GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Mark Bleiweis, his wife, Jennifer, and his sister-in-law left their seats early during Saturday night’s football game between Florida and Georgia. As they exited the TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, they heard shouting from a sea of people – but it wasn’t about touchdowns.
It took a few seconds for Bleiweis, a University of Florida professor and heart surgeon, to track the shouting. He said he saw a group of men, young and middle-aged, yelling antisemitic remarks.
“I hear one say the holocaust was fake, and the other says that Jewish pedophiles were running the government,” Bleiweis said. His father had survived Nazi death camps, and an uncle and grandmother died in them.
Bleiweis was horrified. He said no one around them, including police, reacted to the argument. The sheriff’s office said no crimes were committed because the comments were protected as free speech. Bleiweis and his wife, who also is Jewish and a Georgia graduate, confronted the men screaming at them.
“I basically told them, ‘You’re saying that my family who died and lived during the holocaust was fake?’” Bleiweis said.
The incident at the high-profile football game – which included antisemitic messages illicitly displayed on the side of the stadium apparently from a laser projector and banners hung from highway overpasses – drew renewed attention Tuesday when Ben Sasse was asked about it. Sasse was selected by university trustees as the school’s next president. He called the messages disgusting.
Bleiweis’ encounter triggered dark, unforgettable memories in his family’s history. His father was in the Lodz ghetto in Poland from 1939 to 1944 and was transferred to Auschwitz. Bleiweis’ father also survived a death march and was liberated by the British from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
“I’m reminded of what my father said to me, which is, ‘I’m worried that history is repeating itself,’” Bleiweis said. “Now, we’re starting to see this more and more.”
Bleiweis later saw a video of the display projected on the stadium. Who was responsible and where they were operating wasn’t immediately clear.
The sheriff’s office said it was aware of the incident. It said in a statement that no crimes were committed. “The comments displayed do not include any type of threat and are protected by the First Amendment,” it said.
Florida’s highest-ranking Jewish politician, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, visited Jacksonville on Tuesday to draw more attention to the incidents. Fried, who lost the Democratic nomination for governor earlier this year, criticized Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis for not disavowing the antisemitic messages. DeSantis was at Saturday’s game.
“We all know that hatred comes from ignorance, and the only way to overcome it is to educate the importance of historical events like the holocaust,” Fried said. She is a former student body president at UF and a founding member of the Hillel house, a Jewish cultural center on campus.
The governor’s office did not respond to four phone messages.