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A candlelight vigil in Jacksonville fights back against a rash of antisemitic messages in Florida

 Members of the audience at Thursday's OneJax vigil begin lighting candles at a ceremony meant to push back against groups who malign those of the Jewish faith.
Dan Scanlan
Members of the audience at Thursday's OneJax vigil begin lighting candles at a ceremony meant to push back against groups who malign those of the Jewish faith.

Flames flickered in the hands of dozens Thursday night at James Weldon Johnson Park as community groups gathered with local residents with one goal in mind: push back against those who malign members of the Jewish faith.

And as they held small candles in the sunset breeze at the park across from Jacksonville's City Hall, a musician sang to the 300-plus gathered there, his final lyric saying, “May the one who brings peace, bring peace down through our love.”

OneJax, an institute at the University of Florida that promotes diversity, cohosted the vigil with the Jewish Federation & Foundation of Northeast Florida in the Monroe Street park.

The vigil was held after someone splashed antisemitic messages around Downtown Jacksonville over the Georgia-Florida football game weekend, including banners on Oct. 28 an Interstate 10 overpass and on the outside of TIAA Bank Field. And it was held in a park once named for Civil War veteran Charles Hemming, who installed a now-removed Confederate monument there in 1898.

Deciding to show how united Jacksonville can be despite the messages, which made national news, speakers pushed for unity and peace for all.

It is important that people from all faiths in Jacksonville, as well as those who do not, come together "and push back on hate," Richmond Wynn, a OneJax board member and chief of diversity at the University of North Florida.

"Along with racism and sexism, homophobia and bigotry of all kinds is nothing new to Jacksonville, unfortunately," he said. "But it has swelled to a frightening level recently. Collectively, we can no longer ignore these threats and expressions of hate. And the time to literally and figuratively fight back against hate in Jacksonville starts tonight."

As priests, rabbis and people carrying signs demanding the city's removal of Confederate monuments stood in the crowd, Northside Coalition of Jacksonville head Ben Frazier said the antisemitic messages shown last weekend are "vile and poisonous." So he said he would try to bring them to a "safer, more positive and productive space."

"The hatred and bitterness of this past week has been a daunting and saddening experience," Frazier said. "I stopped by here this evening to inform some and remind others that love conquers all. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. ... What Jacksonville needs is love."

The electronic messaging, projected as thousands of fans left the game Saturday, angered multiple community leaders and lawmakers. Those messages said, "Kanye was right." That was a reference to Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West, who posted antisemitic comments on social media earlier in the week.

The FBI, state attorney and Jacksonville Sheriff's Office all told WJCT News and area media that there was little they could do. The First Amendment protects even hateful speech unless the individuals directly incite criminal activity or threaten violence against a person or group, they said.

No charges were filed against a group that suspended two banners on the Chaffee Road overpass a week ago either, according to a police report. That group was led by 36-year-old Joshua Dan Nunes of Jacksonville, part of the National Socialist Florida, an extremist group with a growing presence in Jacksonville. They were joined by Jon Eugene Minadeo II, 39, of Petaluma, California, who told the officer that he was "the most famous anti-Semite in America on the internet," the report said.

But UNF's Interfaith Center director Matt Hartley told Thursday's vigil crowd that "it's time for the hate to stop, and it's time for the silence to stop." Federation CEO Mariam Feist agreed, saying this is not a time for people to be silent about the bigotry leveled at the Jewish community and others.

Antisemitic incidents have reached an all-time high in the U.S., she said, and the federation is well aware of that increase in hate speech and hate crimes. So this vigil, and speaking out about antisemitic actions, are two ways to denounce them.

"To demonstrate that we will not tolerate or accept any form of hate or bias in our community, the Jewish Federation & Foundation is also harnessing our outrage and our condemnation ito action," she said. "Aside from making statements and attending vigils, we want to turn these deplorable events into opportunities."

That includes federation initiatives like launching a community security initiative last year and building educational opportunities through a Jewish Community Relations council. The federation also just announced a partnership with Secure Community Network, which is the official safety and security organization for the Jewish community in North America.

In response to the recent upsurge in hate speech, the Jewish Federation also announced that David Miller established the Together Strong Community Fund with $1 million to address antisemitism and help bring the community together. The new fund will ignite a communitywide endeavor to use education, conversation and interaction to combat the root causes of bias, the federation stated. The contribution will also provide a matching challenge to the community so others may join in this effort, coming on top of the Miller families' recent $1 million gift to the Jewish Community Alliance upcoming capital campaign.

With just three months as UNF's new president, Moez Limayem told the crowd how welcoming and inclusive Jacksonville's community has been. Speaking from the heart, he said he is determined "to drive the hate out."

"We consider UNF as a family and there are so many members of our family that are from the Jewish faith; faculty, staff, students," Limayem said. "This is personal for us. This is personal, and you have our commitment that we will do everything we can to work with all the leaders so that we all say no to hate."

At least 10 Jacksonville Sheriff's Office bicycle patrol members and officers circulated among the crowd during the vigil, which ended with organizers urging them to "reach out" to all faiths as they lit candles, then passed the flames around to others in the crowd as music played.

Copyright 2022 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.

Dan Scanlan