Student supporters of a ceasefire crash House Judiciary Committee hearing
George Mason University student Bennett Shoop is arrested by Capitol Police at the Nov. 8 hearing of the House Judiciary Committee. | Photo by Tatum Wymer

WASHINGTON—Ten people, mostly university students, were arrested Nov. 8 for bringing the message of “Ceasefire Now!” to a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee.

The hearing was supposedly set to discuss issues of free speech on college campuses and to “examine the rise in anti-Semitism, anti-Israel sentiment, and violence toward students supporting Israel.” However, many witnesses called before the Republican-led committee were actually members of the right-wing Young Americans for Freedom group who spent their time complaining about the alleged targeting of conservative speech on campus.

That bait-and-switch was part of the reason that supporters of a ceasefire said they felt compelled to disrupt the proceedings. Those participating were members of the D.C. Young Communist League and various Students for Justice in Palestine chapters at George Washington University, Howard University, and New York University.

Another demonstrator delivers a message to the GOP-led committee. | Photo by Tatum Wymer

As the first witness began to testify, one of the protesters in the audience stood up, exclaiming, “Silencing Jewish and Arab students for a ceasefire is not about combating anti-Semitism. It’s about covering up opposition to genocide!”

The student was promptly arrested and taken out into the hall to be handcuffed. The witness began again but was interrupted once more by another student, who yelled out, “Congress tried to silence Rashida Tlaib and is trying to silence students who are opposing the genocide of Palestinians and Israeli apartheid.”

She, too, was arrested and removed from the hearing. The cycle repeated several more times, preventing the session from proceeding as planned.

YCL protesters shouted: “When did opposition to genocide become anti-Semitism? 4,000 Gazan children and students are dead. What is your right to speech if all of us are not free.” They declared that the Republicans running the hearing were “not offering a plurality of opinion” but rather blatant “partisanship.”

A total of ten young people were arrested, loaded into a police van, and taken off site. Other students remained in the hearing, wearing tape over their mouths with the word “Gaza” written in red to symbolize the silencing of students who stand in solidarity with dying Palestinians.

In a press release issued following the action, one arrestee, George Mason University student Bennett Shoop of the D.C. YCL said: “Today’s congressional hearing equates pro-Palestine speech to anti-Semitism and wholly ignored reports of rapidly rising Islamophobia and anti-Arab violence across the U.S.”

The YCL said it was “concerning that universities only seem to care about anti-Semitism in relation to criticism of Israel” while ignoring the rise of anti-Semitism that has been fueled by right-wing groups on campuses for years.  regardless of the fact that antisemitism has been on the rise for many years.

Pointing to the exclusion of any anti-Zionist Jewish voices from the witness list, the statement said the hearing was clearly aimed at simply “silencing criticism of Israel and silencing dissent about the U.S.’ role in facilitating and supporting an ongoing genocide” and not about combatting anti-Semitism.

Arrested students are handcuffed before being hauled away. | Photo by Tatum Wymer

Students from SJP chapters argued that the hearing also intentionally excluded Arab and Muslim students.

Inaction contributes to dehumanization

Hafiza Khalique, an activist with New York University SJP said, “Inaction by our universities is contributing to the dehumanization of Palestinians and creating a hostile campus climate that actively harms students.” Sydney Thornton, of Howard University SJP, demanded that “the rights and safety of Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, and other students of color must be protected.”

The protest action occurred in the immediate aftermath of Congress’ silencing of Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian voice in the House, and in response to the recent rise in academic crackdowns on SJP chapters and pro-Palestine speech on campuses around the country.

Last month, George Washington University denounced a student protest which projected statements onto campus buildings, one of which was “Divest from Zionist genocide now,” referring to GW’s refusal to cut ties with weapons companies like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Elbit Systems.

GWU SJP responded with a piece in Mondoweiss explaining their action was in accord with university free speech policies and that calling the protest anti-Semitic was slander. Calls for divestment from Israeli apartheid and for a free Palestine, the group argued, are criticisms of the occupation, not attacks against Jewish people.

The students explained that there have been “dangerous attempts to dox students exercising their right to oppose genocide, calls to expel or deport them, as well as arm” students who support the Israeli government.

Members revealed that in “past weeks GW students perceived to be part of Middle Eastern and Muslim communities have faced physical threats and assaults,” including “young women having their hijabs ripped off…as well as attempts at physical violence.”

The demonstrators who remained in the hearing room covered their mouths with tape bearing the word ‘Gaza,’ symbolizing the silencing of anti-war voices. | Photo by Tatum Wymer

It is something seen at other campuses, too, with Columbia University suspending their chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace for supposedly violating university policies about hosting events on campus, referring to the students holding a “die-in,” characterizing it as “threatening.”

Rising violations of free speech on- and off-campus represent a threat to democracy, especially as they have come in response to the mobilizations of hundreds of thousands across the country taking to the streets to demand an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and an end to the occupation.

The equation of organizing against Israeli government policies with anti-Semitism is a dangerous tactic long relied on by reactionary forces in the U.S., often serving to distract from their own anti-Jewish statements and actions.

The notoriously anti-Semitic Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, for instance, was behind a censure measure against Tlaib for supposed “anti-Semitic activity” when she criticized Israel’s war against the Palestinian people.

With such a context in mind, the students arrested at the House Judiciary Committee hearing made the following four demands of both Congress and universities:

  1. Call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.
  2. Stop suppressing criticism of the Israeli government, equating this criticism with violence, and blaming it for the very real danger of rising anti-Semitism.
  3. Protect Arab, Muslim, anti-Zionist Jewish, and pro-Palestinian voices and students.
  4. End economic investment in and material aid to Israeli apartheid.
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William Foner
William Foner

William Foner is a student activist organizing protests against ongoing genocide in Gaza and in solidarity with Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim communities, and for university divestment from arms dealers.