Updated Nov 21, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Ben Sasse rebukes “thirsty” Florida GOP legislator over push to fire instructor

Ben Sasse during a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing in March 2022. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

University of Florida President Ben Sasse on Monday rebuked the state's only Jewish Republican lawmaker who had claimed a UF instructor compared Israel to Nazi Germany, arguing the teacher in question hadn't worked there in years.

Why it matters: The exchange underscored the extent to which the Israel-Hamas war has become a flashpoint on college campuses across the country, with schools called upon to respond to the conflict.

  • Sasse, a former Republican senator in Nebraska, in a fiery memo to the UF Cabinet and Deans denounced a post by user Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons as "antisemitic drivel." He noted Simmons had left UF in 2019, was not a tenured professor and "hasn't been paid here for four years."
  • Simmons, who did not immediately respond to request for comment, retired in the spring of 2019, according to a UF press release at the time. The link to her webpage on UF's website appeared broken, prompting a "page not found" message.

Driving the news: Rep. Randy Fine (R-Palm Bay) posted on X Friday calling for Simmons' termination over a post where she appeared to compare the death toll in Gaza to the death toll at Auschwitz.

  • "A @UF professor is teaching that Israel eradicating Hamas is like Germany eradicating Jews. In Florida. Where there is a law that requires her termination. This has to end," Fine posted.

Context: Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is also running for president, last month ordered Florida university officials to deactivate campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) over the groups' alleged support for Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

  • However, State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues said later the campus groups hadn't been deactivated because they weren't "subservient or under the national Students for Justice in Palestine," CNN reported.
  • University of Florida's SJP filed a lawsuit earlier this month against DeSantis and school leadership for allegedly violating its First Amendment rights.

Sasse in the memo Monday referred to Fine's call out as a "thirsty, attention-desperate post."

  • Fine was not available to comment as of Tuesday morning.
  • The University of Florida, when reached, did not have further comment beyond Sasse's memo and the 2019 retirement posting.

Go deeper: Universities struggle with responses as Israel-Hamas war reverberates

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect The University of Florida's response when reached for comment.

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