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AU community shows support for Aaron Bushnell at candlelight vigil outside Israeli Embassy

Attendees gather in support after death of U.S. airman

Members of the American University community showed up in support of a vigil outside of the Israeli Embassy on Feb. 26 in commemoration of Aaron Bushnell, a member of the United States Air Force who filmed his self-immolation in protest of civilian deaths in Gaza, which has topped 30,000 since Oct. 7. 

The vigil was hosted by CODEPINK and included speakers from Neturei Karta International, a naval officer and local Palestinian demonstration organizers. The vigil drew a large crowd of supporters writing their condolences and wishes on a banner laid across the ground surrounded by lit candles and flowers.

israel embassy banner signing pic

Eventually, the vigil shifted to a protest that included chants in response to the Secret Service pushing attendees and pleas from organizers to maintain calm while mourning Bushnell. Some vigil organizers went on to burn an Israeli flag as a way of honoring Bushnell after his death the previous night.

israel embassy protest flag burning pic

Max Hawla, an American University alumnus who graduated in 2017 from the School of International Service, told The Eagle at the vigil that he wished to express his condolences to the “fallen comrade” and hoped that a ceasefire would be made possible along with other demands.

“People are, to put it in simple terms, waking up to what this occupation is and I think we just need to keep applying pressure so that more and more people realize how messed up it is,” Hawla said.

Hawla said he was disappointed in “AU’s complicity in silencing protesters on campus” and felt embarrassed to be associated with the University.

The Office of University Communications and Marketing declined to comment due to the vigil being an off-campus event. AU implemented a policy banning indoor protests in January and since then has responded to protests on campus by saying the University is committed to supporting all students.

Julia Rusnak, who graduated in December 2022 from the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Public Affairs, said she is an American Jew who wishes to support the protests for peace, especially in connection to Bushnell’s protest.

“I just felt a sort of kinship to him,” Rusnak said, adding that she felt a “kinship to everyone who's being killed in Israel right now and in Palestine.”

In connection with Hawla, Rusnak said that the University and President Sylvia Burwell are complicit in the restrictions on campus protests and it is “pretty absurd for a university that says that ‘change can't wait.’”

Aubrey Hill, the systems administrator at the AU Career Center, said she was at the vigil to support Bushnell’s actions and stand with others in what she believed to be a crucial point in changing how media covers the high toll of Palestinian deaths in Gaza.

“It is sad and horrifying to contemplate what he actually went through, but it can’t be an action that was wasted,” said Hill. “It has to mean something and so I am here because I want to help ensure that it means something.”

Hill also shared concerns about the AU administration’s response to supporting students on campus. She said the AU administration only supports students who support Zionism.

“The administration has claimed that they are supporting Jewish students broadly, but not all Jewish students are Zionists and not all Zionists are Jewish,” Hill said.

Hill said that she and other staff members have taken risks to support students who are not receiving it from the administration as those students need “very serious” support in light of what is happening.

“Anyone on campus, regardless of their identity, who is horrified by what’s happening in Gaza has not gotten overt administrative support,” Hill said.

Eleanor Sciannella, a financial aid counselor, attended the vigil and said that her concern with the administration’s response is a lack of transparency on how the new policies are being implemented.

“How I see this show up in my work is the lack of transparency about why these administrative decisions are made, who they're made for and the fact that administration can’t answer to students on those questions is a humongous problem,” Sciannella said. 

Sciannella said that the University exists for students and therefore it should be held accountable for the feedback and concerns that students have with decisions made.

At the vigil, Sciannella said she felt encouraged, seeing all of the people come together to honor Bushnell’s sacrifice.

“It’s important to take time to honor people who have made actions for the sadness that we feel at the continued genocide of the Palestinian people,” Sciannella said. “It’s brought home in moments like this.”

This article was edited by Abigail Hatting, Zoe Bell, Abigail Turner and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Luna Jinks, Isabelle Kravis, Ariana Kavoossi and Romy Hermans.

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