An issue of polarity
University Police were on hand as the Bull Market became the scene of a western-style standoff Wednesday.
Students who support and oppose USF President Judy Genshaft’s decision to Sami Al-Arian stood with posters roughly 20 feet apart and engaged in a heated hour-long debate.
At one point during the debate Lars Fetzek, a Jewish graduate student who supports Al-Arian, and juniors Jim Holley and Mike Berman, who support Genshaft, confronted each other with raised tones.
“I disagree with the death of Israel, but I will stand up for someone’s right to say it in a free society,” Fetzek said.
“People that think the death of a country doesn’t mean the death of citizens are idiots,” Berman answered.
Later Holley confronted Fetzek, asking if he would give up his safety for academic freedom.
“Do you feel safe?” Holley asked.
“How do I feel safe when I can’t say my mind,” Fetzek answered.
“Then conform,” Holley said.
Fetzek later said as a Jewish student in the mostly Muslim group that supported Al-Arian, he did not feel that the issue had anything to do with race. He said he supported the other group’s right to protest, but he still disagrees.
“I think they’re really simple people,” Fetzek said. “I support (Al-Arian’s) right to free speech without the terror of being fired.”Holley said he questions whether those who support Al-Arian know what issues are really being represented. Due to the fact that many of the Genshaft supporters were Jewish, he also questioned Fetzek’s faith.
“I’m thinking they’re supporting him out of fear and not out of any logic,” Holley said. “I also noticed they”re rehashing the same tired chant, except for that Jewish guy, the guy that claims to be Jewish over there.”
The rally had originally been scheduled as an event called “Hands Across the Campus.” Students supporting Genshaft had hoped, as part of a peaceful rally, to create a human chain from the Bull Market to the Library to show solidarity for Genshaft. The mood of the rally changed quickly, however, when Al-Arian supporters arrived.
Each side had roughly 20 students involved in the debate, most of whom spent the hour chanting. At some points there were about 60 onlookers. Some listened intently, while others ridiculed the protesters.
Among the onlookers was Abdo Masoud, a sophomore from Jordan. He said he thinks debating is not the way to solve the complex problems involved in this matter.
“I just think it’s sad that people can’t get along,” Masoud said. “We are the children of today, and we shouldn’t be fighting about ancient hatred and things that exist in the country over there.”
He said hate between Muslims and Jews has existed for too long and must not make its way onto the USF campus.
“We need to mature and stop this kind of hating on one another,” he said. “Both sides are guilty.”
Masoud said the issue is not about freedom of speech but of a rivalry between two groups, and he finds it sad.
“We are trying to call for a dialogue between these people so they can get along,” he said. “I know a lot of students who are willing and want to talk. Religious rivalry or whatever it is needs to be off our campus.”
Berman had a differing opinion. He said he feels such rallies are important because he is able to express his views in support of Genshaft directly to the other side.
“That’s their right (to be here). I don’t have any problem with them being here,” Berman said. “It’s good the two organizations can stand on the opposite side of the sidewalk, and we can yell back and forth, and we’re not having any problems. That’s the main thing.”
Berman said he hopes the students watching the rally will learn about the issues and see that they are important.
“We’d like them to care,” he said. “Apathy is one thing were really trying to fight on this campus. Hopefully they’ll see there are students that care about the issues and whether they’re going to support this side or that side. At least they’ll see there is somebody who cares.”
The rally began with only the students supporting Genshaft present. Soon after, Al-Arian supporters arrived, chanting while walking through the middle of the Bull Market. With them came five University Police officers. They held their position at the rally for the hour before retiring.
Sophomore Lara Martin, who rallied in support of Al-Arian, said the group arrived in part as a response to the rally planned in support of Genshaft.
“We’ve been supporting Al-Arian from the very beginning. It’s not necessarily in retaliation or because of them being here today,” Martin said.
Martin said she is not a member of the Muslim Student Association, but instead rallied in support of academic freedom.
“I support the president too, she is the president of the university, just because we disagree on this issue doesn’t mean I don’t support other things she does,” she said. “I think she’s wrong in this one aspect of her presidency. Things could be worked out if we would push our pride away and were willing to work things out between everyone.”
Alumna Carol Roth, who protested in support of Genshaft, said she had traveled to the university from her Pasco County home to make it clear she was tired of the situation.
“As an alum I will not sponsor this campus or give it any financial aid, which I did, until it’s rid of terrorist’s activities, and I encourage all my fellow alums to do the same,” Roth said. “I will withhold financial support until they get a clue.”
Roth said she questions why tax dollars are spent to give Al-Arian paid leave. She said while students supporting him also have a right to be there, she feels that they are taking away from her group’s planned rally.
“It’s childish. Not to allow us to have our freedom of speech is childish, and to support Al-Arian is misguided,” she said.