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The Perpetual Safety Struggle
teamjij
Tuesday 24/08/2021

ANTISEMITISM ON THE CAMPUS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA

From the Perspective of Ryan Marcus, a Jewish Student

The population of Jewish students at the University of Florida in 2019 was greater than 18% of the total campus population.  That statistic has most likely increased over the past 3 years. The university needs to recognize and provide a safe environment for this group, which is almost one-fifth of the entire student population of the University of Florida.  This Jewish group has created a deep-rooted community that desires to provide safety for its members as well as a rich education that can broaden minds, educate, challenge and refine opinions and allow them to develop to their highest potential. The opportunity for students to major in Jewish Studies and attend events at the local Hillel and Chabad centers creates a sense of safety and security that Jewish students rely on to thrive. These spaces aid in cultivating Jewish leadership on campus and amplify the voices of Jewish individuals in telling their authentic truths.

Deplorably, at the same time, antisemitic ideas and sentiments are filtering throughout the general population of the student body of the University of Florida, in the guise of political discourse. Antisemitism, according to the working definition framed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (“IHRA”), “is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

In November of 2019, Yoni Michanie, a reserve member of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), came to speak about his life experience as a soldier. Soon after he began his presentation, he was met with a vexing disruption as roughly one hundred protesting students stood up and walked out with signs to express antisemitic and anti-Zionist tropes (The Gainesville Sun). These students, members of a campus organization called Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), sought to derail the dialogue and undermine Yoni’s lived experiences.  According to the Gainesville article, the slurs such as “war criminal” and “colonist” were used to target Yoni. These slurs fall well within the IHRA definition of antisemitism by demonizing all Israeli citizens who moved to the land of Israel to seek refuge in a time of persecution, as well as applying a double standard to the IDF’s actions.

  As a Jewish student on a college campus, the sentiments expressed in this protest effectively popped the secure bubble that I, Ryan Marcus, had convinced myself I existed in. It served as an alarming reminder that antisemitism continues to guide collective narratives which isolate Jewish students through both verbal attacks and written statements. In demonizing and attacking Yoni Michanie, not just for his participation in the IDF but against all Jews, I myself felt attacked and vulnerable.  The attacks were not just directed towards Yoni but against all Jews at the University of Florida who sympathized with him.

 In the ensuing weeks, I became more alert and aware of my surroundings, coming to terms with the fact that the place I believed to be a safe haven was merely an extension of the depraved world around me. Later that year I found myself taking a relatively mundane walk to class through campus when I encountered an older man sitting on a bench and holding a cardboard sign, which read something to the effect of “Free Palestine” and included a reference to the Jewish people as being to blame for the conflict. Thrown utterly off guard and unable to process what I was witnessing, I immediately and unconsciously reached for my hamsa necklace to ensure it was not visible to the man in front of me. At that moment I helplessly walked past the bench, hoping nothing would give away my Jewish identity.

A university which is supposed to engender dispassionate discussion of differing opinions failed me at that moment.  I did not feel I could sit in this man’s presence and discuss our differing opinion; instead I felt threatened and at a loss for words.  While the university was quick to issue a statement condemning the antisemitic remarks uttered during the SJP protest, that institutional step did not go far enough; it did not address the real issue of antisemitism on the campus of the University of Florida, and thus failed at what could have been a powerful teaching opportunity between expressing a political opinion and an out-and-out attack against an entire people group. Demonstrations which target Israel, the home of the Jewish people, and call for the elimination of a space for Jewish people on the globe have become endemic on college campuses. As a result of these organized protests, curricula in Jewish Studies has become more defensive. Courses focusing on Israeli society have shifted over the years to emphasize the ongoing conflict in the Middle East through a lens which subtly demonizes the Jewish people for their existence in the region. By using educational spaces to reframe the establishment of Israel and to paint the Jewish people as greedy colonizers, the entire history of the Jewish people is being rewritten with a new narrative.  As a result, I can personally attest that to be Jewish on college campuses where this narrative has become the norm is extremely frightening.

In conclusion, how then should the University of Florida respond to this increasing wave of antisemitism? First, it needs to be recognized. There is a difference between the free and open communication of diverse opinions and blatant antisemitic acts which lead to violence. University authorities need to understand what that difference is. Concrete steps must be taken to create a campus where ignorant and prejudicial statements targeting entire groups of people are called out and corrected. Actions must be identified for what they are in order to recognize their true repercussions. That is the point of a teaching institution.  In each of the events I experienced, the antisemitism expressed created an increasingly more distressing environment for myself and other Jewish students to exist. The next step for the University of Florida would be to learn and adopt the IHRA working definition of antisemitism in order to create a safer, more inclusive campus for all students, where Jewish students are not alienated or left feeling paralyzed with fear because of their cultural identity and unique connection to their religion, and where non-Jewish students can learn the difference between a differing opinion and an antisemitic threat.

 

Grethel Aguila Special to The Sun. (2019, November 26). UF group wants apology after post-protest email. Gainesville Sun. https://www.gainesville.com/news/20191126/uf-group-wants-apology-after-post-protest-email.  
Working Definition of Antisemitism. IHRA. https://www.holocaustremembrance.com/resources/working-definitions-charters/working-definition-antisemitism.  

 

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