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Jewish author Mark Oppenheimer speaks on antisemitism at UF

Gainesville Jewish community discusses living authentically in the face of hatred

<p>Mark Oppenheimer, a religion writer and scholar, appears at Pugh Hall on UF&#x27;s campus to discuss the increase of antisemitism Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. </p>

Mark Oppenheimer, a religion writer and scholar, appears at Pugh Hall on UF's campus to discuss the increase of antisemitism Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023.

Mark Oppenheimer doesn’t know the cure for antisemitism. But neither does anyone, he told a crowded group of UF students at Pugh Hall.

Oppenheimer — a writer and self-described challah baker whose portfolio includes projects such as “The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia and the “Unorthodox” podcast – visited UF Tuesday to speak to over 50 students and other members of the Gainesville community in an open conversation about antisemitism.

This event came one day before antisemitic messages written in chalk popped up around UF campus, prompting a condemnation from UF Hillel.  

Rachel Gordan, a professor in the Center for Jewish Studies, said UF was led to organize the event as a direct response to rising antisemitic sentiments.

“It’s a cause of concern for everyone, not just Jews,” said Gordan. “And it’s very important that these kinds of events don’t just happen in Jewish studies.”

One of the most troubling antisemitic events Gordan referenced occurred in October 2022, when a message proclaiming  “Kanye is right about the Jews!!!” was projected onto the exterior of the TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville during the Florida-Georgia football game. The act reinforced the antisemitic remarks spread by Kanye West earlier that month, which included a Tweet vowing to go “death con 3 on Jewish people.” 

At UF – the school which holds the largest number of Jewish undergraduates of any public university in America, according to Hillel International – the incident sparked fear and confusion within many Jewish students.

“I am a member of the Jewish community, and I have felt the weight of the rising antisemitism recently, in regards to the UF campus and the United States as a whole,” said Megan Meese, a 19-year-old UF international studies freshman.

Like many attendees of Oppenheimer’s speech, Meese said she was interested to hear what the author had to say about antisemitism — an interest Oppenheimer said he feels keenly.

Often called upon as an expert when antisemitic events make headlines, having to speak out is bittersweet, Oppenheimer said.

“On the one hand, it’s a really great honor because I love teaching,” Oppenheimer said. “On the other hand, in some ways it can feel a bit futile, because a lot of what people want to know is, ‘How do I stop antisemitism?’ And I don’t have good answers for them.’”

Instead of focusing on stamping out hate, Oppenheimer said he hopes to inspire members of the Jewish community to live thriving, authentic lives – a concept he refers to as “Jewing it.”

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“The job of Jews is to live full, robust, proud Jewish lives, whatever that means,” Oppenheimer said, “whether that means praying Jewish, cooking Jewish, partying Jewish on Jewish holidays.” 

As a father, Oppenheimer said he passes the same message to his five children.

“The advice I give my children is not how to change society, it’s how they can thrive,” he said. “They can thrive by knowing who they are and being joyous about it.”

Gordan, the host, agreed with the impossibility of eradicating antisemitism entirely. However, she hopes that by organizing events like this one, UF can help educate society on how everyone can combat its effects in their personal lives. 

“We can educate people, make them aware of what antisemitism is when they hear it so they can maybe stop it,” Gordan said.

In November, UF Hillel launched the “Chomp Hate” campaign to educate students on combating not only antisemitism but all acts of hate occurring on campus. Meese was pleasantly surprised by the university’s positive reaction to campaigns like Chomp Hate.

“I think UF has done a really good job of supporting the Jewish community and helping to educate allies about the issues that are happening here on campus,” she said.

In his presentation, Oppenheimer reiterated the importance of an educated population of Jewish allies. Toward the end of the event, he spoke directly to non-Jewish members of the audience, calling on them to refuse to tolerate antisemitism.

“If you hear antisemitic jokes, if you hear someone slur Jews, if you hear someone say the kind of thing that people say when they think the group that’s being attacked isn’t around, you can’t stand for it,” he said. “That’s what allies have to do.”

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Zoey Thomas

Zoey Thomas is a second-year media production major and the university administration reporter for The Alligator. She previously wrote for the metro desk. Other than reporter, Zoey's titles include espresso connoisseur, long-distance runner and Wes Anderson appreciator. 

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