Inside this week's mass arrests of pro-Palestinian Jewish activists at the US Capitol

Inside this week's mass arrests of pro-Palestinian Jewish activists at the US Capitol
"I have extended family that was killed in the Holocaust. We were taking action in the halls of Congress that we wish others had done for us. We know from past genocides that we have to take action."
5 min read
Washington, D.C.
20 October, 2023
Jewish activists congregating in the US Capitol prior to their arrests. [Photo courtesy of Jewish Voice for Peace]

When 500 Jewish activists walked into the US Capitol rotunda on Wednesday, 18 October, including Jay Saper with Jewish Voice for Peace, they did so knowing they would soon be arrested. 

They thought it was important for them, as Jews, to speak out about Israel's military assault on Gaza, as politicians invoke the name of their faith when declaring their unconditional support for Israel.

"What we did was we showed to the entire world that there are Jews who want a ceasefire," Saper told The New Arab hours after being released from jail.

"We want to make it clear that we, as Jews, are opposed to Islamophobia and that we support justice for Palestinians. It's been so hurtful to see Congress use dehumanising language to discuss Palestinians, leading to an uptick in violence. Politicians are contributing to a hostile climate," said Saper.

"We have to come together to do everything we can to stop genocide from happening in real-time."

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After helping lead a march of 10,000 Jews and others from the National Mall to Congress, estimated to be the largest ever Jewish-led demonstration in solidarity with Palestinians, the break-away group of 500 walked into the rotunda of the Capitol, a public building, wearing suits as though they were lobbyists. 

Once inside, they all removed their dress shirts and showed their T-shirts that read: "Not in Our Name" on the front and "Jews say cease-fire now" on the back. 

They assembled in the rotunda, with most on the ground floor and some on the balcony overlooking the crowd, singing and chanting.

From New York to Washington

It was a plan only days in the making, but one they were determined to go through with, as they didn't want to let more time go by without speaking up amid the rapidly changing developments on the ground in Israel and Gaza, with the Palestinian enclave's quickly dwindling resources and threats of a ground war. 

Last Friday, Saper, who lives in New York, was part of a group of protesters arrested in front of the home of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer prior to his trip to Israel.

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After the activists in New York were released from jail the next morning, they began planning their trip to Washington, DC, chartering buses to bring demonstrators from different states to the nation's capital. The demonstration on Monday in front of the White House saw more arrests, giving them more publicity for Wednesday's march to Congress.

"We needed to come to DC. It's here where Congress sends $3.8 billion to Israel each year. Nothing that Israel is doing is possible without US complicity and US moral cover," Saper said.

In the rotunda, the activists, which included rabbis from out of town, many wearing traditional Jewish garb, linked arms, chanted and sang. Determined to give a voice to Gazans, they read testimonies from Gaza.

A spontaneous demonstrator joins the movement

While Saper and others from progressive Jewish groups had expected to get arrested, there was at least one person, a congressional staffer who happened to be at work at the time, who spontaneously decided to join in the protest. 

"I came back to the office, and I heard they were in the rotunda. I felt so moved by their action that I joined them," Philip Bennett, director of operations for Congresswoman Summer Lee of Pennsylvania, told TNA the day after the demonstration after being released from jail.

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"It was really powerful. I didn't have any plan. I was arrested with all of them. I was in my work clothes. They were wearing matching T-shirts," said Bennett, who says he grew up Jewish in a household that supported US policy in Israel. 

"This whole week, I feel like Capitol Hill makes you feel insane for wanting to do the right thing," he said. But, once he was at the demonstration, he said, "I felt seen, at peace and validated."

He added, "I think everyone underestimated how rapidly the politics of this issue is changing."

Getting arrested

The arrests came in slow waves, as it took some time for the police to handcuff all of the demonstrators in the rotunda. Saper was doing a live interview with Al-Jazeera shortly before getting handcuffed.

The detainees were taken on buses to a facility that resembled a large garage, where they were held overnight. They were separated from their belongings, leaving them without the snacks they'd brought. Eventually, they were offered bologna sandwiches, which as pork went against the Jews' dietary restrictions. After negotiating with the officers, they were allowed to access their own food that they'd brought.

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The detainees recall the atmosphere in the jail as uncomfortable but uplifting, as they did what they could to support one another, with rabbis reciting prayers to commemorate the moment.

"It was one of the most deeply moving experiences of my life, and I was really moved to tears to witness the phenomenal dedication of so many people coming here to the halls of Congress putting their bodies on the line," said Saper.

"I have extended family that was killed in the Holocaust. We were taking action in the halls of Congress that we wish others had done for us. We know from past genocides that we have to take action."