Editor’s Note: This story contains references to mass violence. This story was updated after an email to the AU community from administrators addressed protest policies on Thursday.
Students for Justice in Palestine staged a “die-in” outside the University’s annual holiday party in the Constitution Hall event space on Wednesday, during which they lay on the ground to represent Palestinian deaths in Gaza in the ongoing Israel-Hamas war and demanded the University support Palestinian students.
Later at the event, demonstrators rallied around the doors to the party chanting, “Burwell, Burwell, you can’t hide, you’re complicit in genocide.”
In January 2021, Wesley Bush was appointed to the University’s Board of Trustees after serving as the chairman and chief executive of Northrop Grumman, one of the world’s largest weapons manufacturers and military technology providers, until 2019. According to the American Friends Service Committee, Northrop Grumman manufactures multiple weapons systems used by the Israeli military.
In a statement to The Eagle, SJP wrote, “We are staging a die-in today to show President [Sylvia] Burwell that our voices matter on campus and we will not be silent until Palestine is free. She refuses to make a statement on the genocide that is happening in Gaza right now.”
Demonstrators expressed dissatisfaction with the University’s lack of support for Palestinian students and community members.
“[Burwell] has failed to acknowledge the fear and hurt that is coming from Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, and anti-Zionist students on campus and the harassment we are facing,” the statement said. “She is holding a celebratory event while a genocide is happening before our very eyes, while using AU’s money to invest in it.”
Burwell sent an email to the AU community on Oct. 9 to address Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks in Israel, as well as the resulting Israeli invasion of Gaza, and offered her support to the AU community. On Oct. 12, she sent another email explicitly addressing Hamas’ attack and offered her support for the Jewish community. She has since made statements condemning antisemitism and Islamophobia on campus following antisemitic vandalism and a threatening anti-Palestinian note found on campus. Burwell has not explicitly condemned the mass deaths of Palestinians, except those immediately following the Hamas attack.
Lana Barham, a member of SJP and sophomore in the School of International Service, said Burwell’s actions thus far have been insufficient to protect Palestinian students.
“She’s complicit in the harassment and threats we all face because she sets a standard, and she sets a standard of not protecting Palestinian students,” Barham said.
When The Eagle approached Burwell for a comment, she said "this is our holiday gathering and I'm sure you can appreciate that," and declined to comment further. The University declined to give a statement.
Demonstrators pointed out that Jesus’ birthplace of Bethlehem — located in the West Bank — has canceled Christmas festivities this year as Palestinian Christians show solidarity for the people of Gaza.
“So for [Burwell] to continue these celebrations without acknowledging her Palestinian students and allies is just unacceptable,” Barham said.
“You hear all these numbers, but you don’t really,” Barham said regarding the roughly 18,000 people killed in Israeli attacks on Gaza. “You can’t really conceptualize it when people are being just framed as numbers, so when you see us laying on the ground, and you see us dying-in, it’s to also symbolize our martyrs that are people who have also died and been killed.”
A number of faculty members joined students to demonstrate outside of the party.
Mariam Durrani, a professorial lecturer in SIS, said she was there “specifically for the students.” She said she wanted to end the semester in solidarity with groups who advocate for Palestine on campus.
“The students have actually been experiencing various kinds of targeting for their protesting over the semester,” Durrani said. “I want them to know that there are faculty here who see what they’ve been going through and support them and show our faces.”
Durrani referenced a letter calling for a ceasefire that was signed by 39 SIS faculty members as of Nov. 22. Durrani said she feels like the community has been speaking up and is waiting for Burwell to respond.
A number of University staff and faculty attending the holiday party told The Eagle that they were unaware of the demonstration prior to arriving at the event.
The party featured holiday music, refreshments and a food drive for The Market. As demonstrators blocked one of two entrances, guests were encouraged to enter the building from the farmost door.
Jeremy Lowe, the assistant vice provost for undergraduate admissions, said he had not been over to see the demonstrators since arriving at the party.
“I don’t know their message directly,” Lowe said. “But [I’m] just trying to enjoy the party.”
Christopher LaPlaca, the University’s pest services coordinator, said of the demonstration: “I don’t think it’s getting the message across. I think it’s ridiculous.”
David Vine, a professor of anthropology who demonstrated outside the party, said Burwell and the University administration have been “profoundly disappointing in not speaking out against the war on Gaza and in Palestine.”
“I hope they, again, choose to speak publicly and call for a ceasefire,” Vine said. “I think that would be an important and brave statement for President Burwell to make in her last months in office.”
Vine also expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of support Burwell has offered to Palestinian students.
“I can say as a Jewish faculty member, I’ve been profoundly disappointed that President Burwell has seemingly almost gone out of her way to be intentionally cruel, to not show the same empathy and compassion to Palestinian students, Palestinian Americans, Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, as she has been with Jewish students,” he said.
Vine said the support Burwell has offered Jewish students is “absolutely appropriate and helpful.” But, he said, it is “profoundly disappointing that she has been very selective in the compassion and empathy that she has expressed publicly.”
On Thursday following the protest Raymond Ou, vice president of student affairs, Dayne Hutchinson, assistant vice president for student engagement and services, and Jeff Brown, interim assistant vice president of student affairs sent an email providing additional guidance for on-campus protests. The email said that “community members expressing their views through protest is an element of freedom of expression,” and that protesters must adhere to University policy.
The email outlined policies that protests must not disrupt or interfere with University operations and events or with pedestrian and vehicular traffic. It emphasized that “protests that enter university buildings may be directed outside to prevent disruption of classes, exams or other university functions,” and warned that substantially disruptive behavior that violates the Freedom of Expression and Expressive Conduct policy and the Student Conduct Code is actionable.
The email said that the University had received questions about the policy and gave examples of protest activities that would violate it, including “amplified noise, physically striking a building, window, or door; interference with the program of a university event; and disregarding instructions from university officials about conduct occurring within the protest.”
Editor’s Note: The Eagle refers to the Israel-Hamas war in accordance with the Associated Press. For more information on how we cover global conflict, see our ethics code and this letter from the editor.
Correction: A previous version of this article used the word 'murder' without a specifying a perpetrator, which left too much room for confusion. The article has been updated with the word 'deaths.'
This article was edited by Tyler Davis, Kate Corliss, Zoe Bell and Jordan Young. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis and Luna Jinks.