Defying neo-Nazi Threats, Jewish Students at University of Florida Refuse to Hide in Fear

'We should be countering darkness with light - and so while Spencer was in his evil darkness, we created goodness and light on the other side'

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Demonstrators gather at the site of a planned speech by white nationalist Richard Spencer, who popularized the term 'alt-right', at the University of Florida campus on October 19, 2017 in Gainesville, Florida.
Demonstrators gather at the site of a planned speech by white nationalist Richard Spencer, who popularized the term 'alt-right', at the University of Florida campus on October 19, 2017 in Gainesville,Credit: Brian Blanco/AFP

After being targeted by white supremacists coming to their campus for Richard Spencer’s controversial speech, the Jewish community at the University of Florida defiantly chose to raise their profile, not lower it.

“Proudly resilient” was how that Rabbi Berl Goldman characterized the attitude of students at the heavily guarded Lubavitch Chabad Jewish Center on Thursday afternoon, saying that “things weren’t only business as usual, we increased our hours. There was no way we were going to shut our doors.”

The address of the university’s Chabad Jewish center was at the top of the list of places named by neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website as locations for supporters to gather if they couldn’t get into Richard Spencer’s speech. In an article published early Thursday morning, Andrew Anglin, the editor of the site, told followers to hold in “flash demos,” by showing up unannounced at these locations, a method used in Charlottesville, Virginia, by Spencer and others. 

>> Florida failed. Will other universities challenge Richard Spencer's 'right' to incite a race war in America? | Opinon <<

Rabbi Goldman told Haaretz about the wide spectrum of emotions among Jewish students. “Some are scared, some are angry, some are upset, some want to confront.”

He also says he has been busy with worried and emotional parents of student “calling from all over the state of Florida, concerned for their children’s safety.”

Another Jewish student leader, Arik Ben-Levi said “You could definitely feel the tension in the air with police activity and the messages the university was sending students all day. There were a lot fewer people on campus.”

He said that he was heeding the pleas of the president “and my worried Jewish mother” to stay away from the Spencer event.

Countering hate with good deeds

Photos from the 'Good Deed Marathon' at the University of Florida's Chabad center, set up to counter Richard Spencer and his neo-Nazi and alt-right supporters. October 19, 2017Credit: UF Chabad Student Group

In anticipation of the Spencer speech, the Chabad center endorsed the university position of advising students not to counter protest, deciding instead to counter program with a “Good Deed Marathon” encouraging students to commit to doing a good deed to counter the negativity of the Spencer rally. The president of the university attended the event and even added a card with a good deed to a bulletin board placed on campus ahead of the speech, as did the campus security guards who were protecting the participants and standing watch over the Chabad center during the day. 

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“We said we should be countering darkness with light - and so while Spencer was in his evil darkness on the other side of campus, we created goodness and light on the other side,” said Fara Moskowitz, a senior who heads the Chabad student group at the university.

Moskowitz admitted that as the Spencer event grew closer, it began to feel “scary” on campus, and the majority of students chose to stay home or leave campus. She said that in one of her classes of 70 students, she was one of only three who attended.

“Really, we don’t know what’s going to happen, we don’t know how many buses of his supporters have come, we don’t know how many people brought weapons.”

But speaking from the Chabad center on Thursday afternoon during the Spencer speech, Moskowitz told Haaretz, “I feel very safe, we have campus security here and the police, we are staying strong and continuing with our activities. Right now, we are baking for our ‘Pink Shabbat’, a breast cancer awareness event. We are staying open and showing that Richard Spencer’s  hateful speech is not affecting us.”

While she “respects” the choices of friends who decided to stay off campus Thursday, Moskowitz said, “I won't hide because of a hateful guy.”

Norman Goda, a Professor of Holocaust Studies at the university said the campus on Thursday “felt extremely subdued, it was almost as if school was closed, like a ghost town.” Goda joined the several thousand outside the theater where Spencer was speaking and there, he said, the atmosphere was “highly charged.” Relative to the student population, he said the number of protesters was not high, and that most had heeded the university president’s call to stay away and not give Spencer the attention he sought.

Among the students at the demonstration, he said was “a mix of indignation that Spencer is even here combined with a hope that people get through the day safely without being hurt.”

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