In the wake of the October 7th Hamas terrorist attack on Israel and Israel’s subsequent retaliation in Gaza, college campuses across the United States have become arenas for protests and counter-protests. These events have exposed significant tensions between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine student groups, and the University of Virginia is no exception. At the center of this ongoing tension is Matan Goldstein, a first-year UVA Jewish student born in Israel and of Iraqi heritage.
On October 25, pro-Palestine students at the university organized a walkout at the Rotunda, making two key demands: that UVA “acknowledge the ongoing genocide” and that the university “divest and cut ties with weapons manufacturers that fund Israel’s genocide.” During this protest, Goldstein, along with a small group of Jewish students, took a peaceful stance on the steps of the Rotunda. They proudly displayed the flag of Israel while facing substantial hostility from fellow students.
Upon sitting down with Goldstein to understand his perspective as an Israeli-Jewish college student, I learned that the ongoing conflict has affected him immensely. “My entire family is stuck in bomb shelters,” he told me candidly. He went on to reveal that his best friend’s neighbors were brutally massacred. He also spoke of the tragic loss of people from his school who had been conscripted and died on the Lebanese border. Through our conversation, Goldstein’s articulate and knowledgeable insights offer a poignant glimpse into the resilience of individuals directly impacted by the war, which, in my opinion, is what American college students who blindly choose sides must hear.
In response to my question about the controversy surrounding the Students for Justice in Palestine at UVA, Goldstein expressed his deep disgust with their initial statement. He condemned SJP’s prevailing notion that what happened was an “act of revolution.” Goldstein’s perspective as an Israeli highlighted that in his homeland, even when terrorists carry out attacks, they are treated in Israeli hospitals, demonstrating the country’s commitment to preserving human life.
Goldstein then drew a powerful analogy to portray his reaction to SJP’s statement defending Hamas. “If you go to the Gaza Strip, or Ramallah, or Nablus, where Israelis, both Arab and Jewish, are brutally murdered, you can see fireworks going off to celebrate. This is what I felt from the SJP. I felt I was in Ramallah, looking at fireworks being displayed, as they commended Hamas for their heroism.”
When I asked about SJP’s justification that the conflict didn’t start on October 7th but had started 75 years ago, Goldstein claimed it was “ignoring the entire historical context.” He pointed out that until 1967, Israel did not control the Gaza Strip, which was under Egyptian control. He also underscored Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 to promote peace, in which thousands of Israelis were forcefully removed. According to Goldstein, the conflict in the Gaza Strip began around 2005-2007, when Hamas came to power and started building tunnels. He firmly believes that the historical context did not justify the actions of Hamas. Regarding President Ryan’s statement following the terrorist attacks, Goldstein doesn’t believe that he went far enough. “In this situation, it’s pretty easy to distinguish between the good and the bad. He does need to condemn all those who are supportive of Hamas. That is the SJP.”
Continuing our conversation, I delved into Goldstein’s experience during the walkout and asked him about the specific incidents that took place. He revealed that he had anticipated backlash; however, he was resolute, stating, “I am not going to allow my country to be attacked by ignorant people.” He wanted people to know “am yisrael chai,” which means “a nation of Israel stands and lives.” Goldstein went on to describe the vitriol he endured, with individuals shouting, “f**k you,” “from river to the sea Palestine will be free,” “you’re committing genocide,” “how does it feel to support genocide?” At one point, he was told to come down so that “they [could] teach [him] a lesson.” When I inquired about the Daily Progress report quoting a student who found the counterprotest “disrespectful,” suggesting that Israelis are “bombing children every day,” Goldstein responded with frustration, sarcastically suggesting that, “people can come to my dorm and see my nuclear arsenal if they really want. What is this generalization?” He emphasized the complexities of the war, indicating that Israel had taken steps to minimize civilian casualties, such as sending evacuation fliers, while Hamas had forced Palestinians to remain in harm’s way, using them as human shields.
I focused my following questions on the signs held at the walkout and the various chants that echoed throughout the event. One particularly common slogan was “Free Palestine from the river to the sea.” Goldstein clarified that it explicitly calls for the destruction of Israel, as it encompasses the entire territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. I asked for his opinion on a sign at the protest that read “END U.S. SUPPORT TO ISRAEL,” and he stressed the importance of this support. “Much of the money that goes to Israel funds our Iron Dome. Iron Dome is a genius technological innovation that only intercepts rockets. It prevents hundreds of deaths every year.”
We also discussed the accusations of genocide against Israel in the media and the UVA community. Goldstein explained, “It is easy to use the term genocide [in the West], but in Israel, that is taboo…There are 2 million Palestinians in Gaza. There were not this many before. This is a population boom, not genocide. Jews have not even passed the number prior to the Holocaust. That’s a genocide.” He also cited the 2014 Israeli operation against Hamas, “Tzuk Eitan,” where Israel had to halt operations due to Hamas using hospitals as human shields. “I don’t see that as a genocide,” was Goldstein’s caustic remark. Finally, when asked about his opinions on a ceasefire, Goldstein expressed his desire for peace but made it clear that he does not want a ceasefire if it means allowing Hamas to continue its actions. “As a Jew, I pray every night for the war to end…[but] people are forgetting who started this attack. 1400 people were killed, mutilated, and raped. This is the worst attack and atrocity [against Jews] since 1945…Hamas started the war. In every war, innocents die. If someone is trying to quote to me the Geneva Convention, saying that Israel is committing genocide and war crimes, they are more than welcome to look at the side they are supporting and see that Hamas has broken every single rule under the Geneva Convention.”
I redirected our conversation to a broader topic, examining the reasons behind the prevalent pro-Palestine sentiment among both students and professors in the US. I cited a professor at Cornell who felt “exhilarated” by the terror attack. Goldstein traced the sentiment back to the First Intifada in the 1980s, a period marked by intense riots and confrontations between the Israeli army and Palestinians, which led to increased media coverage portraying Palestinians as the “underdog.” He explained, “They see Israel as a colonial outpost of the west. They see all Israelis as white European settlers, which is wrong.” Goldstein presented a personal story, highlighting his family’s history of being forced out of Iraq: “Jewish people tried to make their home Poland, but the Holocaust is my response to that…Jews returning to the land of Judea is us returning back to our native land. I’m not saying Palestinians don’t have a right to the land; they also do.”
Furthermore, Goldstein contested the label of Israel as an apartheid state, attributing the misconception to the presence of a border wall. “The second the border wall was put up, 90% of bombings and terrorist attacks stopped.” Then he proceeded to question the absence of Jews in the Arab world. “Today, there are around 20,000 Jews in the Arab world. Israel, which makes up 2% of 1% of the entire Arab world, has 2 million Arabs…How many Jews live in Palestine? 0. How is that not apartheid?” Goldstein expressed qualms about the oversimplification of complex issues. “It is very simple not to think. People are just reading Instagram posts and suddenly feel they are experts on the Middle East. It is very difficult to combat this when news outlets are showing one side of the story, many times also false stories.” He mentioned the circulation of infographics depicting the loss of Palestinian land from 1947 to the present as an example of this bias and elaborated on how there was never actually a formal state of Palestine. He challenged supporters of Palestine to name a prime minister of such a state and continued to explain how the etymological origins of the word “Palestine” came from the Romans.
My next question revolved around common misconceptions about Israel, initiating a conversation that shed light on the hypocrisies within the pro-Palestine movement. Goldstein drew attention to the inconsistency of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement, claiming that the boycott of Israeli goods harms Palestinians who have jobs in Israeli industries. He went on to state, “I think the biggest misconception is that BDS helps Palestinians…If people want to be consistent on BDS, they shouldn’t use their iPhones, or computers, or pretty much any piece of technology because the chips are made in Israel.” Moreover, Goldstein pointed out the flawed reasoning of Western progressives, asserting that they tend to be “open as possible to the least conforming countries” and condemned the UN’s disproportionate targeting of Israel. “I think the UN is a joke. Israel is the only democratic country in the Middle East and the only country that supports LGBTQ rights. People who support Palestine and are LGBTQ are like chickens for KFC.”
Our exchange concluded with discussions on the current state of antisemitism on college campuses. Goldstein made a distinction between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism, even opening the floor to any pro-Palestinian to have a civil discussion with him. “I don’t mind criticism of the government. I don’t support the government. All governments should be criticized. But when you start seeing a double standard, a vast generalization, a call for violence, and ignorance, that’s when I start calling it antisemitism.”
Given the recorded uptick of antisemitism in the US, I asked Goldstein if he had experienced any prejudice. He said he had received several death threats for being vocal about the war. Even before October 7th, he was told by many that he was an “enemy” and that “[he] kills Arabs.” When questioned about his sense of safety as a visibly Jewish student on campus, he shared his concerns, describing how he now carries pepper spray. Yet Goldstein reaffirmed his determination to openly display his Star of David necklace and kippah, declaring, “I’m not going to hide. I don’t hide.”
The opinions expressed within this piece represent the views of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jefferson Independent.