Neo-Nazis and the Far-Right Are Trying to Hijack Pro-Palestine Protests

Around 40 people affiliated with the National Justice Party, a white nationalist and antisemitic group, gathered in front of the White House to protest Israel last weekend. The group was led by Mike Peinovich, a long-time white nationalist personality who previously used the alias “Mike Enoch,” and was one of the architects of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.

Israel “is a pure genocidal state, make no mistake,” Peinovich told rally attendees over a PA system. “We Americans have been snookered into supporting [Israel] by Jewish control of our banks, our media, and our politicians, but we have to say enough and rise up as a people.”

Their small demonstration was dwarfed by the hundreds-strong protest that flooded the streets of Washington D.C. But Peinovich’s rhetoric is an example of how far-right antisemites are trying to use the pro-Palestine movement, hijack some of its language criticizing the Israeli government’s actions in Gaza, and then use that as a vehicle to push anti-Jewish conspiracy theories and tropes into the mainstream. 

The presence of the National Justice Party in D.C. shouldn’t be seen as an indication that there is some ideological kinship between that group and the wider pro-Palestine movement. Fringe extremist groups are first and foremost opportunists, and will leap at any chance to insert themselves into a popular movement. In 2020, the anti-government Boogaloo movement’s gun-toting adherents—including white supremacists—unsuccessfully tried to latch onto the Black Lives Matter movement by claiming they shared similar goals. 

“They’re not pro-Palestine, they just hate Jews, and they see this moment as an opportunity to get attention, get coverage, put their banners, their images, their ideas, into reporting patterns,” said Jon Lewis, a research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, told VICE News of the recent displays by brazen antisemites. “Nine out of ten of them would probably happily commit a hate crime against anyone [at the pro-Palestine protest].”

The pro-Palestine movement has picked up enormous support in recent weeks, with hundreds of thousands of protesters taking to the streets in cities around the world to demand a ceasefire in Gaza, where intense bombardment by the Israeli government has led to the deaths of more than 8,000 people, including thousands of children. 

The Israeli government says that their goal is to eradicate Hamas, which controls Gaza, after its militants entered Israel and killed more than 1,400 people on Oct. 7 and took hundreds of hostages. UN experts say that Israel’s retaliatory actions in Gaza amount to “collective punishment,” and have warned of ethnic cleansing

The rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza has mobilized diverse protesters around the world, who have staged sit-ins in government buildings and shut down entire parts of cities.

Some critics of the movement have tried to argue that supporting Palestine is tantamount to supporting Hamas, criticizing the Israeli government is the same as criticizing Jews, and that the protests are fundamentally antisemitic (despite the fact that many of the protests in the U.S. have been organized by Jewish pro-Palestine groups). Critics have also falsely claimed that some of the most popular chants used at those protests have called for the genocide of Jews. 

This muddy web of claims, and rampant disinformation across the board, has created fertile ground for antisemitic groups and individuals to falsely claim that they’re aligned with the mainstream pro-Palestine movement. 

Meanwhile, hate crimes targeting Jews, Muslims, and Arabs, which were already disturbingly high prior to the conflict, have since soared to an alarming degree around the world, as individuals or groups who harbor biases against those communities seek to exploit the pain, fear, and confusion of the current moment. Swastikas have appeared on college and high school campuses, sowing fear among Jewish students. Jewish organizations have received death threats, and a landlord in Illinois is facing hate crime charges for stabbing a 6-year-old Palestinian boy to death.  

“Creating the conditions for there to be more acts of mass violence, acts of hate, ratcheting up tensions, is the central goal of most of these white supremacist movements,” said Lewis. “It’s to make people feel unsafe, make people think twice about going to these protests, make people fear there will be more violence.” 

Lewis added that these groups—which have been increasingly active this year—know that engaging in explicitly antisemitic stunts and protests in the current climate will gain them more attention.

Last weekend, members of NSC-131, a hardcore neo-Nazi group in New England, gathered on an overpass in Saugus, Massachusetts, outside of Boston, and hung banners and signs saying things like “Free Palestine” as well as “No More Wars for Israel,” and “End Jewish Terror.” 

Earlier in October, dozens of masked members of National Socialist Florida, another hardcore neo-Nazi group, assembled along the side of a road in Lady Lake, Florida, about 50 miles outside of Orlando. They had similar signs to their NSC-131 counterparts, plus others with messages like “Our Tax Dollars Fund Israeli Bloodlust” and “The Great Replacement is Real.” National Socialist Florida put together a slickly-edited video of their demonstration which they shared on their social media platforms. “America and Palestine share a similar fate,” text in the video reads. “REPLACEMENT.” 

Also in October, two dozen members of White Lives Matter and the local neo-Nazi “Active Club” gathered outside a synagogue in Missoula, Montana, and an office for the International Rescue Committee, which assists refugees. They held signs saying things like “Diversity = White Genocide.” 

In all these cases, from D.C., to Boston, to Orlando, to Missoula, neo-Nazis have used growing anger against the Israeli government as an opportunity to spew antisemitic and anti-immigrant conspiracy theories, launder them into the mainstream, and drive recruitment.

The references to “Replacement” and immigration is a direct nod to a particular version of the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, which baselessly claims that Jewish people are purposefully facilitating migration into the U.S. with the aim of replacing white people. 

It was this same conspiracy theory espoused by the white supremacist who opened fire on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, killing 11 people. Similarly, allusions to going war on behalf of Israel in this context is steeped in antisemitic conspiracy. “It’s not intended as a nuanced good faith debate about the goals of U.S. neo-liberal foreign policy, but it's conveying conspiracies about a ‘Deep State’ that exists inside U.S. foreign policy that they say will always defend Jews,” said Lewis. 

In Missoula, the neo-Nazis later tried to align themselves with the 100-strong pro-Palestine demonstration that was taking place that day at the Missoula County Courthouse, according to a report by the Daily Montanan. As pro-Palestine demonstrators chanted “free, free Palestine,” one of the neo-Nazis shouted through a megaphone, “the Jews have to be stopped if you want to free Palestine.”

“Thank you for coming out to support us today,” the neo-Nazi with the megaphone told the protesters. “We couldn’t have done this without you.”

The pro-Palestine protesters made it clear that the masked neo-Nazis were not welcome, chanting “Nazis Go Home,” and “show your faces, you fucking cowards,” the Daily Montanan reported.

That is just one of the tactics that organizers of pro-Palestine solidarity protests can use to make clear to neo-Nazis that they are not welcome in that movement, according to Ben Lorber, an extremism expert who is working on a book about antisemitism. “It is vital for Palestine liberation organizers and progressive activists to recognize and counter far-right actors who stand diametrically opposed to the movement’s principles and goals,” Lorber wrote in a recent guide for organizers. 

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