At Columbia, Pro-Israel Crowd Yells ‘Go Back To Gaza!’ At Pro-Palestinian Students

NEW YORK — A crowd of pro-Israel protesters gathered just outside the Columbia University campus on Thursday evening, chanting through the gates at a group of pro-Palestinian students inside to “go to Gaza!” 

“Go home, terrorists!” the pro-Israel crowd screamed at the students. “Go back to Gaza!” they yelled. “Stop wasting mommy and daddy’s money!” one man said through a megaphone. “You want to camp? Go camp in Gaza!” said another man, referring to the Palestinian territory where Israel’s siege has killed some 33,000 people, and where this week local health officials said medics had discovered mass graves at hospitals raided by Israeli troops.

The White House — which under President Joe Biden has continued to send aid and weapons to Israel months after the International Court of Justice ruled that Palestinians in Gaza were at risk of experiencing a genocide — responded to HuffPost’s video of the incident in a statement Friday.

“Every American is an American, full stop,” deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said. “It is bigoted and outrageous to suggest that anyone should ‘go back’ anywhere. These kinds of statements degrade all of us, whether it’s telling someone to ‘go back’ to Gaza, or telling someone to ‘go back’ to Belarus and Poland, which was captured in other videos yesterday — countries where Jews were victims of the Holocaust and pogroms. President Biden stands against hateful rhetoric, and believes we must constantly respect the dignity of all people, regardless of disagreements about policy.”

The pro-Israel demonstration Thursday was helmed by a group of far-right Christian nationalist figures. Sean Feucht, the prominent MAGA pastor and musician, was the main organizer of the “Unite for Israel” rally. Feucht is closely tied to a slew of prominent Republican lawmakers, once bestowing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis with a “Defending Freedom” award at a Miami “Let Us Worship” event, meeting with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) on Capitol Hill, and praying over former President Donald Trump in the Oval Office. He has appeared multiple times on Fox News, is a regular on Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast, and is close with Jack Posobiec, the far-right influencer who has a history of making antisemitic remarks. 

Ahead of the rally Feucht said in a livestreamed video that the “rise” in antisemitism on college campuses was another welcome harbinger of the end days. Many American evangelicals, like Feucht, see the return of Jews to Israel as key to an End Times prophecy that would usher in the Second Coming of Christ and commence true Christians’ ascent to heaven. These evangelicals believe at that moment Jews will have to convert to Christianity or perish —  a belief grounded in antisemitism. 

Members of the group screamed at the students from beneath a giant Israeli flag they’d fastened to the top of the tall black gate at the school’s Amsterdam Avenue entrance. A phalanx of NYPD cops stood behind them. The scene was the culmination of a tumultuous week at the Ivy League university, where on Apr. 17 pro-Palestinian students formed an encampment on Columbia’s West Lawn, setting up tents in a “Liberated Zone” to occupy the space. The students want the university to agree to divest from companies they say are profiting from Israel’s war, its illegal occupation of Palestinian land, and a social system the students argue amounts to apartheid. 

Last week Columbia’s president, Minouche Shafik, took the shocking step of summoning the New York Police Department to quash the encampment, with cops removing the tents and arresting over 100 students. The university suspended some students and evicted them from campus housing. But the encampment returned shortly thereafter, inspiring dozens of other pro-Palestinian occupations at universities across the country. 

Sean Feucht leads the United For Israel March outside Columbia University on April 25 in New York City. Feuch called on Columbia’s president to resign. Pro-Palestinian protesters clashed in small numbers with pro-Israel protesters, many who chanted “bring them home” and “remove your mask.”
Columbia University students participate in an ongoing pro-Palestinian encampment on their campus following last week's arrest of more than 100 protesters on April 25 in New York City.
Columbia University students participate in an ongoing pro-Palestinian encampment on their campus following last week's arrest of more than 100 protesters on April 25 in New York City. Stephanie Keith via Getty Images

Earlier this week a handful of videos posted to social media showed protesters, who were not Columbia students, making antisemitic remarks just outside the campus. In one especially egregious incident, a viral video showed a man yelling, “Go back to Belarus! Go back to Poland!” at a group of pro-Israel protesters. 

Columbia’s pro-Palestinian encampment quickly became a lightning rod for accusations of antisemitism, with right-wing politicians and media figures falsely equating the students’ criticism of Israel with hatred for Jews. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) even held a press conference on campus Wednesday, calling on Biden to take action, and suggesting the president may need to summon the National Guard to end the encampment.

Earlier this week Bates, the White House deputy press secretary, issued a statement responding to the Columbia pro-Palestinian demonstration. “While every American has the right to peaceful protest, calls for violence and physical intimidation targeting Jewish students and the Jewish community are blatantly Antisemitic, unconscionable, and dangerous,” he said.  

When HuffPost approached Feucht at the start of Thursday’s rally, twice asking him about what happens to Jews during the End Times, he refused to answer. “What I’m speaking about is tonight, why we’re here tonight,” he said. “Our heart is to bless the Jewish students, to worship and to pray.” 

After singing songs on his guitar, Feucht led a crowd of some 100 people in a march around the campus. Many carried Israeli and American flags as they all chanted “Bring them home!” — referring to over 100 hostages taken by Hamas on Oct. 7, when the militant Palestinian group based in Gaza breached the fences surrounding the territory. At least 1,200 Israelis were killed during the attack.

There were intermittent clashes with lone pro-Palestinian protesters during the march. A man carrying an Israeli flag swung his flagpole at one pro-Palestinian protester wearing a keffiyeh, while another pro-Israel protester attempted to rip the Palestinian flag from his hands. 

At another point HuffPost witnessed a pro-Israel protester tell a man wearing a keffiyeh who was not white: “I look forward to you delivering me my food on DoorDash.” (In New York, food delivery drivers are predominantly Latino and south Asian immigrants.) Afterwards, according to tweets from other reporters on the scene, the man in the keffiyeh, a traditional Palestinian headscarf, grabbed on to a long metal pole, which he then put down but attempted to pick up again before a pro-Israel demonstrator intervened. The pro-Israel crowd then summoned the NYPD to arrest him. The NYPD obliged. (An NYPD spokesperson told HuffPost a 35-year-old man from Brooklyn was arrested on charges of menacing and harassment. Two other people were arrested during the demonstration for disorderly conduct, though the circumstances of their arrests weren’t immediately clear.)

As Feucht’s march circled the campus, he and a couple of other Christian nationalist influencers — including Russell Johnson and Eric Metaxas — led the crowd in chants of “our God reigns!” 

They marched past a small counter-demonstration made up of pro-Palestinian Christians singing “This Little Light of Mine.” Standing behind police barricades, these Christians held signs reading “Not In Jesus’ Name! Ceasefire Now In Gaza” and “It Should Be Easy As A Christian To Oppose Genocide” as Feucht marched by. 

Eventually Feucht led the march to the Columbia gates on Amsterdam Avenue, where a larger crowd of pro-Israel demonstrators not affiliated with Feucht’s grouphad gathered. The NYPD threatened over a loudspeaker to arrest the demonstrators for “obstructing pedestrian traffic” if they didn’t clear the sidewalk outside the gate, but police eventually allowed the demonstration to carry on. 

Johnson, Feucht’s colleague and fellow far-right pastor, held up a sign for everyone to see. “HAMAS UNIVERSITIES,” the sign read, above a drawing of a Nazi swastika drawn over with the names of schools where other pro-Palestinian demonstrations have taken place, including New York University, Harvard, Yale and the University of Pennsylvania. 

A short time later Johnson climbed the gate, while waving a half-Israel, half-U.S. flag, staring down at a small group of pro-Palestinian students inside the campus below. 

One pro-Israel protester from Brooklyn, 47-year-old Ayton Eller, held a sign calling for a boycott of “Columbia Hamas University.” When HuffPost asked Eller what he thought of the Jewish Columbia students taking part in the pro-Palestinian encampment, he called them “traitors” and “self-hating Jews.” 

Feucht led the crowd in screaming while a pro-Israel protester blew through a shofar — a rams-horn trumpet traditionally used by Jews in religious ceremonies that in recent years has been appropriated by Christian nationalists as a battle cry, and a way of commencing “spiritual warfare.” (Shofars were a common sight during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.) 

Feucht eventually helped lead the crowd in the singing of the Israeli national anthem and the American national anthem, before ending the rally and leaving. But a large contingent of angry pro-Israel demonstrators remained at the gates, yelling at pro-Palestinian students inside the campus to “go to Gaza!” 

A short walk away inside the campus, students at the pro-Palestinian encampment gathered quietly in a circle to hold a meeting. They stood in the middle of the tents, the grass littered with signs with slogans like “JEWS AGAINST GENOCIDE,” and discussed providing “jail support” to each other in the event they were to be arrested again. 

That day they’d watched videos of some 200 students at campuses across the country — in Boston, Austin, Los Angeles, Atlanta and elsewhere — being arrested at their own encampments. 

Shafik, Columbia’s president, had set a deadline for Friday morning for the pro-Palestinian demonstrators to reach an agreement with the school to clear the encampment. That deadline has passed, and according to students, negotiations with the school are ongoing.