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‘We will not be complicit in this’: Hill staffers challenge their bosses on Gaza

An underground group calls for a cease-fire and raises money for humanitarian aid

Congressional aides gather on the House steps on Nov. 8 as they unfurl a banner demanding a cease-fire. Now staffers have organized a fundraiser for humanitarian aid.
Congressional aides gather on the House steps on Nov. 8 as they unfurl a banner demanding a cease-fire. Now staffers have organized a fundraiser for humanitarian aid. (Celal Gunes/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Around 75 Capitol Hill staffers, federal workers and activists gathered in a bar last week in the hopes that actions — even symbolic ones — might speak louder than words. Or, perhaps more accurately, silence.

Congressional Staff for a Ceasefire Now, an underground group of Hill aides advocating for a cease-fire in the war between Israel and Hamas, organized a fundraiser to support aid agencies operating in Gaza.

But raising a few thousand dollars wasn’t the real reason why they filled the back room of the Busboys and Poets in Mount Vernon Triangle. The staffers came as a rebuke to their bosses, who they cast as accepting an ongoing genocide by failing to speak out in opposition.

“We have an obligation to stand up and to label ourselves [as congressional staff] and be honest,” said one of the organizers, an aide to a House Democrat, who spoke anonymously out of fear of retaliation. “We will not be complicit in this, and we are determined to make whatever difference we can. And if that means putting our jobs on the line to do so, so be it.”

The fundraiser drew a standing-room-only crowd and follows a vigil the group held on the House steps in November. Using GoFundMe to collect donations, the aides raised $8,060 as of Tuesday morning, which they will send to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Allegations have dogged UNRWA that some employees may have helped Hamas with its surprise attack on Oct. 7 that lit this conflagration, which left roughly 1,200 Israelis dead and more than 240 kidnapped. At least 29,000 Palestinians have been killed as Israel continues its assault on Gaza, according to the territory’s health ministry.

Those claims led many Republicans to call on the U.S. to cut off funds to the relief agency and to launch investigations into its operations, and the Biden administration announced a temporary funding pause in January. The U.S. has been UNRWA’s largest funder since its creation in 1949 and last year committed $371 million to help provide Palestinian refugees with food, health care and education.  

Bill Deere, director of UNRWA’s Washington Representative Office, took to the stage Thursday night at Busboys and Poets. “These are tough times for UNRWA, it’s a tough time for Gazans, a tough time for UNRWA staff — 157 of whom have already lost their lives in this conflict — and as you as Hill staff know, it’s a tough policy environment for UNRWA up here on Capitol Hill,” he said.

When President Joe Biden took office, he reversed a Trump White House decision to cut UNRWA aid. On Friday, House Oversight and Accountability Chairman James R. Comer, R-Ky., announced his committee would investigate that decision.

One aide to a Senate Democrat, who spoke anonymously to avoid retaliation, said she was disappointed that her boss, whom she normally sees eye-to-eye with on issues, hadn’t yet demanded an Israeli cease-fire.

“We, as staff, have been feeling pretty helpless,” she said. “I really love the work I do, which is not foreign policy related, but it has felt morally dissonant to be working in the Senate and be working in my office when there’s been such little action.”

The organizers claimed their ranks included Republicans, but this reporter didn’t manage to come across any of them Thursday night. The crowd was mostly young, sipping on beer or water, and the restaurant’s vegetarian options seemed more popular than the burger. Some wore keffiyehs, others had yarmulkes, and one guy sported a hat that read, “Send Dick Cheney to the Hague.” 

The group has been criticized for taking a quasi-public stance — taking pains to keep its members anonymous for fear of losing their jobs — against their bosses. The job of a staffer, or any federal bureaucrat, is ultimately to implement the will of the elected official they work for; Speaker Mike Johnson notably said federal agency workers who staged a walkout in January should be fired. 

The organizers of the fundraiser disagree. “As staff, we have a responsibility to do what we can to not just push our bosses, to advocate for change inside the halls of power, but also to step up to the plate and organize when they refuse to do so,” said one.

These aren’t the first aides to disagree with their bosses, and they aren’t the first to even take public actions against them — staffers have long attended rallies quietly or donated to causes that run counter to their office’s politics. The difference here is simply that they’re leveraging their proximity to power to garner more attention. Every day, the Hill sees protests, vigils and fundraisers. But when staffers stage a collective action to protest their own employers’ positions, it provides the kind of conflict-driven narrative that journalists find harder to ignore.

There’s no denying that using the “staffer” label is riskier. While the organizers say they’ve heard of staffers being fired for taking pro-cease-fire positions on social media, CQ Roll Call was unable to confirm that.

But Deere, a former Hill staffer himself, acknowledged the gamble the attendees were taking. “It means a great deal to UNRWA and the ICRC to put what I know isn’t an exorbitant salary on the line to help us,” he said. “Thank you very much, it really means a lot.”

There were a few veterans of the peace movement among the 20- and 30-somethings. Retiree Mark Harrison spent two decades directing public policy for the United Methodist Church, working out of the General Board of Church and Society building that sits across the street from both the Capitol and the Supreme Court. He called the staffers’ response unprecedented.

“I’ve never seen staff walk out of their jobs… because they’re so concerned about an issue,” Harrison said. “That says something.”

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