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The Grotesque Slander of Comparing Gaza Protesters to Neo-Nazis

I stood against the fascists who descended on Charlottesville—and nearly paid with my life. Those who would compare the students raising their voices against war and bloodshed to those violent fiends are a disgrace.

Neo-Nazis, alt-right, and white supremacist terrorists encircle counter protestors at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Zach D Roberts/Getty Images
Neo-Nazis, alt-right members, and white supremacist terrorists encircle counterprotestors at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville, Virginia.

This week, coverage of the campus protests and solidarity encampments at Columbia University reached a fever pitch. They have attracted statements from the White House and from Israeli government officials condemning their existence. This animosity, in turn, has inspired similar protests at universities across America. Some politicians, like Senator John Fetterman, have invoked the 2017 Unite the Right rally of virulent white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, as a cheap means to characterize today’s protests as dangerous and antisemitic.

I am a survivor of that white supremacist terror attack in Charlottesville. I was also part of the counterprotest against the infamous torch light rally, where neo-Nazis descended upon the University of Virginia campus, chanting heinous white supremacist slogans like “Jews Will Not Replace Us.” During that night, I was temporarily blinded by neo-Nazis and violently threatened, narrowly escaping physical harm, only to be nearly killed the following day in the same attack that claimed the life of Heather Heyer. As a survivor, I thoroughly reject any and all attempts to evoke my experience or the events of Charlottesville to demonize the movement across American college campuses to divest from the Israeli occupation.

This cynical rhetoric, employed by media commentators and American politicians like Fetterman, is disgraceful. It not only demeans my experience as someone who stood up to white supremacy and antisemitism at great personal risk, but also creates something even more vulgar in the way it weaponizes my experience to support xenophobic hatred against students cut from a similar cloth as those who faced down the violent mob that descended on Charlottesville all those years ago.

These comments are inflammatory and dishonest, and they are designed to intimidate and frighten critics of the Israeli assault in Gaza into submission. Their invocation of the Unite the Right rally downplays and deflects from the moral outrage at the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where recently over 300 Palestinian bodies were found, executed and buried in a mass grave at Nasser Hospital. The 200-day campaign in Gaza is being investigated by the International Court of Justice as a potential genocide, and it is the sincere conviction of millions of Americans that it already is. These students are courageously standing up to powerful authorities and governments to demand one thing: an end to this senseless brutality. The insinuation that there is any equivalence between these demands and the rhetoric, actions, or ideology of the organizers and attendees of the Unite the Right rally is despicable, on the level of Trump’s own “very fine people” comments.

This sensationalized media panic obscures how university administrators are denying the will of their student bodies and governance, who in the case of Columbia University voted successfully to divest their school’s endowment from institutions and companies engaged in Israel’s illegal occupation and apartheid regime in the West Bank and Gaza. Students have the right to question whether their university’s endowment should be invested in entities that violate international law and basic humanitarian values. These tactics, which are modeled after the successful campaign to end apartheid in South Africa, are legitimate, democratic, and explicitly nonviolent.

It is precisely because these qualities are inherent to this movement—as well as the movement’s capacity to successfully create pressure against Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians—that these students are being targeted, not because they are antisemitic in nature. Were this movement antisemitic, it would not command the respect of students; it would fail on its own terms. Meanwhile, the university officials who claim to be concerned with the safety of their students are severely endangering them by not providing a bulwark against dishonest outside actors, particularly virulently anti-Arab, anti-Muslim politicians.

When asked at Columbia University about legitimate concern among protestors about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, GOP House Speaker Mike Johnson smeared students and reiterated Netanyahu’s genocidal language that this is a conflict between “good and evil, light and darkness, civilization and barbarism.” Representative Virginia Foxx defended perpetrators of a chemical attack on Columbia protesters during a press conference, calling the well-documented attack “made up.” This deceitful and dehumanizing rhetoric from hostile politicians, misrepresenting students while justifying the death of tens of thousands of innocent civilians and the starvation of hundreds of thousands more, poses a grave threat to the safety and moral fiber of a campus.

It’s clear that university officials are motivated not out of a concern for their students’ or faculty’s safety, but the financial support of powerful alumni, trustees, and donors who harbor racist and reactionary views of the Palestinian people and cause. Torn between their obligation to their students and their lucrative endowment, university leaders are choosing the latter. The sheer fact that these kinds of financial entanglements exist is not normal; in any case, they are not beyond questioning. The fact that those who run these institutions cannot abide this points to a deep moral failure in the landscape of higher education to hold itself to liberal humanitarian values.

It is only natural for college students to be deeply aggrieved by the atrocities we are witnessing. Israel has thoroughly destroyed Palestinian educational infrastructure in Gaza through indiscriminate airstrikes, targeted strikes, and the controlled demolitions of every university in Gaza. This, combined with the killing of educators and the campaign to defund UNRWA, who operate schools in Gaza and the West Bank, form a comprehensive assault on Palestinian academic life.

Young children are not only traumatized from unending military violence, grave injuries, and the loss of family members, they have had their educational development irreparably harmed. This has been met with widespread silence from American university leadership, who have failed to demonstrate even the most basic solidarity with Palestinian educators enduring this assault. If administrators and institutions abdicate their moral responsibility to defend the universal right to education, it is incumbent on students and faculty to stand up against these crimes.

The Charlottesville attack that so many ignorant politicians have recently invoked was the result of public institutions similarly failing to protect counterprotesters from virulent, coordinated, armed violence. Deliberate nonintervention—and even collaboration between law enforcement and armed white supremacist militias—created a vacuum where fascists enjoyed police protection instead of police scrutiny. As often happens with mass protests, left-wing antiwar protesters are placed under intense surveillance, while right-wing pro-war agitators are empowered to react with impunity. In Charlottesville, the racist right-wing provocateurs were not taken seriously by officials until it was too late. I fear similar dynamics are at play today.

What I find particularly insidious about the way Charlottesville has been cited is that those making this comparison are ignoring, and sometimes condoning, calls for violence against student protesters. Demands to bring in the National Guard to quell campus encampments, intentionally or not, evoke the dark shadow of the Kent State massacre, where three out of the four antiwar protesters killed were Jewish. These demands for forceful repression against nonviolent protests reveal the incoherent definition of public safety that some politicians and administrators hold. Somehow, we are to expect bringing in armed, aggressive law enforcement will prevent violence rather than produce it. The most violent incidents that have so far occurred on these campuses have come from police officers arresting, tackling, and assaulting students for the crime of camping in their own campuses.

These images are particularly striking and emotional to me. I recall vividly how law enforcement stood idly by as racists, fascists, and neo-Nazis descended upon Charlottesville and the University of Virginia campus, where they attacked me and other counterprotesters forming a human shield around the statue of Thomas Jefferson at The Rotunda. Now, without any hesitation, law enforcement attacks and arrests nonviolent pro-Palestine students and even faculty. This is not about public safety; it is about suppressing dissent. How can anyone look at students camping, praying, holding signs, and chanting and see violence, but watch scenes of forceful police repression and see order?

Despite the fact that several Palestinian Americans have been killed abroad and attacked stateside, our officials are silent on the sharp rise of anti-Arab racism and anti-Muslim hatred. Federal, state, municipal and university officials have expressed zero interest in protecting students from targeted harassment, doxxing, and violence. By fanning the flames of culture war, media institutions have created a dangerous false portrayal of the overwhelmingly peaceful protests and acts of civil disobedience on campuses.

This, in turn, has fueled racist narratives that these college students, many of whom are themselves Jewish, are antisemitic terror supporters, often implicitly encouraging outside violence against them. Instead, these students have been smeared as fake Jews, a slur of convenience that allows those who are ostensibly concerned with the safety of Jewish students to place these protesters outside the protections of the tattered social compact they claim to champion. Our leaders are signaling to the public that the mere feelings of pro-Israel supporters are sacrosanct, but the physical safety of Arabs, Muslims, and pro-Palestinian Jews are not.

Despite the fact that these students have been censored, arrested, slandered, assaulted, and harassed—and through it all demonized by journalists and politicians on a national level for their principled stance—the campus movement to divest from Israeli apartheid is only growing stronger. Solidarity and divestment encampments are popping up at universities across the country, including at my alma mater, the University of Southern California, which has controversially prevented its valedictorian, Asna Tabassum—a Muslim woman—from speaking at commencement after cowing to a racist pressure campaign against her. Instead of taking student and faculty concerns about censorship of Tabassum seriously, USC cancelled its main commencement ceremony to halt the risk of protests and sent LAPD officers to attack its own students.

Everywhere, academic freedoms, free speech, and civil liberties are under attack when they are used for the most basic criticism of war crimes, wanton bloodshed, an illegitimate occupation, and America’s material support for these and other violations of humanitarian law perpetrated by a corrupt Israeli government that’s under mounting criticism from its own citizens. Because they can no longer defend Israeli crimes against humanity at face value, pro-Israel forces are deflecting focus away from the horrors in Gaza. Instead, they are deploying tired, reactionary tropes about student activists, a conservative bogeyman dating back to the opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. This pathological hatred of student activists embodies the worst tendencies of an unjust society.

I thoroughly reject the Charlottesville tragedy being weaponized by supporters of Israeli apartheid. I put my body on the line against the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville because of my ironclad opposition to ethnonationalist hatred and my steadfast belief in the common humanity of all people. That extends to the Palestinians, who are categorically entitled to their right to return to their homelands from which they were expelled and to live as full, free and equal citizens.

The exploitative invocation of the Charlottesville attack to demonize nonviolent student activism, often organized and led by Jewish student groups, is not just a personal affront to me—it’s representative of a dangerous trend. As the anti-Palestinian narrative loses moral standing and popular support, demands for boycotting, divesting, and sanctioning Israeli institutions engaged in apartheid are becoming unavoidable. This leaves censorship, undemocratic suppression, and even criminalization as the only means to silence critics of Israel. In the public, academic, legal and international spheres, norms and rights we consider integral to a democratic society are being cannibalized to prolong this untenable political position.

It is easy to look back at past protests and declare, in hindsight, their righteousness. The moral propriety of the Civil Rights Movement, the antiwar protests against Vietnam and Iraq, and the Anti-Apartheid Movement all seem so obvious and clear now. But in the moment of their inception, it took immense courage and willingness to sacrifice to fight for what is right. My experiences in Charlottesville taught me that real moral courage requires great risk. We must not sacrifice our rights in defense of a foreign country’s military occupation.

America’s unquestioning, “ironclad” defense of Israel has vaporized its moral leadership, isolated it on the global stage, and now threatens to kindle wider regional war that could escalate into global conflict. It has decimated the integrity of the so-called “rules-based international order” that liberals insist is integral to global stability. This unconditional support for the Israeli apartheid state has put our government in direct violation of its own laws, like the Leahy Law, and has made us potentially guilty of genocide by collaboration. It is the basic right of every American to question the wisdom of those in power. That those in power are so fulsome in their opposition to being questioned tells you all you need to know about which side they would have stood on in Charlottesville.