Just steps away from the hubbub around a suspicious package alert at Turlington Plaza on Thursday afternoon, a sea of people crowded the heart of the University of Florida’s campus.
While the nearby area around Turlington Hall was deserted as authorities cleared the area and determined the package posed no threat, Plaza of the Americas remained bustling, with students united at its center.
On an ordinary afternoon, such a crowd may originate from foot traffic between classes or tabling for student organizations at the plaza, located in front of UF’s always crowded Library West.
On Thursday, a different kind of crowd populated the plaza walkways. The crowd was looking to “Chomp Hate.”
Representatives from UF Hillel, Chabad, the Jewish Student Union (JSU) and other student organizations met a group of antisemitic protestors. The group, which has been seen at other universities, glorifies the verbal attacks on Jewish people from the rapper Ye, formerly known as Kanye West.
The provocative group displays the slogan “Ye Was Right” on a banner.
Members of the university’s Jewish community flocked in masses to shun the display. Jason Scheuer, former president of Gators for Israel, is among the students united against them.
“In the end, I think these people are instigators who want attention,” he said. “But when we stand together against hate, we win in the end.”
The visiting group echoed similar messages seen before. On Oct. 29, a message supporting “Ye” was projected at the Florida-Georgia football game in Jacksonville. On Jan. 26, the University of Alabama reported similar messages on its campus. The Crimson White, a student-run newspaper, reported nearly two dozen messages displaying the hashtag “YEWasRight”.
Following the October incident at the Gators’ game, UF Hillel launched a “Chomp Hate” campaign intended to temper the suddenly rampant bigotry close to home. Still, the school has since seen multiple instances of antisemitic hate graffiti on campus, including messages written in chalk on campus Wednesday in support of Ye.
Zoe Mottlowitz, a frequent goer of UF Hillel, said she sees through the intentions of these provocations.
“It’s about bad people with bad intentions spreading hatred around a campus that is full of love and full of community,” she said.
UF boasts a significant Jewish population, with around 19% of its student body identifying as Jewish, according to Hillel International. This was evident Thursday, as dozens of students united to celebrate their heritage and combat hate speech.
To do so, students engaged in a wide range of activities. They were seen listening and dancing to Israeli music, with the goal of drowning out any hate speech. Also, male students wrapped tefillin, an important tradition for Jewish men. To unite all students with one message, representatives from UF Hillel passed out “Chomp Hate” stickers while stopping to discuss any distress from the events at hand.
Rabbi Berl Goldman was among the individuals present Thursday. Representing UF Chabad, the Rabbi took time to communicate with students and discuss the impact of a community united. While Goldman acknowledged it’s righteous to just ignore such bigotry, he emphasized the need for a community united in such a moment.
“We have to be out here showing a strong voice united against hate, bigotry, and antisemitism,” he said.
Students echoed the sentiments Goldman shared. Michael Varnagy, a second-year student, has become heavily involved with UF Chabad and the campus’s Jewish community. The Orlando native said at the Plaza that he knows this isn’t the first time his community encountered hate.
“Being Jewish is a big part of my life,” he said. “This isn’t the first time we’ve seen stuff like this. We saw it in Jacksonville.”
Since Jacksonville, the UF Jewish community has made a concerted effort at halting prejudices. Rabbi Jonah Zinn launched the January campaign “Spread Cream Cheese, Not Hate,” in which Hillel handed out free bagels in Turlington Plaza.
Thursday’s events followed Friday’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day. To celebrate, UF Chabad hosted an event with 300 students and faculty in attendance, headlined by a Holocaust survivor as a keynote speaker.
Despite these efforts, the antisemitic group still appeared in Gainesville Thursday. As far as their intentions go, Goldman speculated that the group is looking to incite conflict and stoke fear and division. To combat this issue, the Rabbi has a clear answer.
“The answer to this is to reject their message,” he said. “To support each other, to show a sign of love and unity.”
While the visiting group dispersed within hours of its arrival, students remained at Plaza until the group of “Ye” supporters left. Among the competing sounds muffling over each speaker, the upbeat sound of Israeli music prevailed.
Students danced in unity.
Even as the group left UF’s campus Thursday, students braced for the antisemitic acts to continue. Noah Fineberg, director of external affairs for UF Student Government, is among those preparing to experience such hate again. While the Jewish South Florida native knows his fight isn’t over, he calls on his non-Jewish peers to join the efforts.
“For our non-Jewish students, reach out to your friends and neighbors,” he said. “Make sure they’re OK. Make yourself aware of the resources that both the university and places like Hillel and Chabad offer and send them to your friends.”