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Is Columbia the New Charlottesville?

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Last year I visited Charlottesville, Virginia, and walked along the campus of the University of Virginia. It is a beautiful campus, designed by Thomas Jefferson himself, who founded the university. Many of us remember that in 2017, white supremacists descended upon this wonderful college town, marching through this very campus with tiki torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us!” and the Nazi slogan, “Blood and soil!”

Afterwards, I visited Emancipation Park and observed the patch of dirt where the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee once stood. It was the planned removal of this statue that sparked the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally that weekend, and it was at this park where they demonstrated the following day. Clashes with counter-protesters ensued, culminating in a white supremacist driving his car into a crowd of people, injuring many and killing Heather Heyer. The disturbing events of that day are etched into our national conscience. 

These past few weeks, we have seen frightening instances at Columbia University that are reminiscent of the violent and hateful rhetoric of the Charlottesville rally. Protesters celebrating the massacre of Jews in Israel by Hamas terrorists on October 7. Calls for the city of Tel Aviv — whose population numbers hundreds of thousands — to burn to the ground. One was heard urging Jewish counter-protesters to “go back to Europe,” and saying that “you have no culture. All you do is colonize.”

That last remark in particular renews tropes that can be found straight from Hitler’s Mein Kampf, where he asserted that the Jew “never possessed a culture of his own” and is “a parasite within the nation.”

Prominent political figures have sought to draw comparisons between these protests and the demonstrations in Charlottesville. “Charlottesville was a little peanut and was nothing compared — and the hate wasn’t the kind of hate that you have here,” former president Donald Trump claimed. “Add some tiki torches and it’s Charlottesville for these Jewish students,” wrote Senator John Fetterman (D-PA).

But are they the same? Can we liken the events of Charlottesville to the demonstrations at Columbia and other universities? Will we look upon these times with the same regret and anguish as the Charlottesville episode? There are key similarities for sure. However, there are also stark and important differences.

The Charlottesville rally was marked by injuries and death, while the encampments and demonstrations at Columbia and other campuses thankfully for the most part did not lead to such outcomes, even if some spewed violent rhetoric at times (which should not be discounted). 

We must also acknowledge the assertion that those who engaged in such rhetoric, including calls to “burn Tel Aviv to the ground,” were outliers who may not have even been associated with the students at Columbia. 

Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine claimed “inflammatory individuals” who were not students received disproportionate media attention. New York City Mayor Eric Adams decried “outside agitators” as well.

An analysis by the NYPD found that 32 of the 112 people arrested at Columbia were unaffiliated with the university. An even greater fraction of those arrested at nearby City College of New York were unaffiliated with that institution. Agitators have instigated violence and taught otherwise peaceful demonstrators aggressive tactics that would help with the headline-making occupation of Hamilton Hall.

“These protests have been and are being influenced by external actors who are unaffiliated with the universities, some of whom have been known to our department and others for many years for their dangerous, disruptive and criminal activity associated with protests for years,” said Rebecca Weiner, the NYPD deputy commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism. 

To be sure, many protesters are real college students who are against Israel’s war in Gaza. But when clips of occasional instances of property damage or extremely inflammatory remarks are circulating on social media, we need to be careful before reaching the conclusion that these are run-of-the-mill student demonstrators — the next generation of leaders. 

The “agitators” problem, together with the possibility that some actual students may simply shout things that the participants as a whole may disagree with, demonstrates a clear contrast to the Charlottesville attendees. At the “Unite the Right” rally antisemitism and white supremacy was not the outlier, but the consensus belief — the norm.

Now, some concerning chants, such as “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and calls for “intifada,” appear to unfortunately be acceptable in the mainstream protest movement. There is no doubt that these statements may very well be rooted in radical calls for a “one-state solution” and violence against civilians. 

But the crucial question is, can we safely say the demonstrators using these phrases know what they mean? Certainly the leaders do, but what about the possibly misguided activists on the ground?

In December, Ron Hassner, a Political Science professor at Berkeley, reported on the results of a survey firm he hired. While 86% of college students support the chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” to a greater (32.8%) or lesser (53.2%) extent, only 47% of those who like the slogan know specifically which river and which sea. (It might also be worth noting that only a fraction of them could say who Yasser Arafat was.) 

Of the 80 students shown on a map why “from the river to the sea” means “no Israel,” 75% changed their perspective. Students were also less enthusiastic when they learned how this might impact the Jewish and Arab-Israeli population. “In all,” wrote Hassner, “after learning a handful of basic facts about the Middle East, 67.8% of students went from supporting ‘from the river to sea’ to rejecting the mantra.”

Hassner concludes: “Those who hope to encourage extremism depend on the political ignorance of their audiences. It is time for good teachers to join the fray and combat bias with education.”

It is essential to realize this most crucial distinction between Charlottesville and Columbia. At the Charlottesville rally, they were knowingly, unambiguously racist and antisemitic. Now, we are dealing with a different beast entirely. 

Perhaps demonstrators at Columbia and elsewhere are less blatant in their antisemitism than those on the extreme right. But nevertheless these could be just as, if not more, dangerous in the long run. While one kind of antisemitism — the kind displayed in Charlottesville — should be easy to recognize and condemn, the other involves many young students unknowingly acting in the interest of bad-faith actors.

This is a war of information and we must fight against oversimplifications and sound bites peddled towards young activists at institutions of higher education as well as on social media. (None of this, of course, should be confused with legitimate criticism of Israel’s actions, even if strong at times.) 

The best way to combat this unique manifestation of antisemitism, which is ill-informed at best, and maliciously disguised under a cloak of social justice at worst, is not necessarily labeling this or that “antisemitic,” but rather explaining why certain ideas and slogans in effect are. As Hassner explained, counteracting misinformation and engaging in initiatives to educate the next generation about the conflict may very well be the best path forward.

Years from now visitors, students, and faculty of Columbia University should hopefully notice — just like the patch of dirt where the Confederate statue that inspired white supremacists in Charlottesville once stood — an absence of the antisemitic, toxic language that once infiltrated genuine student activism on this campus and on campuses across the country.

About the Author
Alan E. Weintraub holds a master’s degree in History.
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