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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Protesters didn’t use anti-Semitic language against campus speaker, UF says

<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 students and faculty received an email last Friday correcting a previous university statement: protesters did not definitively use anti-Semitic language against a campus speaker in November.

The previous statement released Nov. 22 stated that protesters at an on-campus speech by Yoni Michanie, a representative with the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, called him a Nazi and a war criminal. It was sent to all students and faculty, more than 50,000 people, via email. 

About 100 protesters walked out of Michanie’s speech on Nov. 19 to protest recent bombings between Israel and Palestine in the Gaza strip as Michanie, who is also a reserve member of the Israel Defense Forces, discussed why he believes the Palestinian government should be held responsible for abusing their people, he told the Alligator in a phone call.  

But just days after the event, students and faculty in attendance claimed that the protesters never made any anti-Semitic comments.

“More details emerged indicating that protesters at that campus event did not make reported inappropriate comments that were attributed to them. The university regrets any misunderstandings that may have occurred as a result of this,” UF’s new notice reads. 

The accusations came within days of a white student calling six black students a derogatory term in the back of a UF Student Nighttime Auxiliary Patrol (SNAP) van and a flurry of racist graffiti at Syracuse University that caught the nation’s attention, UF spokesperson Steve Orlando said. 

This context is what motivated UF officials to send the first message upon receiving an email from a person concerned about language they said was used at the event, he added. Speaking with the protesters is what motivated them to change it. 

“Beyond being careful, it’s just a matter of making sure that students know it’s a public university's responsibility to be mindful and protect free speech, but also make sure students know that we want them to feel safe on campus,” Orlando said. 

UF Students for Justice in Palestine, a group that promotes awareness of Palestinians under Israeli occupation through protest and other forms of activism, assembled the protest. They said in a statement via a Facebook direct message that while they’re glad UF retracted the previous statement, the new statement is not sufficient. 

“We want the administration to acknowledge that an incorrect definition of anti-Semitism was applied and that critiquing a state’s government and/or military is not anti-Semitic,” the group wrote. “This shows the dangers to free speech and our fight for justice in Palestine coming to legal fruition.”

UF first changed the original statement online to reflect that there is no evidence the protesters used this language: “Our apologies as initial information received in the original communication indicated otherwise,” it now reads. 

However, it doesn’t say that the comments didn’t happen at all. 

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This change was made after multiple emails and calls between the administration and the protesters, according to Laila Fakhoury, the president of UF Students for Justice in Palestine and 22-year-old philosophy and family, youth and community sciences senior. 

The notice of its change was sent weeks later after a Dec. 2 meeting between the group’s board and UF Chief of Staff Win Phillips, who sent the original email to all faculty and staff. 

“The statement that they did, where they just basically edited online — it wasn't reaching all of those people that they originally blasted out the message to,” Fakhoury said. “That wasn’t going to cut it for us.”

UF history professor Paul Ortiz also attended the meeting in support of the protesters. Ortiz, who was at the event and said he did not see any anti-Semitic language used, was one of about 10 professors who sent an email to administration expressing concern about the validity of the original message, he said. 

“What the university had relied upon at the outset was hearsay evidence. As a history professor, I don't allow my students to get away with that kind of behavior,” he said. “If you're going to write a paper or make an argument, you have to have solid evidence.”

However, Ortiz also said he was heartened to see the administration address and act upon student concerns. 

Michanie maintains that he was called a Nazi, war criminal and dirty colonist during his speech, he said in a phone interview after the statement was released. He said some of the names were whispered to him as the protesters left his event and others were displayed on signs.  

“The peaceful protest did not orchestrate comments,” Michanie said. “I never accused them of having orchestrated these comments, but some individuals made these comments.”

Michanie said he was glad UF made a move to denounce the comments given the U.S.’s rising anti-Semitism. He is still disappointed that the protesters left before listening to his speech. 

“I'm extremely disappointed that they were not willing or able to challenge their preconceived notions by sitting in on a 45-minute discussion with someone they may or may not disagree with,” he said. “If we cannot do that on college campuses, where can we do it?”

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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