Demonstrators March on UF Hillel to Protest IDF Veteran Speaking

Demonstrators March on UF Hillel to Protest IDF Veteran Speaking
Mayor Harvey Ward (Middle) standing next to Rom El-Hai (Right) who spoke at UF yesterday.

On February 15th, at 7:00 pm, over 100 protesters marched from the University of Florida (UF) Reitz Union Hall to UF Hillel in protest of a speaking event featuring Oct. 7th Nova Festival massacre survivor and Israeli Defense Force (IDF) veteran Rom El-Hai. The Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) organized the protest, but many attendees were from other local activist organizations or supported their cause. 

UF student and PSL member Raymond Parker said the group was there to protest the speaker because of his affiliation with the IDF, accusing UF and El-Hai of not being open about his experience, citing that his service was not mentioned in UF Hillel’s promotions

“He's taken down most of the images of him in the IDF from his personal social media, so it's very hard to get public records of his participation in the IDF. He's given extensive interviews on his speaking tour, in which he is portrayed as an ex-IDF soldier. He does admit to it, but he hasn’t talked extensively about what years he served.”  

During the Q&A session of El-Hai’s speaking event, a woman asked him a question, which he chose not to answer. 

“As we’ve seen the IDF bomb hospitals, ambulances, medical workers, and journalists in Gaza as an alleged attempt to target Hamas, would you support the IDF bombing Israeli hospitals, ambulances, medical workers, and journalists if Hamas was inside?”

El-Hai responded, “Thank you for the question,” saying he wasn’t going to answer political questions and was there to tell his personal story. 

The woman had a follow-up question, “As a former IDF soldier, when did you move to Israel, and what was your rank and position?”

El-Hai asked a Hillel staff member to translate the question before responding, “I live in Israel; I’m not from here.”

The woman went on to say she had seen Facebook photos of El-Hai in IDF uniform.  

El-Hai reiterated that he was living in Israel, causing the woman to say that he had stated that English wasn’t his first language and ask where he was from.  

El-Hai responded, “Israel, but I know English from school, and I watch Netflix,” before moving on to the next question.  

As protesters began to light candles across the street, the chief experience officer at UF Hillel, Rachel Waldorf, had a response to their demonstration, stating Hillel’s priorities lie in bringing home the over 100 estimated remaining hostages Hamas has in captivity. 

“Our response to that is that we're here to hear the story of someone who experienced a tragedy on October 7th, and so we're grateful for community members and students who are here to hear that tragic story... I know that in our community here, our number one priority is getting the hostages home. For us, that’s the most important. I would love for there to be justice, but I think the first step is having people on both sides willing and open to having productive conversations.”

Upon being asked if El-Hai had been enlisted in the IDF, Wardolf stated, “I don’t know the full, complete backstory, but I believe he did. But I encourage you; if you want to ask, you can ask him.”

Executive Director of UF Hillel Rabbi Jonah Zinn declined a request for an interview from himself and El-Hai. 

Parker gave his reasoning for why he believes UF and El-Hai would not be upfront with his IDF service, citing reports that Israel fired a tank on a house containing Israeli citizens and Hamas militants. 

“They killed 10 of their hostages with only two survivors, and those reports have been verified by Israeli intelligence.” 

At the end of the night, simultaneous concerts were held, with UF Hillel singing “The Lord Will Provide” and protesters singing “Solidarity Forever.”

Jack Walden

Jack Walden

Jack Walden is the creator of Gnvinfo and a 2nd year journalism major at Santa Fe College. From general information, to exposing falsehoods and corruption, Jack seeks to deliver the truth.
Gainesville, FL