“I feel insanely guilty.”
Matan Goldstein stood wearing an Israeli flag tied at his neck and draped down his back. Behind him, a crowd of hundreds filling the University of Virginia’s McIntire Amphitheatre chanted a prayer. Goldstein, a first-year student at UVa, left Israel and his entire family to study at the school.
His family is alive, but they are holed up in a bomb shelter, he said, where they must remain for the next 72 hours.
“I feel like I’m not sacrificing enough,” Goldstein told The Daily Progress. “It’s very difficult to be here alone.”
Israel is at war.
More than 1,900 people have been killed since Saturday, when the Hamas terror group launched a surprise attack on the country. There have been an estimated 1,000 casualties in Israel and another 900 in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian territory that Hamas controls.
“October 7, 2023 saw the most Jews slaughtered in a single day since the Holocaust,” according to the Times of Israel’s diplomatic correspondent Lazar Berman.
Hamas is believed to have taken between 100 and 150 hostages of various nationalities, Americans among them, according to Israeli officials. The exact number of U.S. hostages is not known, but the Biden administration said Tuesday that 20 Americans have been reported missing in the region. After Israel’s declaration of war, which received full-throated support from Western powers on both sides of the Atlantic, Hamas has promised to begin executing the hostages in the coming days.
The reports coming out of Israel are violent and disturbing: at least 260 bodies found at the site of a music festival on the Israel-Gaza border; dozens of Israeli babies in the kibbutz of Kfar Aza killed, some beheaded; elderly Holocaust survivors dragged behind vehicles. Gaza is now under a full blockade on both its Israeli and Egyptian borders, Israeli missiles have reduced Gaza City neighborhoods to rubble and the Israeli government’s "total siege" strategy has included a blockade that has cut off food, water and electrical supplies into the 140-square-mile territory that is home to 2 million people, nearly 50% of which are under the age of 18.
The full scale of the conflict is impossible to know, but the explosion of violence has sent shockwaves around the globe.
When news of the Hamas attacks first broke, Stephen Mull, UVa’s vice provost for global affairs, said the university focused on getting its students away from immediate danger. That included one UVa student who was studying in Jerusalem at the time and one who was en route to Israel for an exchange program.
The first student has been safely evacuated from the country, and the second agreed to defer travel.
“The University has consequently prohibited all University-related travel to either Israel or Gaza until further notice,” Mull said in a statement released on Monday.
The next day, students and university community members gathered at McIntire Amphitheatre off the UVa Lawn for a vigil honoring the lives lost in the conflict.
Roughly 300 attended the student-led event.
Jillian Golaszewski was sitting on one of the theater’s stone steps as people began to trickle in. The assistant director of the UVa Post-Baccalaureate Pre-Medical Program said she was there to support the Jewish community.
“I think you can already feel the sadness and the grief,” she told The Daily Progress. “I don’t know what else I can do in this moment other than just show up and to be here. It’s the least I can do.”
A few rows down sat 76-year-old Tom Dufore, who only just recently moved to Charlottesville.
“If I was a young man, I would go over there and volunteer to go on the line,” he told The Daily Progress. “But the old bones don’t work real well.”
Speakers at the vigil did not pretend Israel has been the only victim of violence in the war. Palestinians have died and will die as a result of the conflict, and the vigil was as much for lost Israeli lives as Palestinian ones, speakers said.
“Thinking of community members here who, like myself and my sister, have woken up in horror to news of family and friends, murdered, injured, kidnapped or missing, my heart breaks,” Adin Yager, a fourth-year student, told the crowd. “It does too thinking of the innocent Palestinian lives lost, and I expect to speak for everyone here in saying that.”
Seeing the crowd gathered in the amphitheater, Goldstein said he was on the verge of tears.
“I’m overjoyed. I did not expect half as many people to come today, and I am shocked by how supportive the community of Charlottesville is,” he said. “To say that I’m pleasantly surprised is more than an understatement. I want to cry from happiness.”
The vigil was not the only university gathering Tuesday evening sparked by the conflict overseas.
Steps away, in Newcomb Hall’s Interfaith Student Center, a prayer circle was being held behind closed doors.
The circle, organized by the Palestine Culture Club, the Muslim Student Association and Students for Justice in Palestine, was closed to the press, and students organizing the event declined to identify themselves.
“I feel like a lot of us have a lot of pent-up anger and frustration from just literally being glued to the news 24/7,” said one person outside of the student center who asked to remain anonymous for fear they would be targeted. “Talking to each other and giving each other hope and sharing more positive perspectives could maybe alleviate some of that burden that we feel.”
The organizers of the prayer circle shared only the invitation to the event as a statement:
“Today, we gather not only as a religious or cultural group but as compassionate human beings,” it reads in part. “Let us sit shoulder to shoulder, hearts united, as we offer our collective prayers for peace, justice, and healing.”
“Let us engage in prayers for the ceasing of violence in Gaza, the protection of human life everywhere, and the ultimate freedom and independence for Palestine. We pray for the safety and healing for all those impacted by these recent events,” it concludes.
One of the circle’s organizing parties, the UVa chapter of the Students for Justice in Palestine, is planning another event: a “Teach-in on Gaza & Palestinian Resistance” Thursday evening on the steps of the Rotunda.
That group has come under fire after issuing a statement a day after the attacks in support of “the right of colonized people everywhere to resist the occupation of their land by whatever means they deem necessary.”
“We reject the assumption that oppressed people cannot take their liberation into their own hands,” the statement reads. “The events that took place yesterday are a step towards a free Palestine. They reflect the power and resilience of the Palestinian people.”
The statement makes no reference to Hamas, referring to the killers as “Palestinian resistance fighters.”
Virginia leaders, specifically Republicans, rebuked the group in strongly worded statements.
“I denounce the hateful message of the UVA Students for Justice in Palestine in the strongest terms possible,” Attorney General Jason Miyares said in a statement issued Tuesday. “You cannot ‘mourn the loss of human life’ and ‘hope for long-lasting peace’ and also cheer on the murder, rape, and hostage-taking by Hamas, a terrorist organization that exists for the destruction and murder of Jewish people. Virginia and Charlottesville witnessed firsthand the darkness and evil of antisemitism in 2017. There should be room on our college campuses for free speech and substantive foreign policy discussions, but the hateful message of the Students for Justice in Palestine is exactly the wrong approach.”
Todd Gilbert, the speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates and a UVa alumnus, also issued a statement. Gilbert’s called on UVa President Jim Ryan to denounce the group.
“Some students at my alma mater @UVA fully endorse the rape, murder and kidnapping of innocent people which we now know includes the beheading of babies,” Gilbert posted on X, formerly Twitter. “I implore the University and @presjimryan to condemn this vile statement in the strongest possible terms and to take action.”
In a statement issued Wednesday, Ryan said the school remains focused on the well-being of its community members at home and abroad.
Without naming the student group, Ryan called for civility in the ongoing discourse.
"There is no question that this attack and its aftermath have stirred deep emotions within this community, including sadness, fear, grief, and anger. They have also stoked division and rancor around the world along familiar lines of religion and ideology. I trust that we as a community can and will adhere to UVA’s longstanding tradition of not just allowing free speech, but promoting civil discourse, even when – perhaps especially when – we strongly disagree," he wrote.
The Students for Justice in Palestine did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Progress.
One of the anonymous attendees at Tuesday’s prayer circle, however, said they felt people were misconstruing the words of Palestinian advocates, calling the reactions a “slap in the face.”
“Obviously that makes everything harder and makes us feel like there’s a target on our backs for simply trying to stand with our people,” they said.
Daily Progress editor Reynolds Hutchins contributed to this story.