Tensions high at pro-Israeli UF Hillel event, protesters and police present
As the Israel-Gaza war enters its fourth month, UF Hillel hosted a pro-Israeli “Dueling Narratives of the Israeli-Palestine Conflict” event on Tuesday. It was not without its challengers.
Charlotte Korchak, Senior Educator & Director of International Student Programs at Stand With Us Israel and a self-proclaimed Zionist on her Instagram, travels throughout the country giving presentations about history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She says the information she provides about the current conflict is an effort to help young Jews stand up for themselves and for non-Jews to be better educated.
“My job is to push people out of their comfort zones,” Korchak said. “I’m an educator.”
The University of Florida is home to the largest undergraduate population of Jewish students in the U.S. and has seen a variety of Jewish and Palestinian protests since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks. Most notably, a pro-Israel gathering held at Turlington Hall on Oct. 9 resulted in a stampede after attendees were spooked by a loud noise, perceiving it to be a threat.
On Tuesday, as attendees made their way toward the Rion Ballroom to hear Korchak, nine police officers were on duty for the event. A sign outside the ballroom stated that protestors should not enter the venue. In the courtyard, a pro-Palestinian group of about 20 people chanted, waved flags, and held signs such as “Free Palestine” and “End All U.S. Aid to Israel.”
Inside the ballroom, two UF students, including Gabriel Flaksman, from New York, and Noam Levi, a native of Israel, waited for the event to begin.
“They just want attention,” Flaksman, 21, said, referring to the protesters outside. “They want to spread their message, and we think it’s very hateful, but we don’t let it affect us. As long as they’re being peaceful, we let them advocate for themselves.”
Korchak took the stage at 6:47 p.m. and introduced herself to the crowd of about 150 people. While she spoke, an attendee seated at the back of the room proudly held a Palestinian flag in the air.
After growing up in Los Angeles, Korchak and her family moved to Israel when she was 9 and lived in a Jewish settlement on the West Bank. After a year there, her family moved to Jerusalem for four years, and eventually moved to Las Vegas. “From the holy city to sin city,” she joked.
Korchak, who graduated from the University of Southern California with a bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern History, presented her opinions on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. She openly condemned Hamas, the armed group operating out of Gaza, and their attacks on Israel.
However, she believes that Jews, particularly radicals, have also played a part in warfare and counterterrorism. According to the Health Ministry in the Gaza Strip, more than 25,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel's land and air offensive since October 7.
“I don’t want either side to be in pain,” Korchak said. “The first step is acknowledging that harm.”
About an hour into Korchak’s presentation, every head turned at the sound of loud boots clacking against the ballroom’s hardwood floors. A woman dressed in a hijab and abaya, a Muslim garb that covers a woman’s head and stretches down to her feet, calmly walked to the front row and sat right in front of Korchak. After a few minutes, she reached into her abaya and pulled out a cardboard Palestinian flag bearing the phrase, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!”
The woman then began to oppose and chuckle at some of Korchak’s statistics, sometimes followed by comments from other Palestinian supporters and at other times, groans from Israeli supporters. Later, the woman began loudly stating “ceasefire now,” which Korchak reprimanded.
“Don’t kill us on Oct. 7, and we won’t bomb you,” Korchak said. After a few other interjections by the woman, a police officer asked her to quiet down.
After presenting for over an hour, Korchak opened the floor to questions. Dani Sakkal, a 23-year-old UF graduate student studying mental health counseling, was called upon. Sakkal asked how to be neutral in such an emotionally charged conflict, as he attends both Jewish and Palestinian events with his friends supporting each side.
“A lot of people are so plagued with fear they can’t necessarily see any other perspective but their own,” Sakkal said. “I find that a lot of people acting out of fear are surrounding themselves only with people who share the same opinions.”
Korchak responded to Sakkal’s inquiry by again bashing extremists from both sides and commending him for aiming to be inclusive toward people’s perspectives. Also, Korchak said that people should be able to take pride in their religion and identity while also criticizing the government when they do wrong.
However, after Sakkal’s Inquiries, a small group of young Palestinian supporters began to interject questions and comments. A man in front of the supporters told them to “shut up”, leading Korchak to threaten to kick the man out.
Back-and-forth spats continued for about 10 minutes after which some Palestinian supporters left the ballroom. Still, this was not the end of the squabbles. Another young attendee stood up, said he was a historian and said Korchak was not being accurate but instead “just talks really fast and is loud.”
“I encourage you all to fact-check everything I said,” Korchak retorted. “And yes, I do talk fast as well, but that doesn’t make me inaccurate.”
The attendee then said Jews were colonizers, at which time Korchak started speaking Hebrew, saying the language used from thousands of years ago proves Jews couldn’t possibly be colonizers.
According to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, adopted in 2016, Israeli settlements in "Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem," is a "flagrant violation" of international law and has "no legal validity”, a stance the Israeli government condemns.
After a back and forth, police began to escort the attendee out, though he later left the room on his own alongside a group of other Palestinian supporters and the woman in the abaya.
“This is usually what happens when facts are presented that are hard to argue,” Korchak said as chants of “Free Palestine” echoed throughout the room as the Palestinian supporters left.
After 18 years of public speaking, Korchak says she has learned to stand her ground whenever people interject or become hostile, which she says is quite commonplace.
On Jan. 31, while speaking at the University of Georgia, a Jewish Anti-Zionist attendee challenged Korchak’s opinions on the conflict and began praying aloud. Korchak blasted the attendee’s statistics, brought up conflicts between Arabs and Jews in the 20th century, and perspective toward the current dispute, resulting in the attendee leaving the room. The clip was posted on YouTube and has around 100 thousand views.
“I just don’t take s— anymore,” Korchak said. “There is a respect element; I’m going to demand respect.”
Despite the commotion, some Jewish students found the event gratifying.
“Events like this mean a lot… We’re a family here,” Flaksman said. “Getting educated and coming together to learn more, not only for Jews but non-Jews as well, is important to really understand what’s going on in Israel.”
Korchak is continuing her collegiate tour, visiting the University of Central Florida on Wednesday, home to the third largest Jewish undergraduate public university population.