
Goldman said he received nonstop texts, calls and emails from “concerned students and parents” regarding the incident.
“We are responding to this and bringing it to your attention, not to scare or over alarm you, but to make you aware that this has happened and could happen again,” the statement read.
The statement, which included safety tips, said the man had been identified and is not a UF student or employee.
Avichaim Snyder, a Jewish UF student, said he was stunned to see the man riding a bicycle through campus and later stopping on Turlington Plaza at about 1:30 p.m.
But his surprise soon turned to aggravation.
“When I first saw it I was shocked,” the 20-year-old political science sophomore said. “But the more it dawned on me, the more I was getting very aggravated that that was happening.”
Snyder said a University Police officer stopped the man in front of Turlington Plaza and appeared to ask about his bicycle registration.
The officer and the man then shared a laugh before the man left, said Snyder, who was standing about five feet away during the exchange. He said the man’s armband was large enough for the officer to notice the swastika on it.
“I would’ve preferred the cop to tell him to take off the swastika,” Snyder said. “The fact that he let him go on his merry way without saying anything was just wrong.”
For Snyder, Tuesday was not the first day he has felt hatred because of his religion.
Last year, while walking on Turlington Plaza wearing a star of David, about five students called him a dirty Jew and a Zionist pig, he said.
Snyder also saw someone dressed as Adolf Hitler for Halloween last year.
“It has happened before, and it will happen again, and I’m tired for not being able to stand up for myself,” Snyder said.
Conary Bullard, a UF business administration freshman, said he thinks the man is either a neo-Nazi or someone who wanted to make a statement of some kind, but either way the officer couldn’t tell him to remove his armband.
“I would tell you the guy has issues, but you still have to respect people even if what they believe in is arguably morally wrong,” the 18-year-old said. “If he’s not overtly attacking people or implying he wants to hurt people you cannot touch him.”
Alligator Staff Writer Martin Vassolo and Contributing Writer Harrison O’Keeffee contributed to this report.
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Avichaim Snyder's first name.