Activists drowned out the monotonous noise of traffic in Gainesville with chants, songs and poetry on May 19.
Over 200 protestors gathered on the corner of West University Avenue and Northwest 13th Street at a demonstration supporting Palestinians through the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Solidarity with Palestine demonstration — hosted by UF Students for Justice in Palestine — gathered supporters of all ages and backgrounds.
Following the 1947 U.N. General Assembly partitioning of Palestine and subsequent 1948 Arab-Israeli War, continuously escalating tensions have made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a persistent source of violence in the Middle East.
In the past two weeks, Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas have engaged in aerial bombardment attacks — with Hamas firing over 4,000 rockets and Israel unleashing over 1,400 airstrikes in Gaza. Two hundred thirty-two Palestinians were killed by Israeli bombings, while at least 12 Israelis were killed by Hamas’ rockets. More than 90,000 Gazans have been displaced. As of May 21, Israel and Hamas have agreed to a ceasefire.
How did Gainesville react?
At the Solidarity with Palestine demonstration, Gainesville residents and students protested for more than two hours to show support for Palestinians.
As a Palestinian woman from the West Bank and the president of Students for Justice in Palestine, Leena Issa was thrilled to see the number of people voicing their support for Palestine before and during the protest.
“[It’s] just incredible that this many people are starting to see what we are going through and wanting to go out and stand in solidarity with us,” the 20-year-old said.
Throughout the night, protestors chanted “Free Palestine,” sang along to songs about liberation and listened to demonstrators perform poetry they prepared for the event.
To Hepa Naas, a 22-year-old Florida Institute of Technology alumna, the protest’s message of Palestinian solidarity had a universal appeal.
“This is not even political. This is a humanitarian crisis,” Naas said. “I feel like the whole world should be standing with the Palestinian people.”
About an hour into the demonstration, a small group of pro-Israel counter-protesters formed across the street to express concerns about the violence against Israelis in the ongoing conflict.
Yona Green, a 26-year-old Jewish UF undergraduate student and one of the counter-protestors, felt uneasy about the anti-Zionist stance of the demonstration.
Zionism — a Jewish nationalist movement — advocates for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Green said the anti-Zionist sentiments expressed among pro-Palestinian supporters could be interpreted as antisemitic, which worried him as a Jewish student.
Marina Sachs, a 27-year-old Jewish UF graduate student and member of the social justice organizing group Dream Defenders, distinguished that pro-Palestinian protestors were criticizing the state of Israel rather than Jewish people. Sachs felt it was important for Jewish people to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people.
“Being in support of human rights is the most Jewish thing I can think of,” Sachs said.
For young people like Mena Abdel-Fattah, a 16-year-old Eastside High School student, global pro-Palestinian protests signal hope for the Palestinian people.
“I want to see peace,” Abdel-Fattah said. That's all I want to see. I don't want to see Israel being bombed. I don't want to see Palestine being bombed. I just want to see peace all around.”
Two hours before the pro-Palestinian demonstration, a different event played out virtually: an exclusive pro-Israel Zoom briefing with Gil Hoffman, chief political correspondent for The Jerusalem Post.
UF Hillel — an organization for Jewish students — hosted the free limited-ticket event in which Hoffman addressed the situation in Israel for half an hour and answered participants’ questions in a 45-minute Q&A session. Over 60 participants joined the Zoom call.
Hoffman discussed the events that increased violence between Israel and Palestine, as well as Israel’s reputation within the country and the international community.
Hoffman said Israel’s existence is facing three battles: one on the battlefield, one on airwaves and another on college campuses. Israel is at a military advantage, evenly matched on TV and social media but at a disadvantage among college students, he said.
During the Q&A sessions, attendees asked how to be proactive to support Palestinian-Jewish relations, the future of Democratic support to Israel and the recent ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.
“People are people. We want to help people on both sides of the border. We want people to have better lives,” Hoffman said, answering a question about the possibility of being both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine.
UF Hillel wrote in an email that they plan to engage in educational opportunities and support students so they feel free to express their values.
“[We are] proud of our support for Israel and we take seriously our commitment to engage in robust conversations as Israel defends its citizens against attacks from a terrorist organization seeking its destruction,” said Rabbi Jonah Zinn in a statement on behalf of UF Hillel.
Patricia Sohn, an associate professor at UF who has heavily researched the politics of Israel and Palestine, offered advice in an email to students on both sides of the conflict.
"I hope that students will exercise restraint in dealing with one another and allow people who are living locally to the conflict to take care of it,” Sohn wrote.
The Israel-Palestine conflict’s history at UF
Pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli movements are not new to UF’s campus.
In 2018, UF alumna and former Students for Justice in Palestine President Lara Alqasem attempted to travel to Israel to pursue her graduate studies but was barred from the country and detained for more than two weeks in the Ben Gurion International Airport due to a 2017 law barring visitors who support boycotts on Israel.
The case made international headlines as the longest anyone has been detained for a boycott-related case.
A year later, around 100 protestors — organized by SJP — attended a silent walk-out responding to a presentation addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by Yoni Michanie, a representative for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America and an Israeli Defense Forces reserve member.
UF released a university-wide statement addressing racism and antisemitism on campus following alleged accusations by the protestors against Michanie, calling him a “Nazi” and “war criminal.” Twenty days after the original statement, UF apologized to the protestors, affirming the accusations were inaccurate, as there was no evidence of the protesters saying such remarks.
In December 2019, former President Donald Trump signed an executive order extending antisemitic discrimination to include bias against the Israeli national identity. The order aimed to combat antisemitism on college campuses.
For some Jewish students at UF, the order was an important step to provide more protections against antisemitism — an issue UF has encountered throughout the years.
In 2009, a swastika was painted on the house of the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi. The following year, an outdoor menorah for Hanukkah on the property of UF Hillel was vandalized. The UF Jewish Center sign was also vandalized in 2017.
To commemorate the 72nd anniversary of the Nakba — the expulsion of at least 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and the killing of around 15,000 Palestinians from 1947 to 1949 — UF Students for Justice in Palestine posted a series of graphics from Palestinian artist Naji al-Ali last May.
Three days after the post, a tweet was posted by BDS Report — a pro-Israel account created in opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement — describing one of the graphics posted on the UF Students for Justice in Palestine’s social media as antisemitic because of how a Jewish character was depicted.
UF Students for Justice in Palestine released a modified post with a different graphic, as well as an explanation that al-Ali’s artwork depicts both Arab Palestinians and Jewish characters in similar styles.
Nearly a year before the May 19 Solidarity with Palestine demonstration, over 100 people gathered for the Day of Rage protest to oppose Israel’s annexation of a third of the Palestinian West Bank. In a similar scene to the May 19 demonstration, a group of counter-protesters congregated to show support for Israel, prompting the Day of Rage protestors to chant louder.
Last December, UF Gators for Israel released a list of UF student leaders who supported strong bipartisan U.S.-Israeli relations. Among the 60 names on the list were former Student Body President Trevor Pope, Senate President Franco Luis and Senate majority leader Jason Scheuer.
UF Gators for Israel, Pope and Luis all declined to comment on the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
While UF has grappled with its own complex past with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it has maintained neutral academic spaces for resources on the states of Israel and Palestine — one of those being the Isser and Rae Price Library of Judaica.
Following its mission to display the Jewish experience, the Library of Judaica possesses over 50,000 items relating to Israel. The library strives to represent every perspective possible, collecting over 3,000 Palestinian items and resources relating to the Arab-Israeli conflict from a wide array of political perspectives.
“I try to bring in materials that offer a wider spectrum of opinions and experiences that relate to or connect to that subject matter,” Rebecca Jefferson, Ph.D., the head of the Library of Judaica, wrote in an email.
With members of the UF community on both sides, UF administration has not made a statement regarding the recent developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Contact Makiya Seminera at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @makseminera.