closeup of a hand holding a phone, showing an image of a group of people, many wearing backpacks, in front of buildings with columns.
Munier Ahmad Nazeer, a long-time Charlottesville resident, displays a photo he took while participating in a pro-Palestinian rally on UVA’s campus in October 2023. Nazeer, who is Black and Muslim, said the 2017 white nationalist rally hit “close to home” for him. While Nazeer says he feels for the people of Israel, calling them his “Jewish brothers and sisters,” he wears keffiyeh as a show of his support for the Palestinian people, “I understand by wearing this I am putting myself in the line of fire, so to speak,” he said. “Hopefully not.” Credit: Margaret Manto/Dexter Auction

Rabbi Tom Gutherz of Congregation Beth Israel, Charlottesville’s only synagogue, says it’s “political theater” to compare the campus protests against U.S. involvement in the war in Gaza to the white supremacist rallies that took place in Charlottesville in August 2017 — which is what former president Donald Trump did last week.

On April 24, after a day in a felony criminal trial in Manhattan, Trump criticized President Joe Biden’s handling of college protests by comparing them to the violent events in 2017, including the car attack by a neo-Nazi on counter-protesters that killed Heather Heyer and critically injured others.

“We’re having protests all over, he’s talking about Charlottesville. Charlottesville was a little peanut, and it was nothing compared, and the hate wasn’t the kind of hate you have here,” Trump said.

But Gutherz, who marched with counterprotesters in 2017 and at one point exited the synagogue through a side door with his congregants when white supremacists rallied in front of the building, says that the comparison Trump made is wrong. Making such a comparison ignores the fact that there is no “particular Jewish perspective” on the conflict in Gaza, he said, and supporting the Palestinian cause is not inherently antisemitic.

Israel is the only Jewish nation-state. The land that Israel occupies was once inhabited by an Arab population who call the area Palestine and who were displaced when the state of Israel was formed in 1948. Since then, Palestinians and their advocates have called for the reversal of that displacement.

“I would not say that people in the congregation, for the most part, are anti-Palestine,” said Gutherz.

Health officials in Palestine and Israel say nearly 35,000 Palestinians and 1,200 Israelis have been killed since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel that instigated the current conflict in Gaza.

Others who were involved in the 2017 counterprotests in Charlottesville agreed that Trump’s comments were specious — provocative, but ultimately false. Caroline Bray, who graduated from the University of Virginia in 2018 and now lives in Richmond, said by email to Dexter Auction that the same personal “moral understanding of right and wrong” that compelled her to protest against white supremacists in 2017 now drives her involvement in the movement for Palestinian liberation.

“In August 2017, I stood up against white supremacists who were bearing torches and screaming ‘Jews will not replace us.' As they surrounded us, I thought I might be killed. I stood my ground because I knew that I was standing on the right side of history,” Bray said. “It is the same current of white supremacy that appeared in Charlottesville in 2017 that is causing this genocide in Gaza. To stand with Palestine is to stand on the right side of history.”

Some Jewish Charlottesville residents feel similarly. At an April 27 “Show Up for Palestine” rally on the Charlottesville downtown mall, one attendee, Anna, said participating in the protests was important to her because she is Jewish. She said that the comparison between the 2017 Unite the Right rally and the current protests was a red herring meant to distract not only from the “relentless bombing and famine in Gaza,” but also from the fact that there are legitimate sources of antisemitism in the U.S. Anna asked to be identified by first name only because she is concerned about “antisemitic backlash from Zionists.”

“There's lots of white nationalists who are vehemently antisemitic who will march in places like Charlottesville. To me, that's the real issue where we should be focusing our concern about antisemitism, instead of on groups of college students who are advocating for the end to an apartheid regime,” said Anna. “There are a lot of Jews out there like myself who have seen what's going on on the ground in Palestine, and have really reevaluated a lot of what we were taught as children about what the state of Israel is supposed to be for.”

“We don't want an occupation and a genocide being done in our name,” Anna said.

There's a difference between domestic terrorism and civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is the backbone of our nation.

—Quinn Plummer, junior at Renaissance School

The white supremacist rallies of 2017 were formative childhood experiences for participants in an April 27 Teen Summit hosted by UVA’s Youth-Nex program. Some teens said that their social media feeds are dominated by campus protests.

Quinn Plummer, a junior at Renaissance School, said she disagrees with the comparison.

“There's a difference between domestic terrorism and civil disobedience,” Plummer said. “Civil disobedience is the backbone of our nation. That's what our country was founded on. 2017 was an influential moment for this town, and I think it did represent a lot of truth in the bigotry that this town was still experiencing at that time. But I think now we have the chance to go and represent ourselves and say what we believe now.”

Rabbi Gutherz says the Unite the Right rally was a “wake-up call” for many Charlottesville residents that antisemitism was embedded in the white nationalist movement. When those violent rallies happened in 2017, also known as the “summer of hate,” he felt the support and solidarity of the Charlottesville community. Now, some in the Jewish community in Charlottesville are feeling “sadness, and a sense of feeling misunderstood about our commitments and our feelings about Israel,” Gutherz said.

While Gutherz believes that it’s both possible and necessary to thoughtfully critique the Israeli military’s campaign in Gaza, he is worried that protests against Israeli military actions in Gaza could lead to a rise in antisemitism in the U.S. He worries that the activism has created a “long process of a kind of a demonization and hatred of Israel and Zionism and of things that the Jewish community understands in a different way.”

“The conversation sometimes takes the position that there is only one powerful [group] or one party to this conflict that is unilaterally responsible for the way that things have turned out, or for the way that things are going on even today,” Gutherz said. “There's plenty of blame to go around.”

Trump’s comments were not the first time the rise in college campus protests against U.S. involvement in the conflict have been met with accusations of antisemitism and comparisons to the 2017 Unite the Right rally. In October 2023, Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares wrote on the social media platform X that “Charlottesville witnessed firsthand the darkness and evil of antisemitism in 2017,” and that comments made by the UVA group Students for Justice in Palestine threatened to reintroduce similar hateful rhetoric.

Miyares’ concern was echoed by James Bacon, executive director of a UVA alumni organization, the Jefferson Council, in a November 2023 blog post. In April 2024, the Jefferson Council published an anonymous letter that alleged antisemitism on campus, including physical violence and verbal assaults. The only people named in the letter for creating a hostile environment were a student who was involved in organizing a series of Israeli and Palestinian films and the two professors who moderated the post-film discussions. Both professors named in the letter are Jewish. One of the professors told the Daily Progress that the film series was meant to show balanced perspectives on the conflict.

In an email to Dexter Auction, Bacon said the Jefferson Council removed the letter and eventually the entire post from its website when they were alerted that one of the 37 alleged instances of antisemitism described in the document was inaccurate. Bacon said he never saw the films in the series.

“However, I would observe that the other 35 incidents described in the list suggest that UVA does have an antisemitism problem,” Bacon wrote in his email. He did not respond to a question about what he thought of Trump’s comments.

Gutherz said that he was invited to the screenings at UVA and that he feels it’s appropriate for universities to foster conversations that consider multiple points of view.

Other centers of Jewish community in Charlottesville, including the Brody Jewish Center at UVA and P’nai Yisrael Chavurah, did not respond to Dexter Auction’s inquiries in time for publishing.

Some in Charlottesville say discussions like those held at the film series could help lead to Palestinian liberation, and are not meant to foster ill will toward Jewish people.

“It's my duty as a Muslim to speak out about injustice, and what I see going on right now is just pure genocide,” said Munier Ahmad Nazeer, a long-time Charlottesville resident, at the Teen Summit on Saturday.

Nazeer, who is Black and Muslim, said the 2017 white nationalist rally hit “close to home” for him. While he feels for the people of Israel, calling them his “Jewish brothers and sisters,” he wears keffiyeh as a show of his support for the Palestinian people.

“I understand by wearing this I am putting myself in the line of fire, so to speak,” he said. “Hopefully not.”

More demonstrations calling for Palestinian liberation are planned at UVA this week.

On Sunday, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin said that the commonwealth will permit protests as long as they do not intimidate Jewish students or become encampments.

The UVA Apartheid Divest Coalition announced a day-long rally on the UVA Lawn at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, May 1, and an encampment was formed near the UVA chapel on the afternoon of April 30.

Editor's note: A quote from a teenage source has been removed from this article at the request of the their guardian.

I was born at the old Martha Jefferson Hospital on Locust Ave. and attended Charlottesville City Schools for 13 years, then spent five years in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I moved back to Charlottesville in 2020, where I currently work full-time as a biologist while reporting as an independent journalist. My writing focuses on the intersection of policy, community, and science. Reach me by email at margaretellenmanto [at] gmail [dot] com.