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Undercover Messianic Jewish activist sought to entrap Muslim professors at UF


GAINESVILLE — A Messianic Jewish activist who pretended to be Muslim and said he was concerned about Islamophobia met undercover over the last four weeks with Muslim professors at the University of Florida – including its new Teacher of the Year – in an apparent scheme to goad them into making remarks that would expose their bias against Israel and conservatives.

The man turned out to be a stridently pro-Israel, Messianic Jewish hip-hop rapper from Florida’s East Coast. His group’s social media accounts include anti-Muslim memes and comments, according to an investigation by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications. “We are zealous for Israel,” one post said.

Another showed photos of Israelis killed by Hamas at a music festival on Oct. 7 under the caption, “They will not be forgotten and they will be avenged.” Others said Muslims were “waiting for Allah to destroy Israel” and equated pro-Palestinian protesters against Israel’s war in Gaza with supporting Hamas.

In emails, texts and in personal conversations, the man with a fit build, mustache and closely cropped haircut initially identified himself in recent weeks as “Ali Hafez” or “Omar Hafez.” He said he was in his mid-30s and a registered Democrat with a background in the music industry. He said he was a “revert” to Islam, born in Morocco, having lived in New York and owned property in Sarasota.

He also variously said he was a graduate student, affiliated with the College of Education, and the parent of a daughter named Aisha, also Muslim, attending UF. This week, he said she was so distraught she was prepared to drop out of UF, home to the largest number of Jewish students at any public university.

It wasn’t true.

No one with those names is enrolled at UF, according to university records. A search of national court files, voter registrations, and property and other records found no one fitting the man’s names and descriptions of himself.

The mysterious man is Anthony Damon Wray, 46, of Melbourne, Florida, south of the Kennedy Space Center. He is a registered Republican and part of a Messianic Jewish hip hop group called Hazakim – one that is strongly pro-Israel – with his older brother, Michael Kenneth Wray, 48, of nearby Rockledge. Anthony Wray has a 20-year-old son, not a daughter, and his son also is not a student at UF, according to university records.

In a tense face-to-face meeting Wednesday at a coffee shop near campus with a journalist investigating the mystery and one of the Muslim professors he tried to fool, Wray – whose identity at that moment was still unknown – said his name was actually “Ali Omar Maldonado.” That wasn’t true, either.

He acknowledged he had repeatedly lied about himself during earlier conversations with the UF professors. He said he was trying to uncover what he described as anti-Muslim sentiment on UF’s campus to protect his daughter and said Palestinians had historical rights to land that is the modern state of Israel. He said Democrats were becoming as untrustworthy as Republicans toward Muslims, and said Florida’s political institutions and national news organizations were controlled by what he called Zionists.

“I’m not Mossad,” he said, referring to the Israeli spy agency. “I’m not recording you guys.”

Wray left the meeting abruptly amid persistent questions about his identity and said he felt he was being interrogated. He sped off in a silver 2021 Kia Soul – which helped solve the mystery since the car was registered under his own name and address in Melbourne. A photograph of Wray at the coffee shop matches promotional images and videos of him performing as Hazakim.

After he drove away, he texted, “I can’t believe what just happened.”

Wray’s motives and professional affiliation, if any, remain unclear. Some conservative activist groups have used undercover provocateurs to secretly record conversations in efforts to expose them later and embarrass their targets. Such operations in Florida would be hampered by laws against surreptitiously recording someone without their permission.

Conservative politicians have denounced pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses. They have accused higher education professors of trying to indoctrinate students with progressive ideologies, undermining conservative beliefs in classrooms. On Florida’s campus, a small group of protesters has been active for more than three weeks.

“A lot of these people that are just spouting nonsense, they don't know what they're talking about,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a press conference at UF on May 8 as pro-Palestinian protesters chanted nearby. “And it's very concerning, some of these elite institutions around the country, you know, are they just graduating a bunch of imbeciles? I think, unfortunately, that's the case.”

A spokesman for the UF police department, Lt. Jeff Moran, said the agency was unable to discuss the matter because it was under investigation.

Wray is well known in his hometown’s Messianic Jewish community for his conservative politics and activism, said Jeffery "J.D." Gallop, the senior criminal justice reporter at the Florida Today newspaper there. Gallop is Jewish and has lived in the area for nearly 30 years.

He said he met Wray – who he described as having strong pro-Zionist and anti-abortion beliefs – at a rally in 2018 supporting DeSantis during his campaign for governor. He said he has occasionally interacted with Wray on social media.

"If there was something, I could see him at the center," Gallop said in an interview. "It sounds like he's either doing a private investigation of the Muslim community, or there's something else going on. It would be something to watch."

The central tenet of Messianic Judaism includes the belief that Jesus, who practitioners call Yeshua, is the divine savior. Its members generally adhere to conventional Christian beliefs but consider themselves Jewish. In contrast, mainstream Jews are still waiting for the arrival of the Messiah, who is called Moshiach in Hebrew.

In earlier emails and texts to one of the UF professors, Iman Zawahry, Wray wrote under his pseudonym that he was “very upset and concerned” about statements he didn’t specify by UF President Ben Sasse, and he called DeSantis “f***ing disgusting.”

Zawahry was named UF’s Undergraduate Teacher of the Year on April 30 and is an award-winning filmmaker who teaches media production. She responded to Wray that she agreed with his baiting assessment of the governor. She is among at least 177 faculty, staff and administrators in the journalism college. Zawahry, who met with the man she believed was Hafez on May 6 off campus for a conversation, also was at the meeting at the coffee shop this week that exposed Wray as behind the scheme.

A member of the group Faculty for Justice in Palestine, Zawahry had told Wray in earlier conversations about efforts to provide meals and advice to pro-Palestinian students protesting, and said she personally protested at the county courthouse after police arrested others on UF’s campus.

“No one is backing down,” Zawahry texted Wray about the campus protests, before she knew his real name and doubted his motives. Wray had been texting from a phone number traced to a T-Mobile account set up in New York and emailing from a Gmail address that included the name Hafez. She invited the man who turned out to be Wray and his daughter to join the protests on campus, and he replied that his daughter – who turned out not to exist – already was among the protesters.

Wray did not immediately respond to texts Thursday or Friday to the T-Mobile number, which was not configured to accept voice calls, or an email to his Gmail address. Someone who did not identify themselves responded, “wrong number,” to texts sent to two other mobile phone numbers listed for Wray on his Florida fishing license and voter registration records. His brother, Michael, also did not respond to a phone message or text.

“You hear about these things happening to other people,” Zawahry said. “You never think it’s going to happen to you.”

DeSantis has harshly criticized pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses and praised crackdowns against them in Florida. His administration also sought unsuccessfully last year to ban a pro-Palestinian group, Students for Justice in Palestine, from UF and the University of South Florida in Tampa by asserting they were providing support to overseas terrorists.

“We will not let the inmates run the asylum in the Sunshine State,” DeSantis said at his campus news conference.

Under Sasse, the former Republican U.S. senator from Nebraska, UF opposed the administration’s efforts to dismantle Students for Justice in Palestine on campus amid First Amendment concerns.

Last month, UF issued new rules that promised to allow protest activities that included “speech,” “expressing viewpoints” and “holding signs in hands.” The new rules prohibited unspecified disruptions, sleeping, tents, sleeping bags, pillows or permanent structures.

Police arrested nine protesters at UF on April 29, including one student facing a felony battery charge because police said he spit on an officer’s arm. Another, a former UF student, was arrested on three misdemeanor charges for what police described as sitting in a lawn chair on the university’s Plaza of the Americas, wearing a medical mask and refusing to move when ordered. Sasse said students arrested in such protests would be suspended and banned from campus for three years, and professors would be fired.

“This is the most Jewish university in the country,” Sasse said at the news conference this month with the governor. “And it is great to be a Jewish Gator. I want all of our students to feel safe, but more than the subjective feeling I want our students to be safe.”

Wray told Zawahry while using his pseudonym that he was concerned about “the intense levels of Islamophobia, speech suppression, and Zionist propaganda on campus.” He wrote in an email to her April 18 he had heard that, “pro-occupation organizations freely spread their literature and lies while Muslim staff and orgs must remain silent.”

In his exchanges with Zawahry, Wray praised her activism, encouraged her to “keep doing an amazing job for us,” and said, “You looked great at the ceremony” where she was named Teacher of the Year. He called her critics “disgusting Islamophobes.”

“Haters are just jealous. Keep doing the damn thing, sister Iman,” he wrote.

This week, convinced that the self-described Muslim had been lying, Zawahry notified the journalism dean, filed a report with Gainesville police, talked with campus police and asked for help investigating the matter. A Gainesville police spokesman, Brandon Hatzel, said the agencies would coordinate their investigation with the FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement, if they decided that was appropriate..

“Many Muslim and Arab students have come to me expressing concern for their safety and feeling unheard,” Zawahry said in an interview. “This atmosphere is what breeds people like Anthony Wray.”

In an unscheduled face-to-face visit weeks ago with another professor, Ali Altaf Mian, Wray had said he was affiliated with UF’s College of Education. He launched into a conversation about conservative leaders like DeSantis and whether Muslims felt their rights were suppressed on campus. That meeting also happened on April 18, a few hours after his first email to Zawahry.

“I remained silent hearing his statements,” said Mian, an assistant professor of religion in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, in an email he sent to his supervisor the same day that described the bizarre encounter in Mian’s campus office. “I also felt uncomfortable that someone I do not know is jumping right into very politicized territory.”

Mian confirmed the man who came to his office was the same person who had met with Zawahry, based on a photograph of Wray. He said the encounter lasted about 10 minutes.

“The event left me with the impression that something was out of joint given the fact that he went straight into political questions without first breaking the ice,” Mian said. “What also struck me as artificial was that the questions felt so rehearsed, almost as if someone was there to collect information from me and not to have a genuine conversation.”

Mian said Wray had come into his office and began pressing him on a range of political issues and “suppression of free speech.” Wray also said he met with a third professor he did not identify.

“I felt like he was trying to intimidate or frame me,” Mian said. “I just hope he’s not doing this to students.”

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at vivienneserret@ufl.edu. You can donate to support our students here.


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