SUN SENTINEL: A ‘fight for decades to come’: Jewish leaders in South Florida seek solutions amid antisemitism surge

Those are not ripped-from-the-headlines incidents from the pro-Palestinian protests at college campuses across the country this spring, where antisemitic rhetoric and actions were common. All reportedly took place at one of Broward County’s premier schools, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, described this week during a daylong symposium on combating antisemitism.

By Anthony Man

A swastika drawn in the dust on a student’s car.

A refusal to partake in a Jewish group’s food at a school fair.

Graffiti in a campus bathroom with the phrase “from the river to the sea,” widely seen as a call for the destruction of Israel and killing of Jews.

Those are not ripped-from-the-headlines incidents from the pro-Palestinian protests at college campuses across the country this spring, where antisemitic rhetoric and actions were common. All reportedly took place at one of Broward County’s premier schools, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, described this week during a daylong symposium on combating antisemitism.

Hundreds of civic, business, religious and government leaders — mostly from Broward — heard sobering assessments of the breadth and depth of the antisemitism, grappled for anything that might alleviate it, and searched for reasons to offer optimism.

“We will never go back to business as usual,” declared Ted Deutch, CEO of the American Jewish Committee and a former Broward-Palm Beach county member of Congress. “We will be in this fight for decades to come.”

n speeches, panel discussions and interviews, neither Deutch nor more than a dozen other speakers had easy answers for combating hatred and conspiracy theories directed at Jewish people.


Antisemitism has surged in the U.S. and around the world in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks when Hamas killed 1,200 people, wounded, tortured or raped many more, and took 250 hostages with about half still remaining in captivity.

Even before the start of the ensuing Israel-Hamas war — with pro-Palestinian protesters pointing to the significant civilian death toll — antisemitic rhetoric and actions have been flourishing, both at home and abroad, said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Broward Democrat who was the first Jewish woman elected to Congress from Florida.

Wasserman Schultz said there have been “massive rises in antisemitism — and it is not just the isolated one-off incidents that probably each of us throughout our lives could share stories about … but consistent and systematic organized antisemitic attacks.”

Doug Emhoff, vice president Kamala Harris’s husband, described this week “an epidemic of hate, including a crisis of antisemitism, in our country and around the world. We see it on our streets, our college campuses, and our places of worship.” Emhoff, who is Jewish, made his comments this week at a White House event for Jewish American Heritage.

And in Broward, State Attorney Harold Pryor said he saw an increase in antisemitic incidents that predate the terrorist attacks and the war. “You saw the rise, and even higher rise since Oct. 7,” he said.

Wasserman Schultz has long warned about the wildfire-like spread of antisemitism on social media. More recently, she has described TikTok as a “horrific actor” where hate and disinformation is rampant on a platform that is a prime way young Americans get their information.

Wasserman Schultz said the messages can easily and dangerously leap from the virtual world to real life.

Long before the speed of the internet, antisemitism has always been present, including in South Florida.

Broward Mayor Nan Rich, a former Florida Senate Democratic leader and former national president of the National Council of Jewish Women, said when she was growing up decades ago in Miami Beach some establishments still had “no Jews” signs.

It was OK at mostly Jewish Miami Beach High School. But when Rich, who was a cheerleader, traveled to away games in Miami or Fort Lauderdale, they were sometimes taunted with antisemitic slurs.

“It’s always there,” she said.

Entire community

Multiple speakers and attendees at “Standing Together: A Community Response to Antisemitism” said it’s a problem for all, not just the Jewish community.

“We can’t just bring Jews together. This is bringing the whole community to respond,” Rich said.

Deutch called for a “whole-of-society approach.”

Close to 400 people attended the conference at the David Posnack Jewish Community Center in Davie, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee.

It was part of a broad AJC effort, supported with a $250,000 grant approved by Broward County commissioners, to combat antisemitism. It has funded training for law enforcement, education institutions, nonprofit organizations, corporations and elected officials on recognizing and addressing antisemitism, Rich said.

AJC and county commissioners began work on the program well before Oct. 7, and Deutch hopes it becomes a national model that can be replicated.

Across the spectrum

Antisemitism has adherents on the political right and political left. But there has been a shift, said Adam Kolett, the Broward/Palm Beach county executive director of Hillel, the international organization for Jewish college students.

“In prior years, antisemitism has been coming more from the right on the political spectrum. Since Oct. 7, it’s been coming more from the left. It’s a different reality,” he said.

The “Standing Together” event was bipartisan, and brought together people with divergent political views.

Keynote speaker Roy Atlman was introduced by Rich, who was an outspoken liberal when she served in Tallahassee, and championed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential candidacy.

Altman, who delivered history of Israel’s existence and discussed antisemitism for more than an hour without notes, is a Miami-based federal judge and member of the conservative Federalist Society — who was nominated to the bench by former President Donald Trump. He led a bipartisan delegation of federal judges on a trip to Israel in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks.

College contrasts

Maia Kofman said her career path has been altered by antisemitism she experienced.

Kofman received her bachelor’s degree in 2022 from the University of Florida. With the exception of one negative experience, she said UF was welcoming with a large and thriving community of Jewish students. (Hillel International said 19% of UF undergraduates and 14% of graduate students are Jewish, and it has the largest Jewish student population of any public university.)

It was different, she said, when she arrived at New York University — which has been the site of extensive pro-Palestinian protests this year — in 2022 to begin work on her master’s degree in animal studies.

She was planning on becoming a veterinarian.

An advance reading for one class compared factory farms to the Holocaust, during which 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis.

Kofman said she told her classmates on Day One that it was “a horrible comparison” that was “incredibly antisemitic” — and was told by a fellow student “that she values life of a Jew and that of a cow to be the same.”

NYU post-Oct. 7 “was so uncomfortable. You couldn’t go to class without walking through a rally of students chanting ‘from the river to to the sea,’ ‘intifada,’ ‘revolution,’ or ‘we don’t want no two state, we want all of it,’” Kofman said.

“As a Jewish student hearing those things, knowing that it’s calling for your destruction and the destruction of your people, How could you not feel harassed? How could you not feel uncomfortable? How could you not feel like you don’t belong in that environment?” she said.

She received her master’s degree in January. By then, her NYU experience made her change course, and decide she wanted to work in the Jewish community. She’s now AJC’s development coordinator in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. 

National picture

Kofman’s experiences echoed “harrowing stories” Wasserman Schultz said she heard when she recently met with a group of Jewish students in Washington, D.C.

Deutch described “ugly” scenes on many college campuses, with “Jewish kids being shouted at, told to go back to Poland and Israeli kids being chased and told they need to leave campus” and at times not allowed to pass.

Deutch said too many university leaders have struggled with what to say and how to respond. “Post-10/7 was a moment that begged for moral clarity. There is no gray. This was black and white,” he said. “It’s not hard but it has been on too many campuses.”

He said he has spoken with many university leaders who think — misguidedly, in his view — that if they make it to summer break, the problem will go away “and that by next semester hopefully everything will be fine.”

Florida universities

Deutch said the situation is different at universities in South Florida — Miami, Florida Atlantic and Nova Southeastern.

Kolett, the Hillel leader for Broward and Palm Beach counties, said there are antisemitic incidents on Florida campuses, and they have increased since Oct. 7. “We’re not immune to what’s going on in the world.”

But, he said, Florida stands out. Its universities have not allowed actions that have intimidated Jewish students elsewhere.

Leaders of Florida universities “have been really supportive and they’ve been enforcing their codes of conduct. That’s all it takes,” he said. “In Florida they’re working in tandem, in concert with each other and we’ve really been realizing the difference here. We’re fortunate here in Florida, and I just hope that others across the country can see the environment that it’s creating for students.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis has been among the most outspoken elected officials in the country with a zero-tolerance policy toward protests that infringe on other people’s well-being and disrupt the institutions’ operations. At one news conference, he praised what happened at Florida State University when a tent encampment formed and sprinklers were turned on. (Accounts deferred, and ultimately it wasn’t clear if the sprinklers were intentional or a coincidence.)

Stoneman Douglas

Antisemitic incidents at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, which gained worldwide attention because of the Feb. 14, 2018, school massacre, were recounted by Maya Gordon, a senior at the school.

Gordon, who has interned for a congressman, a state legislator and a circuit court judge, is School Board Chair Lori Alhadeff’s appointee to the School District’s Human Relations Committee. She is president of the Jewish Student Union.

Her group has regularly participated in the twice-a-year multicultural food fair, at which different organizations bring foods that represent their cultures.

Offerings from the Jewish Student Union have included bagel with a schmear, sweet treats hamantaschen and rugelach, and falafel with little Israeli flags. She was always “really proud of the amount of coexisting that we had going on there showing that you’re one school, one community as a whole, not a bunch of individual(s).”

That changed in March 2023, when Gordon said she was told by another student that “we don’t want the Jews there.”

Gordon said her organization was able to participate after she reported the statement to the principal.

At the December 2023 food fair, Gordon said she wore an Israeli flag around her waist. She said some visitors to the table were “screaming free Palestine” and some “wouldn’t take our stuff because it was the Jewish one.”

Also, she said, there have been other incidents at school since Oct. 7, including the drawing of a swastika in the dust on a student’s car and “swastikas and stuff written in the bathrooms, multiple times,” including graffiti containing the phrase “from the river to the sea.”

“Since Oct. 7, I’ve seen so many things written in the school written on the walls and bathrooms,” she said.

Broward Public Schools painted a different picture.

Spokesperson Cathleen Brennan, responding for the school district and Principal Michelle Kefford, said via email that Stoneman Douglas is “committed to offering an inclusive and supportive educational environment. At no time are displays or acts of bigotry and hate tolerated. If made aware of an issue, the school’s administration takes prompt action to resolve it. Students involved in any incidents receive appropriate disciplinary consequences.”

Brennan said the “river to the sea” graffiti was immediately removed and “the school’s leadership says this was an isolated situation and the school has not seen an increase in incidents.”

She said Kefford “is reaching out to Ms. Gordon to learn more about the experiences she shared” and “any student with concerns is encouraged to report them.”

The statement didn’t address whether there has been an increase in the number of antisemitic incidents districtwide.

Alhadeff, who is Jewish and speaks against antisemitism in a video on the School District website, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Outspoken judge

Altman, the federal judge, said Oct. 7 drove “an awakening inside me, and I realized I have an obligation to speak up for the Jewish people and for western civilization.”

He lambasted narratives he said emanate from some universities, media outlets and the United Nations, that “the Jews are the oppressors. … How can this be? The moral inversion, the moral confusion, the moral vulnerability we see all around us in the west is too pathetic for words. …

“Jew hatred is the lie that one society after another is willing to accept about the Jews. It is the lie that we are not yet inoculated against,” describing it as “the moral rot that eats away at the wooden framework of our house,” he said. “We have seen — as with COVID — societies that allow Jew hatred to proliferate are societies that are symptomatic, societies that are sick and dying.”

Going forward

Deutch and Wasserman Schultz advocated some, including calling for passage of legislation to implement the Biden Administration’s plan to combat antisemitism.

And Wasserman Schultz said the provision of federal law, widely known as Section 230, that allows social media companies to avoid legal responsibility for what’s posted on their sites should be modified or repealed.

Gordon, who is about to start college in the fall, said educating people is the answer — letting people know what is happening, what is antisemitic, and the implications of what they’re saying.

“That’s what we need more of: just casual open dialog, making sure that you actually understand what you’re saying,” she said. “I feel the issue that we keep on seeing is … that people just have no clue.”

Toni Weissberg and her husband, Rabbi Leon Weissberg, are both in their 70s, children of Holocaust survivors and explain history at the Mania and Max Nudel Holocaust Learning Center at the Posnack JCC campus. They remain “hopeful, yet concerned.”

“The uptick in antisemitism has us very worried,” Toni Weissberg said after hours of sessions about what’s gong on.

“We need to continue to educate,” she said. “That is the only way.”