On February 16, 2017 Taher Herzallah, Kareem El-Hosseiny and four other protestors interrupted the Senate foreign committee confirmation hearing of Ambassador David Friedman.
Of the six activists, three were fined the same day while the other three were charged with misdmeanors, including Herzallah and El-Hosseiny. However, when the group appeared to hear their charges on March 1st, the remaining defendant’s charge was swiftly moved to traffic court. By March 28th, it came to light that Herzallah and El-Hosseiny would be offered a plea deal by the prosecution on a criminal charge rather than receiving the same punishment for disruption as their white Jewish counterparts who had been released with a small fine.
While Herzallah and El-Hosseiny at first intended to sign the plea deal, which assigned 32 hours of community service each, along with a four-month ban from Capitol grounds (which may have been waived), they made the decision to reject the plea deal before the judge as a matter of principle. When I caught up with them at the American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) office, I asked: what point did they want to make by rejecting the plea bargain? Why not take the easier route and accept the deal?
“We want to make a statement about the discrepancy in our treatment”, replied Herzallah. “There is no conceivable reason that we should be treated any differently from the other protestors. Is it because we are Arab? Is it because we are Muslim? There has been no clear explanation from the prosecution as to why the discrepancy stands.”
“The red flag was when our other co-defendant’s case was dropped down to traffic court on March 1st”, said El-Hosseiny. “It’s not that we want our Jewish allies to be charged. However, we are making a point not to silently go along with the plea deal offered to us in part because it is only falling onto the two of us. It’s not coincidental that we are the only Arabs in the group of six.”
Herzallah and El-Hosseiny will come before Superior Court judge Marisa Demeo on Thursday, April 20th to hear potential motions regarding their charge of unlawful conduct, subsection “disruption of Congress”. If Demeo decides not to dismiss the charges or if prosecution stands firm, the case could go to a jury trial.
The appointment of David Friedman to the diplomatic post in February came with an array of many other distressing appointments by the new Trump Administration. For Herzallah and El-Hosseiny, it signified a major shift in US policy and cemented Trump’s intentions to make Jerusalem Israel’s permanent capital. The coordination of the protest against Friedman’s confirmation was not only a comment on Friedman himself but also on the pro-settlement and pro-expansionist policies that lay in store under his direction.
“How can Friedman be an arbiter between Israelis and Palestinians when he’s heavily invested in one side?” Herzallah posed. He clarified that, while favorable bias towards Israel does not signify a shift in US policy, Friedman’s history of integral support of settlements is alarming. “Friedman has profiteered off of Israeli settlements for years. He was crucial in the establishment of the settlement of Bet El. He has buildings named after him there.”
“Bet El was built on fraudulent permits” said El-Hosseiny, referring to the settlement which proudly boasts to be the largest Jewish town on the ‘front lines’, located on the outskirts of Ramallah. “Friedman has no qualifications to fill a diplomatic position: he is a bankruptcy lawyer who has personal ties with Trump and he was a leading board member for the organization American Friends of Bet El. He has never held a political position of power. He was certainly chosen to fulfill certain interests”.
Both Herzallah and El-Hosseiny admitted that there aren’t many opportunities to directly oppose high-level appointees like Friedman face to face, especially not for Palestinians. After the protest pictures went public, both men received many calls from family members and friends across the Middle East. In under 24 hours, the story had been plastered in Arabic language newspapers from the UAE to Jordan.
Students at various universities in the region shared a subtitled version of the video at such high rates that it made the translated clip go viral, which was later followed by a one-on-one interview with Herzallah on AlJazeera Arabic.
For Palestinians at home and in the diaspora, the action in Congress took on an important message. “From a Palestinian perspective, there is a big symbolic importance of flying a Palestinian flag in Congress or in the Senate. To see a Palestinian symbol in that setting, it had an emotional impact on people” Herzallah reflected. “Palestinians in the diaspora are often politically disenfranchised but we are fully engaged in our struggle for freedom and we are not letting go”, Herzallah added. Part of that engagement is taking decisive and intentional action when the opportunity arises. It seems too that the reverberations of Friedman’s appointment and grassroots counteraction were not just felt in the Middle East but are representative of the larger shift in the Democratic base.
According to the Brookings Poll on American attitudes on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (October 2016), “the American polarization on how to react to Israeli settlements has expanded over the past two years as 60% of Democrats now support imposing economic sanctions or more serious action”, which is an 11% increase from November 2015. Herzallah and El-Hosseiny maintain that public opinion is changing rapidly and that the Democratic representation must change their language to reflect their base. “It seems that Israel is becoming a partisan issue”, said El-Hosseiny. “We had a lot of good feedback from our protest. Much of the public is confused by the alliance under Trump’s administration between the far-right, many of whom hold anti-Semitic views, and Zionists.” The shift in public perception, as shown in the Brookings Poll, must be examined alongside the recent appointment of Friedman as ambassador.
Fundamentally, both men concluded that they had intentionally first taken a traditional path of advocacy against Friedman’s appointment, such as writing a letter to their congresspersons and/or contacting a local representative. “Disruptions are not the only way we protest but sometimes it is the most strategic tool in our toolbox” said El-Hosseiny. “While we are allowed traditional ways to state our views” Herzallah stated, “we still were not heard. Sometimes the only way to have a voice is by literally speaking out.”
“Would you do it again?” I asked them. They both nodded, “absolutely”.
Thursday, April 20th, a rally will be held outside of the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse, Washington DC in support of Taher Herzallah and Kareem El-Hosseiny. More information can be found on the “Drop the Charges Rally” page.