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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Recent antisemitic vandalizations cause safety concerns among UF Jewish students

Community members discuss misinformation concerning the Middle Eastern conflict

Hillel Norman H. Lipoff Hall is the center for Jewish life on campus on University Avenue on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023.
Hillel Norman H. Lipoff Hall is the center for Jewish life on campus on University Avenue on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023.

Sara Beer has recently started to think twice before wearing her Star of David necklace on UF's campus. 

“It’s definitely a little concerning, especially because I’m a person, like many others, who’s very proud of their Judaism and with that has now come with a lot of risks,” Beer said.

The 20-year-old public relations junior, who is Jewish, said she's felt more anxious for the safety of herself and her Jewish peers since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war Oct. 7.

The escalation of the Middle Eastern conflict has brewed a growing tension among pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian members of the UF community. While people have mostly expressed their opinions through peaceful protests, a series of antisemitic incidents on campus, such as the Nov. 27 vandalization of the Chabad UF Jewish Student Center, have left many Jewish community members worried for their security and well-being. 

The recent vandalism follows a series of antisemitic incidents that plagued the UF community earlier this year and Fall 2022. In October 2022, an antisemitic message was displayed on the exterior of the TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville after the Florida-Georgia game. In Spring 2023, antisemitic writings were found on campus and an antisemitic group of streamers visited Turlington Plaza. 

Beer is heavily involved in the local Jewish community. On top of serving as the vice president of the UF Jewish Student Union, she is a member of the Jewish sorority UF Alpha Epsilon Phi and also works as a Hebrew school teacher at B’nai Israel Congregation, a local Gainesville synagogue. 

Although Beer is scared there will be more antisemitic incidents in the future, she said she will continue to take pride in her Jewish heritage and the UF Jewish student community that she has found comfort in during this difficult time.

“I think that because there are so few of us in the world, having a strong Jewish identity and a strong connection toward your Jewish identity is something that we have to take advantage of,” she said.

Rabbi Berl Goldman, director of the Chabad UF Jewish Student Center, was disgusted by last month’s antisemitic attack on the center. The center was vandalized with antisemitic remarks such as “baby killers” on Nov. 27. The incident came a month after the UF Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi banner that reads “AEPi stands with Israel” was vandalized twice.

“We are concerned that some people, especially congregants and students that attend our center regularly, would be fearful because of antisemitic attacks and vandalism,” Goldman said.

The man suspected of the multiple hate crimes against Chabad UF, Geoffrey Lush, was arrested Nov. 30 at night by the Gainesville Police Department and faces two felony charges, according to an email sent by Goldman.

Goldman confirmed that GPD will have visual and uniformed police officers during scheduled programs and services at the center in response to the vandalization.

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“We have a responsibility and obligation to serve the Jewish life and learning here, on and off campus,” Goldman said. “This will not only not deter us, we will double and maybe triple our efforts to spread goodness and kindness.”

Goldman attributes the rise in antisemitic vandalizations to the spread of both purposeful and accidental misinformation on campus about the conflict.

“There's a lot of misinformation because of the way the world receives its information today with social media, which is a very powerful tool, but anybody could be anywhere without any verification and say whatever they want, and millions of people can see [that],” Goldman said.

The Anti-Defamation League said 70% of participants in a recent study reported seeing misinformation or hate related to the conflict while on social media.

Goldman stressed the importance of students addressing misinformation and speaking up for hate that they see online.

“It’s very important that everybody…stand together for good and for right over wrong,” Goldman said. “This battle is manifesting itself in Israel and against Jews, but it is not a battle against Jews.”

In response to the rise in antisemitic incidents on campus, UF Spokesperson Cynthia Roldan emphasized that UF is committed to protecting its Jewish student population. 

“UF has been clear and unapologetic about our foundational commitments to protect speech and protect our students,” she wrote via email. “That’s how we build a culture where Gators are safe and respected.” 

UF will also continue to protect free speech, Roldan added.

“Here's how we defend the First Amendment: students can demonstrate peacefully and make their views heard, but anyone who breaks the law will be suspended or fired,” Roldan wrote.

Roldan recommended that students impacted by the increased antisemitism and tension on campus connect with the Counseling and Wellness Center and U Matter, We Care.

Non-Jewish students are also disappointed in the misinformation being shared about the war.

Zayna Sheikh, a 21-year-old Muslim UF architecture senior, said she is frustrated with how religion is being weaponized in the conflict when the friction stems from political tensions. 

“The narrative that this is a religious conflict is reductive: it is about land rights,” Sheikh wrote.

Sheikh believes misinformation, particularly on social media, is the reason why the conflict has divided various groups, she said.

“I would recommend that students read about this occupation through historians and scholars [like] Edward Said [and] Noam Chomsky,” Sheikh wrote.

In order to combat misinformation, Sheikh said she urges students to learn about the broader historical context, such as Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. She also critiqued the continuous conflation between Zionism and Judaism when condemning the actions of the Israeli government.

Zionism is defined as a movement originally for the re-establishment and the now protection of a Jewish nation in what is now Israel, according to Oxford dictionaries.

Eden Goldenberg, a 20-year-old UF neuroscience and philosophy junior, attended the Oct. 9 vigil for the 1,200 Israeli casualties of Palestinian militant group Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks. Although she has not experienced any recent outright antisemitism on campus, She said she can still hear the screams of students rushing to flee Turlington Plaza after panic broke out among the crowd.

“Throwing ourselves into the bushes, crouching as cramped as we could with about 10 other Jewish students ... listening to the screaming — it’s a sound that haunts me to this day,” she wrote. “I still have trouble walking by Turlington, by those bushes.”

When asked about disinformation as the driving factor for antisemitism, Goldenberg said that misinformation circulating on social media is terrifying to her as uninformed individuals can take harmful information and propagate it.

“Do not post information or spread information, particularly in a population of students so vulnerable to false information, unless you are certain and have verified it,” Goldenberg wrote. “It is equally devastating to Palestinians and to Israelis alike.”

Contact Jinelle Vazquez at jvazquez@alligator.org. Follow them on Twitter @vazquezjinelle.


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Jinelle Vazquez

Jinelle Vazquez is a senior at UF pursuing a major in Public Health with a minor in Indigenous Studies. They currently report for the enterprise desk covering health. In their free time, they enjoy hiking, photography and making art.


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