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Thursday, February 02, 2023

UF condemns anti-Semitic language after protest of IDF speaker. Students, professor say they didn't hear it

<p dir="ltr">Yoni Michanie, activist and Sgt. 1st Class in the Israeli Defense Force, talks with students Tuesday night after speaking in Little Hall.</p>

Yoni Michanie, activist and Sgt. 1st Class in the Israeli Defense Force, talks with students Tuesday night after speaking in Little Hall.

UF administration sent an email to students Friday afternoon with a statement denouncing “two incidents in the past week related to racism and anti-Semitism.” 

The email from Win Phillips, interim vice president for student affairs, first addressed the situation in which a white male student called black students the N-word in a SNAP rideshare van, which is a free transportation service for UF students similar to Uber.

The second event the email referenced was Tuesday’s protest against an Israel Defense Forces sergeant and reserve member, who said students held up signs calling him a “Nazi,” a “war criminal” and a “filthy colonialist.” In a Twitter direct message to The Alligator Friday, Yoni Michanie wrote he was verbally called a Nazi as well. 

When The Alligator called Michanie Saturday, he declined to comment further.

In December, UF corrected a previous university statement that protesters did not use anti-Semitic language against Michanie at his November speech. 

The Alligator spoke with several people who were at the event. They denied or could not confirm that anyone called the speaker a Nazi, both verbally and with paper signs. First-hand accounts of the event along with videos and photos of signs at the protest taken by a student photographer and published on WUFT News’ Instagram do not corroborate that Michanie was called a Nazi during the silent protest and walkout.

“Both incidents illustrate behavior that is directly at odds with our campus values,” Phillips wrote in the statement. 

Racism and anti-Semitism have increased on college campuses lately, as reported by CNN. In the past week, at least five incidents were reported on college campuses including Swastikas, racist stickers, derogatory graffiti, racist social media posts and a noose in a residence hall. The Anti-Defamation League reported that anti-Semitic incidents surged in previous years, with 1,879 recorded acts in 2018, including the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.

UF spokesperson Steve Orlando sent The Alligator the following statement about Phillips’ email: “The statement served as a message to the community that engaging in free thinking and exchange of ideas is welcomed and encouraged but hate is not, be it racial or anti-Semitic, both of which are alarmingly on the rise on college campuses.” 

The Alligator emailed Phillips for comment on both incidents, but he did not respond as of Saturday night.

Days after the SNAP ride incident was made public, controversy struck again when students protested Michanie who was scheduled to speak at Little Hall at an event organized by several student groups including the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis and Christians United for Israel at UF.

Taylor Roth, the Christians United for Israel president, said Michanie told her a couple students whispered to him, calling him a Nazi. Roth was standing in the corner, so she did not hear or see anyone refer to him as such. 

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“He said that he does not believe it was orchestrated by the entire group,” Roth said. 

Videos posted on social media show the silent protest, organized by multiple student organizations including Students for Justice in Palestine, with about 100 people standing up as Michanie was speaking, holding up paper signs and walking out of the room. 

Phillips’ email addressing protesters allegedly calling the speaker a Nazi and war criminal came after Michanie posted a video on Twitter of students holding paper signs and leaving the room. In the tweet, Michanie wrote that students were “holding signs that accused me of being a Nazi. A war criminal. And a filthy colonialist.” 

Orlando said UF administration heard about protesters calling the speaker a Nazi from a student but could not confirm if that student attended the event. 

“We would never suggest that the protest is against campus values,” Orlando said. “The issue comes into play when we’re talking about divisiveness… words that hurt other people.

After the event, in an interview with an Alligator reporter, Michanie did not mention being called a Nazi or any other derogatory terms. He expressed discontent with protesters for leaving rather than engaging in dialogue with him about their differing views. The same night, Michanie wrote a piece for The Daily Wire recounting his experience which does not mention neither students nor signs calling him a Nazi.

Michanie told The Alligator that the speech was meant to “humanize Palestinians by understanding the role that Palestinian leadership has had in preventing a peace process moving forward.”

TAMID at Florida, a group that promotes business experiences in Israel co-sponsored the event. Sara Lewittes, a 20-year-old UF information systems junior and the organization’s president, said she did not hear anyone say “Nazi” or other derogatory terms. 

"I don't think there's proof either way, and that's the issue," she said.

She said she heard screaming after the walkout, but she was in the corner of the room and could not make out who it came from or what exactly was said. Lewittes added that the UF community should be understanding and respectful of differing perspectives. 

In an Alligator Letter to the Editor, Geoffrey Datz, a 21-year-old UF international studies junior, wrote that protesters called Michanie a Nazi and war criminal. Datz did not attend the event because of a prior commitment and told The Alligator in an interview Friday he got the information from Michanie’s writing. 

Datz said he wished protesters approached the protest differently because disrupting the event was disrespectful to Michanie.

"They're more than welcome to disagree and criticize his ideas," he said. "But when they make ad hominem attacks and criticize him for being Israeli or being an IDF soldier or Jew, I think that's offensive.”

“It’s really important as a campus and as a university to address instances of hate and racism on this campus,” Datz said. 

Laila Fakhoury, UF Students for Justice in Palestine president and a 22-year-old UF philosophy and family, youth and community sciences senior, said Phillips’ email was propaganda that labels anti-Zionist statements as anti-Semitic. 

"For us to be anti-Semitic goes against our values that everyone deserves to be treated as a human and fulfill all of their rights as a human," she said.

Most protesters held two printed signs: One read, “Israel is attacking Gaza again. How many more times is this OK?” and the other was a fact sheet about Gaza, Fakhoury said.

Fakhoury said the protesters were against UF groups bringing a highly ranked IDF speaker in the wake of recent bombings in Gaza. Protesters said they wanted to bring awareness to the bombings, during which Israeli and Palestinian forces exchanged rocket fire, according to The New York Times. 

Fakhoury said that the protest was silent, with the exception of one student who said that Palestine is not “for sale.” Fellow protesters asked him to stop speaking in accordance with the silent protest. In a video the student group tweeted on its account, another person is heard saying something about Palestine.

As a Palestinian student, Fakhoury said UF does not fulfill Phillips’ statement on welcoming diversity and making students of all backgrounds feel safe. She hopes the university apologizes for the email.

“Incidents like this where you’re allowing people to come to the campus that clearly polarize and marginalize the majority of the campus doesn’t speak to values,” she said. 

Orlando also said UF would take action against the student who used the N-word in the SNAP van if the situation was deemed to be a conduct violation. He added that “simply saying those kinds of words” is not a conduct issue. UF administration has reached several people who were in the van, but Orlando could not identify who administration has reached. 

Kitan Adeniji, an 18-year-old UF business administration freshman, tweeted a video on Twitter she filmed after a white student called her and her friends a racial slur. She declined to comment on Phillips’ email. 

Regarding the altercation in the SNAP van, the email says UF administrators “are continuing to reach out to others and are gathering information that will be used to determine what potential action may be taken going forward.”

Paul Ortiz, a UF history professor and director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, who walked out at the protest, said that connecting the two incidents in Phillip’s email is false equivalency and undermines students’ ability to peacefully protest and he plans to write to UF administration expressing his concern with the  email. 

Ortiz said he walked out with students because he supports their right to civic engagement. He said he did not hear or see any protesters refer to Michanie as a Nazi. As a military veteran, he said he would not have tolerated students attacking any veteran for his or her military service.  

“In the email is the idea that you should just let things happen, and if we do step up and do some kind of nonviolent action, then somehow it’s being equated to a racist incident,” he said. “To me, I find that deeply problematic.”

Yoni Michanie, activist and Sgt. 1st Class in the Israeli Defense Force, talks with students Tuesday night after speaking in Little Hall.

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