From the Newsletter | A Visit to the GW Protest Encampment

By | May 02, 2024
From the Newsletter
image shows a black and white blurred train station with people walking through it. The words Moment Minute and the outline of a clock overlay the train station image.

I visited the student encampment at George Washington University on Friday. And like many who’ve been reporting on the pro-Palestinian campus demonstrations, I encountered a swirl—of inspired moral action for Palestinian lives, some antagonistic messaging and tone, some Jewish students exhibiting unapologetic pride and others reporting overt hostility, as well as pro-Palestinian demonstrators, Jews among them, with very focused demands but who continue to use variously interpreted messages while insisting the really ugly stuff is coming from elsewhere.

I tried to talk to students within the encampment, but they weren’t giving interviews. Their tents occupied University Yard, a small parklike space with brick walkways and flowering bushes on the short, tree-lined section of H Street between 20th and 21st streets. While GW is a private university, it has an open, urban campus in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of DC, mere blocks from the White House. A tall statue of George Washington sits in the middle of University Yard. On Friday, he was surrounded by tents and draped in a Palestinian flag, with a black-and-white keffiyeh wrapped around his neck.

GW statueOn the other side of the metal barriers surrounding the yard (which have since been taken down by protesters and stacked inside the encampment), I estimate several hundred people occupied the sidewalk and street, which was closed to traffic with police cars stationed on either end. Messages were artfully chalked in different colors on the ground: “Hands Off Our Students,” “Fund UNRWA USA,” “My Tuition Should Not Kill Children,” “Long Live Gaza” and “AU funds Genocide.” (Students from nearby American University and Georgetown have attended the GW protest.) Standing in front of a large banner declaring “Zionism=Fascism/Colonizers Out of DC,” speakers took turns with a megaphone. “If we have any kind of allegiance to anything, it’s not Israel,” a young woman who identified herself as a proud anti-Zionist Jew said to the crowd. “It’s to not let what happened to us happen to others. Not in our [f-ing] name. Free Palestine.”

Regardless of who broadcasts such overtly antisemitic messages, Jewish students feel threatened by them.

Others reiterated their demands, which include disclosing the university’s investments, divesting from any linked to Israel and terminating partnerships with Israeli universities. “Because Israel engaged in scholasticide,” a protester named Yasin Shami told me, explaining he was referring to university campuses leveled in Gaza.

Shami is a member of the DC chapter of the Palestinian Youth Movement but not a GW student. Wearing a neon safety vest, he was acting as a kind of buffer between students in the encampment and visitors. (There was a strong and savvy coordinational aspect to all this, no doubt shared by the Columbia University encampment). I asked him about the image circulating earlier in the day of a man who was there with a poster featuring the Palestinian flag and the words “FINAL SOLUTION.”

“It’s so outlandish to say we want Jews gone, I can barely even comment,” he said, referring repeatedly to his “Jewish comrades.” “We don’t want supremacy. One state equals rights for all…refugees have the right to return.” And yet someone had been carrying that sign. Shami didn’t know who it could have been but mentioned he’d heard something about a shady group that purportedly pays people to show up at demonstrations with antisemitic messages.

Regardless of who broadcasts such overtly antisemitic messages, Jewish students feel threatened by them. “It feels personal,” GW student Skyler Sieradsky told me. Standing across the street from the encampment on an elevated concrete block and holding a large Israeli flag, Sieradsky was the only Jewish student I spoke to who was willing to be named. She has a lot of sympathy for Gazans and also has extended family in Israel. Some of the signs she’s seen on campus and the calls she’s heard, such as “Death to the Jewish state,” have made her feel unsafe. “Where are we supposed to go?” she asked rhetorically. Adding that she’d recently been spit at and has heard fellow students talking about her, Sieradsky acknowledged that she could easily avoid these protests but felt it was important to show up. “We won’t be scared off,” she said.

GW student Skyler Sieradsky

GW student Skyler Sieradsky

Civil rights activist and Holocaust survivor Marione Ingram, age 88, and her husband Daniel, 93, moved through the crowd, garnering attention for their matching silver hair and long black coats decorated with antiwar buttons. The brim of Daniel’s fedora was festooned with small wild flowers and Marione wore a sign around her neck that read “Holocaust Survivor Says Peace Not Wars in Our Name.” Marione and Daniel have been demonstrating for a cease-fire in Gaza in front of the White House every day since the war began. She survived the Allied bombing of Hamburg in 1943 and talks about the traumatic impact for children who survive bombing campaigns like the one Israel has waged in Gaza.

I asked her about Jewish students at GW and other U.S. colleges who say they’re scared by the demonstrations and anti-Israel attitudes exhibited there. “I think it’s exaggerated fear,” she said. Was it legitimate to be fearful of chants like “Death to Israel”? I asked. “Hotheads are part of all movements,” she said dismissively, adding that what scares her is the killing of human beings.

Protesters have accused the media of zeroing in on the worst expressions of antisemitism at campus demonstrations calling for a cease-fire in Gaza and for Palestinian liberation. And I certainly felt some frustration from people over my questions about Jewish students’ fears.

Something else I’ve noticed is how COVID habituated us to wearing masks, which are now worn tactically by demonstrators to protect their identity from doxxers. But this also allows people to say and do things they probably wouldn’t otherwise (similar to how people hide behind anonymous usernames and spew vile ideas online). No doubt we’ve all seen videos of this stuff in the past week.

It all feels very important and simultaneously exasperating and hard to navigate. And in moments of oversaturation, I admit I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing. Yesterday I shared some of this with a friend who brashly ribbed me: “Looks like you picked the wrong time to be working at a Jewish magazine.” And I thought to myself, if I want to embrace the opposite—for my work to reflect that this is precisely the right time to be working at a Jewish magazine—what would that look like? What is my job here?

Daniel and Marione Ingram

Daniel and Marione Ingram

Everyone I approached at the demonstration asked what media outlet I was with. When I answered, quickly describing Moment as “a DC magazine founded by Elie Wiesel in 1975” I saw a sense of relief on the faces of several Jewish students and appreciative nods from an Israeli mother and her adult daughters (who were there in support of the encampment). Marione Ingram recognized the magazine (I discovered later that she wrote a memoir piece for us in 2015) and was pleased to learn that it is independent and committed to covering the full spectrum of the Jewish experience. Among those out on a temperate spring afternoon exercising their right to peaceably assemble—whether Jewish or not, pro-Palestine or pro-Israel, pro-peace or ready for war—I’d like to think that those who heard the name Moment had the sense that their presence mattered and that their perspectives were heard amid the challenging and confounding swirl.

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