Ahead of White House Hanukkah Celebration, a Wave of Faith-Led Cease-Fire Demonstrations - Word&Way

Ahead of White House Hanukkah Celebration, a Wave of Faith-Led Cease-Fire Demonstrations

WASHINGTON (RNS) — The nation’s capital played host to another wave of faith-led protests on Monday calling for a cease-fire in Gaza, hours before the White House’s scheduled Hanukkah celebration.

One of the more dramatic demonstrations took place around midday, when a group of 18 older Jewish women affiliated with the activist organization Jewish Voice for Peace chained themselves to the White House’s fence and unfurled a banner calling on President Biden to “stop the genocide, ceasefire now!”

Calling themselves “elders,” the activists noted the ongoing Jewish holiday as they demonstrated, shouting, “No Hanukkah to celebrate, cease-fire cannot wait!”

A group of Jewish women chain themselves to the fence in front of the White House and call for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war, Monday, Dec. 11, 2023, in Washington. The Jewish Voice for Peace affiliated activists timed their protest with the White House Hanukkah celebration, which also occurs Monday. (RNS photo/Jack Jenkins)

The White House Hanukkah celebration, scheduled for Monday evening around 7:00 p.m., is slated to feature appearances from Biden as well as second gentleman Douglas Emhoff, who is Jewish. Emhoff is expected to help light menorah candles with descendants of Holocaust survivors.

In an interview with Religion News Service, Esther Farmer, a JVP spokesperson, said the group chose to protest today to “be here at Hanukkah to let some light into this, because this is a really dark thing that’s happening.”

Demonstrators also read the names of Palestinians killed during Israel’s ongoing assault into Gaza, which resumed this month after a roughly weeklong pause. The military advance followed the Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel by Hamas that killed 1,200 people and resulted in hundreds more kidnapped. Activists in the U.S. and elsewhere, however, have expressed outrage at the scale of Israel’s response, with at least 17,700 Palestinians killed during the Israeli operation, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. In addition, the United Nations estimates 85% of the region’s 2 million residents have been displaced in what human rights advocates warn is a spiraling humanitarian crisis.

Shortly after the demonstration began, police cleared the area in front of the White House. Officers then began slowly arresting all 18 participants, leading them away one by one after shearing them loose from the fence using bolt cutters.

As they departed, the group — as well as a small band of supporters nearby — chanted, “Biden, Biden, pick a side, cease-fire, not genocide!”

The protest comes ahead of a larger event planned for later in the evening, when hundreds are expected to participate in a “Chanukah for Ceasefire” service outside the White House at the same time officials are celebrating the Jewish holiday inside.

“We are Jews calling for a cease-fire because we believe in the equal sacredness of all human life,” Eva Borgwardt, a spokesperson for If Not Now, a Jewish activist group organizing the event alongside Jewish Voice for Peace, told RNS. “The only way to secure that is through a cease-fire, a de-escalation, a hostage exchange, and an actual political solution that will secure freedom and safety and a thriving future for all.”

In addition to Jewish voices, the event is expected to include speeches from lawmakers such as Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri, a Christian and former pastor, who introduced legislation last month calling for a cease-fire.

Borgwardt argued there was a “clear divide” between the dueling Hanukkah events.

“While we are honoring the sacredness of every single human life, President Biden, as well as many members of Congress, are pushing for billions of dollars in unconditional weapons funding for Israel to continue committing war crimes against Palestinians in Gaza,” Borgwardt said.

Both demonstrations come on the heels of a separate cease-fire protest that took place at the Hart Senate Building on Capitol Hill earlier Monday morning. There, police arrested 49 people who held a banner that read “Aid to Israel = bombing Palestinians,” as they stood around what appeared to be bags of fake money splattered with red paint. One of the participants also scaled a sculpture in the building’s lobby before eventually climbing down, where officers arrested the protester, according to NBC News.

Yet another cease-fire-themed event is scheduled for Monday evening, when a group of Christians plan to host a prayer service at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in downtown Washington before leading a prayer walk over to the White House.

“We grieve and stand in solidarity with Christians in Bethlehem and the Middle East who will worship Jesus but not have Christmas celebrations this year,” the Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon, head of Churches for Middle East Peace, said in a statement. “We remain steadfast in our call for a comprehensive ceasefire and an end to all violence.”

The event is sponsored by an array of Christian denominations and groups, including the CMEP, the American Baptist Churches USA, American Friends Service Committee, Church of the Brethren Office of Peacebuilding, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Franciscan Action Network, Global Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church (USA), Progressive National Baptist Convention Inc., Sojourners and the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society.

In statements, multiple participants in Monday’s planned Christmas vigil referenced that Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, which is in the occupied West Bank, have been largely canceled in solidarity with those killed in Gaza. A delegation of Christian leaders from the city visited Washington last month, where they met with White House staff and members of Congress and presented them with a letter signed by Bethlehem churches calling for a cease-fire.

But at a vigil in November, convened at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church just two blocks from the U.S. Capitol, the Rev. Munther Isaac, a member of the delegation and a pastor of Bethlehem’s Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, suggested their group struggled to rally policymakers — including Biden, who is Catholic, and members of Congress, who are overwhelmingly Christian — behind their cause.

The Rev. Munther Isaac, pastor of Bethlehem’s Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, addresses a vigil at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. (RNS photo/Jack Jenkins)

The Rev. Munther Isaac, pastor of Bethlehem’s Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, addresses a vigil at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. (RNS photo/Jack Jenkins)

“We had meetings at the Hill and the White House, and it feels like speaking to a judge who neither fears God nor has respect for people,” Isaac said, referencing the Gospel of Luke.

A White House National Security Council spokesperson told RNS their staff “valued the opportunity to meet with the group of Palestinian Christian leaders and to hear directly from them their perspectives on the current crisis.” The spokesperson added that officials conveyed to the faith leaders how the Biden administration backed the deal that led to the recent humanitarian pause, which allowed for the release of hostages and flow of aid into Gaza.

Even so, Isaac’s frustration was still evident on Sunday. In a post published on X, the pastor and theologian referenced last week’s United Nations Security Council vote on a proposal to demand an immediate humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza. Thirteen of the 15 council members voted in favor, while the United Kingdom abstained. The United States cast the lone “no” vote.

“I was asked today by a journalist if we received a response from the white house to the letter we sent from the churches in Bethlehem asking for a ceasefire,” Isaac wrote in his post. “I answered that the response was the veto vote in the UN. They celebrate Christmas in their land, and wage war in our land.”