Students gathered at USF Hillel – the Jewish Campus Life Center – for a vigil three days after the Hamas attack on Israel.
While lighting candles and singing in honor of lives lost in the conflict, health sciences major Alexa Greenstein said that hers and other Jewish students’ grieving time was interrupted by protesters driving by the Hillel building on Sycamore Drive.
“There were people driving by honking their horns and blasting Arabic music,” she said. “It wasn’t in the middle of the day, it wasn’t in front of the MSC or the library. It was just for us.”
Hamas, designated as a terrorist group by the U.S., launched an attack on Israel on Oct. 7, according to an AP News article. The attack prompted the Israeli cabinet to declare war against Hamas, according to the Council of Foreign Relations.
Senior environmental science and policy major Rebecca Alexander said the passing cars that showed support for Palestine at the vigil were unwarranted since the Jewish students weren’t protesting.
“It wasn’t political,” she said. “It was literally just lighting candles in memory of all the people that have been killed, on either side.”
One day after the vigil, University Police (UP) was notified of a “non-specific” bomb threat at the Hillel building, according to an Oct. 11 Oracle article.
UP stated in a later update that the situation was caused by a dispute between two individuals online, and the bomb threat was “never legitimate,” according to the article.
Jewish students and their families are still concerned with safety on campus due to increased anti-semitism at universities, according to Greenstein.
“We are scared,” she said. “We don’t want to go to class. We don’t want to go to the library by ourselves. My mom won’t even let me stay at the library past midnight.”
President Rhea Law sent a universitywide email on Oct. 11 that condemned Hamas’ attacks on Israel, stating that USF stands with people affected by the conflicts.
“Everyone deserves to feel welcome and safe on our campuses,” Law wrote. “Violence, discrimination or harassment against any member of our community – regardless of their backgrounds of beliefs – will not be tolerated.”
Senior psychology major Rayna Hoffman said the university’s statements regarding its position on the conflict were vague, and did not promptly address students’ safety concerns.
“USF had a very surface level response,” she said. “It felt like they didn’t even mean what they were saying. I know I didn’t feel any more secure [and I] wasn’t like ‘My school has my back.’”
University of Florida’s President Ben Sasse issued a letter on Oct.12 after an on-campus Jewish vigil ended in a stampede. The letter stated that if protests were anything but peaceful, UF would be ready to act on it, according to the Independent Florida Alligator.
“Speech is protected – violence and vandalism are not,” Sasse wrote.
Hoffman is currently studying abroad in Florence, but she said she is still apprehensive about attending Chabad – an on-campus Jewish organization – events in the future.
“I am very proud of being Jewish and try to be vocal about that,” Hoffman said. “I never want to feel ashamed or have to hide who I am to protect my safety. But it’s really scary.”
USF increased police presence on campus due to “conflicts in the Middle East,” as stated in a universitywide email. Alexander said it has been comforting to see officers at Hillel.
“USF has police outside Hillel 24/7, and all the officers have been really kind and supportive,” she said. “It is a nice relationship that I never expected to have.”
The Biden administration has issued a warning to universities to manage the “alarming rise of anti-semitism and Islamophobia” on campuses, according to a Tuesday AP News article.
Classes at Cornell University were canceled last Friday after a student was charged with “posting threats to kill or injure another using interstate communications.” The student made antisemitic threats against Jewish people on campus on an online Greek life forum.
Greenstein said the rise in anti-semitic behavior is noticeable on social media, such as hateful comments under Jewish students’ social media accounts. She said these comments and posts are no longer focused on the conflict in Gaza.
“It is just blunt anti-semitism. So I don’t feel comfortable walking on campus, I know my friends don’t either,” Greenstein said.
Alexander said the posters and pro-Palestinian rallies at USF have prompted her to avoid being on campus as much as she can. Alexander said she’s received threats on her social media posts.
“People have commented on my Instagram like ‘Hitler was right’ or ‘We are finishing Hitler’s job,’” she said. “It is scary, these people are my peers.”
Even if she believes people should have conversations about the history of the conflict, Hoffman said most people are not very open to talk about it.
“When I feel strongly about something, it is not easy for me to change my positioning,” she said. “I think most of our generation is like that. People want to hear what they want to hear.”
Hoffman said she urges people to educate themselves and remember to be compassionate.
“I feel for my Palestinian brothers and sisters, and I wish there was no blood shed. I would hope they feel the same for Jewish people,” Hoffman said.