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Pro-Palestine campus event follows UF President Ben Sasse's email condemning anti-Israel rhetoric

UFPD set up barricades outside the event to ensure all individuals were scanned with a metal detector and had bags checked before entering. (Emily Sturge/WUFT News)
UFPD set up barricades outside the event to ensure all individuals were scanned with a metal detector and had bags checked before entering. (Emily Sturge/WUFT News)

More than 150 Palestinian students and allies gathered on the University of Florida campus Thursday for a “Day of Resistance” event in support of Palestine. The heavily policed event was held after UF President Ben Sasse issued a strong pro-Israel statement Tuesday vowing to protect Jewish students and condemning Hamas. “I will not tiptoe around this simple fact: What Hamas did is evil and there is no defense for terrorism,” Sasse wrote in an email to Jewish Gator Alums. Sasse’s strong statement stands out among that of leaders of other universities who have taken a more even-handed posture. It may also raise free speech concerns among faculty who hold differing views. WUFT reached out to numerous faculty representatives but was unable to get a comment. “Sadly, too many people in elite academia have been so weakened by their moral confusion that, when they see videos of raped women, hear of a beheaded baby, or learn of a grandmother murdered in her home, the first reaction of some is to 'provide context' and try to blame the raped women, beheaded baby, or the murdered grandmother,” Sasse said. Reports on social and traditional media outlets of the discovery of a baby found beheaded during the Hamas offensive have not been confirmed.

Sasse said the university is committed to protecting its students and their free speech, as well as protecting Jewish students from violence. “If anti-Israel protests come, we will absolutely be ready to act if anyone dares to escalate beyond peaceful protest. Speech is protected – violence and vandalism are not,” Sasse wrote. Sasse denounced any support of anti-Israel ideas and said he is thankful he hasn’t seen any examples from UF faculty. “Our Constitution protects the rights of people to make abject idiots of themselves,” Sasse wrote. The pro-Palestine event took place at Turlington Hall on UF campus and was hosted by three student groups: Students for Justice in Palestine, Arab Students’ Association and Islam on Campus. Organizers described it as an educational opportunity and not a protest. “We don't see the same attention for the human rights violations against Palestinians,” said an official from Students for Justice in Palestine, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisal. “Both sides need to be highlighted for things to happen in a fair manner and for there to be any peace or reconciliation at all.” Palestinian students who are members of these organizations declined to talk to the media out of fear for their safety. Speakers at the event declined to provide their names and hid their faces from documentation. At least one student gave a false name.

“There’s an organization called Canary Mission, and they literally target Palestinian student organizers and put their information online,” said the official from Students for Justice in Palestine. “We don’t want to get our members doxxed.” The UF Police Department maintained a heavy presence on campus in preparation for any disruptions during the pro-Palestine event. Officers stood guard inside and outside the building and two police dogs were present. Access to Turlington was barricaded, and individuals were scanned with metal detectors and had their bags checked before entering.

During the event, speakers noted the importance of their constitutional rights when discussing the conflict between Israel and Palestine. “Those of us who advocate for Palestine and for the rights of Palestinians have the First Amendment on our sides,” said a student speaker at the event. Despite advocating for the First Amendment, student organizers did not allow any photography or videography at this public gathering. Organizers immediately stopped any attendees or members of the media who raised their cameras to document the event. The event was the second this week in which UF students gathered in response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. About 20 students were injured at a candlelight vigil Monday when more than 1,000 attendees stampeded after they heard shouts to call 911 for someone who had fainted.

Sasse spoke at the prayer vigil alongside Rabbi and  UF Executive Director of UF Hillel Jonah Zinn. “I think we can all agree that the rape of women, the kidnapping of the families and the murder of children is never OK,” said Rabbi Zinn. “The fact that this event would seem to seek in some way to justify that, it really runs counter to, I think, human decency.” Sasse wrote that he was overwhelmed to see so many Gators in support of Israel and called the chaotic stampede “an unfortunate end to a beautiful gathering.” "Jewish students are witnessing the most heinous attacks on the Jewish people since the Holocaust,” Rabbi Zinn said. “It pains us to see any members of our campus community coming together in a way that would seek to justify this type of really abhorrent behavior.”

Emily is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.