This week, an individual was seen biking around campus at the University of Florida with a swastika on a band around his arm. I did not want to believe that this incident happened at my school, a modern University determined to foster community, belonging, and education.
While the act itself was sickening, even more horrifying was the lack of responsible reaction to the hate message. The Gainesville Police Department posted on their Facebook page “while the swastika is extremely offensive to a great majority of the population, this individual is exercising his rights protected under the First Amendment and we are bound by our oath to protect the rights of all persons, including those that are offensive. We understand that his behavior is extremely offensive, but merely wearing this symbol is not a crime.”
“Wearing a symbol” is not a crime, yet wearing that hateful symbol, one that represents a murderer and the mass genocide of more than 6 million people, should be dealt with more harshly than with a mere statement.
I support the fundamental right to freedom of speech, but I do not believe that a man wearing this Nazi emblem should be able to bike around Gainesville without public action and condemnation. Any symbol that demonstrates the extermination of millions of people should never be accepted. The fact that this happened just as members of Jewish Student Union had finished tabling for Jewish Heritage Month, added salt to the already raw wound.
This isn’t just about me, my community, or the Jewish students on campus; this is a broader issue about the right of all students to feel safe on their campus. It is about guaranteeing that students have someone to talk to and trust when they need to be protected in their learning environment. If we cannot call on the police to properly deal with a situation like this, upon whom are we supposed to rely?
When this incident occurred, I was sitting in the office of my Hillel’s Israel Engagement Coordinator. The Hillel professionals assured me that the incident was being dealt with; while it is comforting that they took immediate action, why does it seem like the responsibility to combat these hate actions is left only on the shoulders of the Jewish campus organizations?
The only measure of support that our student community received after the incident were from University of Florida Hillel and the Lubavitch Chabad Jewish Center.
I am grateful that I feel comfortable going to my rabbis and community mentors to talk about my sentiments regarding this baseless act of hatred, yet, I should also feel that my university and the police department are working together to stop the rise of anti-Semitic incidents.
According to the CEO of UF Hillel, this was the fourth incident of it’s kind in the last two months. We should all be concerned about this increased hostility.
It is a university’s duty to ensure that their students feel safe. Though I am thankful I wasn’t in direct contact with this individual, seeing the raw photos of him and knowing that others were personally impacted, was enough to feel victimized.
There was outrage on student led social media accounts, with posts being shared thousands of time and individuals denouncing this deplorable man. Students however, should not be the only ones bringing to light how revolting and vile the swastika is.
The University of Florida issued a statement encouraging “inclusion and respect, not hate” but without direct action, nothing is going to stop this man from riding his bike through campus every single day with the same swastika armband. How can we feel safe at our school knowing that these symbols are protected by law?