Despite tensions that mounted throughout the week with news that white supremacist Richard Spencer was coming to speak at the University of Florida in Gainesville—a school with an estimated 6,000 Jewish students, one of the highest demographics on a campus outside of Israel—the event ended relatively quietly on Thursday, with a low turnout for the address and some heckling by protestors who far outnumbered Spencer supporters.
Fears had worsened before the speech when the Tabacinic Lubavitch Chabad Jewish Student Center, the campus Chabad House, was targeted by the neo-Nazi publication The Daily Stormer, which urged people to “Go to other places in the city of Gainsville [sic] and stage multiple flash demonstrations with a group of people.” It was the first place listed as a potential site for flash-mob demonstrations.
Ahead of the Oct. 19 speech, a state of emergency was even declared by the university administration.
In the end, the day proved calm, thanks to the presence of more than 500 police and security officers from the state, who patrolled the campus on Thursday. Students and faculty were also urged by the university’s president, Kent Fuchs, to stay away from the school’s Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, the venue where Spencer gave his address.
“These people have a very twisted ideology,” said Rabbi Berl Goldman, co-director of the Tabacinic Lubavitch Chabad Jewish Student Center at UF. For the last few days, he has been fielding calls from concerned students, parents, alumni, community members and media from throughout the country.
“The students have very different reactions,” he explained. “Some are fearful and scared; some just want it to blow over; others are angry and upset. As community leaders, we have the responsibility to guide them in channeling their feelings in the right way.”
Another issue, he continued, is how to react as an organization.
“Do you shut your doors, or do you stay resilient and open to the community?” he posed. “Some want a showdown, but we believe there are only two ways to respond: by shunning them, and by using our energy and message of light and goodness in response to the darkness of hate.”
Countering the Negativity
To that end, Chabad held a “Good Deed Marathon” with a visible booth on the school’s campus, encouraging all who passed by the opportunity to counteract the negativity nearby—and in the world—by pledging to do a mitzvah.
Among those who did so was Fuchs, who stayed at the booth for nearly two hours talking with students and urging them to perform their own good deed.
“The response was so much bigger than we could have expected,” said Arik Ben-Levy, 21, a senior at UF and vice president of the student group at Chabad. “It was a very positive atmosphere. We even had law-enforcement members stop and write down their own good deeds. It was a sight to behold; it was amazing!”
Goldman says the Chabad center, which has been open for extended hours the last few days and will continue to be open late into the night on Thursday and Friday, is very secure—even more than usual right now—and serves as a gathering spot for students. On Wednesday, about 100 students came there to a falafel night that began at 11 p.m. and didn’t wind down until after 2 a.m.
Ben-Levy was among those who attended the program; he actually made the falafel that was served, and says that he has been pleased by the response of the administration, Chabad and other students.
“When I first heard that Spencer was coming here, I was shocked, especially after what happened in Charlottesville because you don’t think it will happen here. You feel immune, and then this little bubble is burst,” he said. “They are trying to take us down, but we won’t let them.”
‘People Stayed Inside’
With memories of the aftermath of Charlottesville still in many people’s minds, Spencer chose to speak at UF Gainesville, which is home to one of the largest Jewish student bodies outside of Israel. According to the university, Spencer was not invited by the school to speak; rather, he was allowed a venue for his appearance based on First Amendment law.
In a message to students, staff and others, Fuchs explained his personal dismay at having to allow Spencer a space to express his views. He urged students to avoid even going near the building where the speech was happening. “ . . . I ask that you not let Mr. Spencer’s message of hate and racism go unchallenged. Speak up for your values and the values of our university. Make it clear that messages of hate on our campus are contrary to those values.”
While the university was officially open and encouraged classes to go on as scheduled, many professors did choose to cancel their classes. “The campus is pretty quiet. People stayed inside, and I think that’s the right course of action,” said Ben-Levy. “We don’t want to give them the attention they want.”
This wasn’t the first time that Chabad and the Jewish community have had to confront anti-Semitic actions at the university. Back in January, several lone individuals in neo-Nazi regalia showed up on campus aimed at provoking a response, which they got. Students came out in droves to contest their presence.
“There’s no doubt this ideology of bigotry and racism and hate are rejected by the Gainesville community, the country and the world,” said Goldman. “There is a small group that tries to move their agenda forward, but it won’t prevail, as history has told us. Still, those with negative elements cling to these ideas and have it as part of their agenda. We have to reject that, and empower our children through education and good deeds. That will extinguish their message.”
As the hour ticked to the start of Spencer’s address in an auditorium that wasn’t anywhere near full, the rabbi added: “If for every minute he speaks everyone would do 10 good deeds—and show inclusiveness and non-bigotry, and not have racism or hate towards anyone in our hearts—they lose and we win.”