As the death toll climbs from Israel’s attacks on Gaza and the U.S. makes few moves to rein in its closest military ally, one group is saying that it has never felt so invisible.
Muslim and Arab staffers and those whose family come from the region say they are struggling with a gnawing belief that their lives don’t matter to their colleagues. They describe the agony of watching the institution to which they’ve dedicated their career sending military aid amid the killing of thousands of civilians who look like them.
“They have the same faith as us, have the same names as us, a lot of our families live in the region,” one staffer said. “So when we hear that dehumanizing language, it’s dehumanizing us.”
Every day brings some new confirmation that “my life would not matter to this place if I had been born somewhere else,” said another.
Staffers who spoke for this story all requested anonymity because of a pervasive fear of retaliation. They ranged from junior staff to veterans in moderate and progressive offices in the Senate and the House.
A number said they have contemplated quitting. But they questioned who else would speak up for Palestinians as forcefully if they were to leave.
One aide, who broke down in front of their boss, said the congressperson resolved that night to call for a cease-fire. Another described to their boss how frightening it was for their family to visit relatives in the Palestinian territories because of the arbitrariness of the violence there.
“I did it in the hopes it would humanize the issue for him. And I know it reinforced what he was feeling,” the staffer said. Their boss also called for a cease-fire.
They have the same faith as us, have the same names as us … . So when we hear that dehumanizing language, it’s dehumanizing us.
But those members are firmly in the minority. Since the Oct. 7 attack in which Hamas killed an estimated 1,200 in Israel and took nearly 240 hostages, Israel has besieged the Gaza Strip with airstrikes, killing an estimated 11,000 people in Gaza — 4,200 of them children. The magnitude of the retaliatory strikes has caused a surge of outrage in the U.S., and polls have found rising support for an end to the bombing. Still, only two dozen members of Congress have called for a cease-fire.
The Biden administration and most of Congress have rejected cease-fire calls and are instead negotiating to send Israel billions of dollars’ worth of additional military aid.
Staffers say the disregard for Palestinian lives goes deeper.
Some offices have shown little urgency to help U.S. citizens and legal residents trapped in Gaza.
“Not only did those calls come in, we had absolutely zero guidance” to offer them, one aide said. “I read mail from folks who had relatives who were still trapped, and that, as far as I know, was lost in the pipeline, or they received the same generic responses that any constituent got.”
In the days after Hamas’ massacre, as Israel was announcing preparations for an all-out siege, the State Department’s crisis intake form, which is key to keeping track of which U.S. citizens and residents need evacuation or are unaccounted for, lacked the option to request assistance in the Palestinian enclaves of Gaza or the West Bank. A group of congressional staffers raised an alarm, and the State Department eventually updated the form. The department did not respond to a request for comment.
‘Wow, A Lot Is Going On’
In many corners of Capitol Hill, support for Israel is manifesting as a refusal to acknowledge the bloodshed of civilians in the Gaza Strip.
The office of Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) responded to an earnest email calling for an end to the siege on Gaza and the resumption of electricity to its hospitals by equating the writer’s concern for Palestinian deaths with support for Hamas.
“This is in response to your form letter where you take a stance against Israel,” Foxx’s office replied, in a letter shared with HuffPost. “You need the facts because your position is alarming.” Saying her heart aches at the news coming out of Israel (and notably making no mention of Gaza), she continued, “it is unwise to support a regime which destroys its own hospitals during a humanitarian crisis.”
Reached for comment, Foxx’s office asked for the identity of the staffer who shared Foxx’s letter and likened this article to “ghostwriting for Hamas.”
The office of Hakeem Jeffries, the House minority leader, helped organize special transportation for members of Congress to attend Tuesday’s March for Israel on the National Mall. A spokesperson for Jeffries’ office said the Sergeant at Arms’ office suggested group transportation for security reasons because so many members planned to attend — but to many staffers, the unusual arrangements gave the event the imprimatur of a high-level function, like a state funeral.
At the rally, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) pledged “all the assistance you need” while House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) set off a chant of “no cease-fire” among the crowd.
Meanwhile, discussions of the human toll in Gaza are taking place in hushed voices or not at all. One staffer said her office ignored the siege until calls began pouring in from angry constituents. “Now they’ll say, ‘Wow, a lot is going on’ — but no one wants to say what is going on.”
Several offices have been warned not to contradict their boss’s position in any public forum. Even the more supportive offices, others said, are fearful of the backlash if a staffer were identified at a pro-Palestinian rally. Some senior aides discouraged staff from joining a recent walkout on the House steps and warned that they should wear a mask if they feel they have to protest.
We just want to be included in the empathy.…Even if you just add ‘and Palestinian lives’ and you don’t mean it. This is a place of performances. We do that all the time.
But tiptoeing around the subject of mass death is becoming unbearable.
Last week, congressional leadership held a bipartisan candlelight vigil on the House steps to honor the victims of Hamas’ attack one month earlier. A Muslim aide recalled her disbelief when she realized the invitation made no mention of the lives lost among Palestinians. A day before the vigil, the estimated death toll in Gaza exceeded 10,000, and the United Nations secretary general warned that Gaza was becoming a “graveyard for children.”
The staffer said she left her desk and sobbed in the stairwell of the Rayburn House Office Building. She said she had never felt so invisible.
“Mourn Israeli lives, release the hostages ― I agree with all of that. We just want to be included in the empathy,” she said. “Even if you truly don’t care. Even if you just add ‘and Palestinian lives’ and you don’t mean it. This is a place of performances. We do that all the time.”
Others have similarly said that the lack of even empty gestures is crushing.
After Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) compared “the idea of innocent Palestinian civilians” to “throw[ing] around the term ‘innocent Nazi civilians’ during World War II,” all but ahandfulofHouse members were silent. Democrats later abandoned an attempt to censure him.
“You would at least expect statements, which are empty and don’t have any action behind them, that recognize the value of human life, but we don’t even have that,” an aide said. “And that’s devastating.”
‘I Feel Betrayed By This Country’
The feeling of walking the hallways and seeing no recognition for the lives being lost is alien, one congressional staffer said. Her colleagues are planning their office holiday party while her social media feeds are flooded with photos of suffering and destruction, and her group chats are vibrating with grief.
“Several of the children who have died have not only looked like me or my siblings but bore my name,” said a staffer whose boss is avoiding any discussion of civilian deaths in Gaza. “When you are a Hill staffer working with the folks who have the power and the authority to change these outcomes and they choose not to, and choose not to even have the conversation, it frankly doesn’t get more scary than that.”
Lately, he said, he’s found it difficult to look his lawmaker in the eye.
“Literally you have people working in this building who know people who have died because of the policies this institution is supporting,” another staffer added. Last month, an Israeli bombardment destroyed the home of their mutual friend. She survived but lay trapped beneath her mother’s body for hours.
“As soon as I go in, I plaster a smile onto my face, and I’m nice and really friendly all day,” the staffer said. “But inside I feel like I’m being torn apart. I cannot wait to leave every day.”
Plenty are contemplating whether to leave Capitol Hill for good.
Those who work for the Democratic caucus have grown rapidly disillusioned with its claims to be the party of inclusion.
Unlike in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, one noted, there are a significant number of Muslim and Arab staffers on the Hill with foreign policy expertise and lived experience with the “war on terror.”They have strategic advice and warnings to offer. But any debate is so stifled that they have few opportunities.
“We can’t even start a conversation about whether what’s going on in Palestine is in our national interest,” this staffer said. “We’re finding that you can come to the table with every possible qualification, but just by coming to the table as a Muslim American, your opinion will be cast aside as ‘biased.’”
Another questioned “why we’re even here.”
“What’s the point of having Muslims on the Hill if we’re not even being asked our opinions or being given a little bit of space to share without doxxing, without being labeled pro-terrorist?” she asked. “All we’re expected to do is come in and blend in.”
For many, their colleagues’ apathy evokes a bitter question.
“At the end of the day, do they really think my life matters?” one staffer asked.
Recently, one staffer realized they’re not sure if they can bring themselves to volunteer for Joe Biden’s reelection campaign — or even, despite building a whole career in Democratic politics, continue to call themselves a Democrat.
But after Biden cast doubt on the number of Palestinians who had died so far in the siege, the staffer realized they couldn’t vote for him.
“I feel disgusted, abandoned, and, more than anything, I feel betrayed by this country,” the staffer said. They plan to write in the name of someone who was killed instead. “My vote has already been cast.”
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