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By Ella Mitchell, Contributing News Editor • June 14, 2024

Students project anti-Israel, anti-GW messages onto library, sparking outcry

Daniel Heuer | Photographer
Students project a message onto Gelman Library.

Updated: Oct. 30, 2023, at 12:11 a.m.

A group of students sparked outcry Tuesday night after they projected messages criticizing Israel, GW and University President Ellen Granberg onto Gelman Library before officials told the group to take down the demonstration.

University officials and two GW Police Department officers instructed four student demonstrators from Students for Justice in Palestine to stop projecting phrases protesting the Israel-Hamas war, including “End the siege on Gaza” and “GW the blood of Palestine is on your hands.” The protesters, whose demonstration gained significant attention online from major groups and figures accusing the students of antisemitism, left after a tense conversation with an officer.

The group of four sat on the ground in Kogan Plaza and used a slideshow to project the messages onto the eastern wall of the library. A GWPD officer on scene said Dean of Students Colette Coleman advised officials to stop the demonstration.

The SJP demonstrators projected about 10 statements for more than two hours, including “GW is complicit in genocide in Gaza,” “Your tuition is funding genocide in Gaza” and “President Granberg is complicit in genocide in Gaza.” 

University spokesperson Josh Grossman deferred to a Wednesday statement from officials that confirmed GW intervened in the demonstration to remove the projections. The statement said the projections were “unauthorized,” in violation of GW policy and did not reflect the views of the University.

It also states Granberg will communicate with community members about the demonstration. Officials are reviewing the incident and will take “appropriate steps” in response, per the release.

“We recognize the distress, hurt, and pain this has caused for many members of our community,” the statement reads. “The University will continue to communicate with all members of its community about support resources available during this difficult time.”

Some Jewish students said the demonstration made them feel unsafe on campus and some Jewish groups called on GW and Granberg to disavow the messages.

Another projection read, “Divestment from Zionist genocide now.” A representative for SJP, who asked to speak under the condition of anonymity because of threats of doxxing and harassment, said the messaging called for an end to GW’s funding and profits from weapons companies and defense contractors that supply arms to Israel.

The projections come after Granberg’s statement earlier this month that condemned any “celebration of terrorism” on campus. The statement followed a student vigil for Palestinians killed in the Israel-Hamas conflict hosted by SJP where demonstrators chanted sentiments that some view as antisemitic. Granberg’s message drew sharp criticism from SJP, which posted a 10-slide statement to their Instagram repudiating her condemnation.

Chants from the SJP vigil earlier this month included “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which many Palestinians view as a call for independence but that some Israeli and Jewish people consider an antisemitic call for the elimination of the Israeli state. Demonstrators projected “Free Palestine from the river to the sea” onto the wall of the library Tuesday night.

Other statements projected onto the building included “Glory to our martyrs,” a phrase demonstrators said honors any Palestinian killed by Israelis. Some argue the phrase wrongfully honors Hamas militants, a group the U.S. and European Union consider a terrorist organization.

“2,000 Palestinian children were murdered by ‘Israel’ in the last two weeks,” another statement reads. Israeli strikes in the Gaza Strip have killed more than 5,000 people, including 2,000 children. The strikes came in response to Hamas killing about 1,400 people and taking more than 200 hostages during their surprise attack on Israel earlier this month.

On Tuesday, the United Nations’ secretary general called for a cease-fire, claiming Israel’s counterattack and subsequent blockade on Gaza is a “collective punishment of Palestinian people” that violates international law. Israeli officials staunchly criticized the remarks, taking issue with his assertion that “the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum.”

More than an hour after the display began at about 8 p.m., about 60 students, many of them counterdemonstrators, gathered in Kogan Plaza as police asked the four students to take the projections down. 

Daniel Heuer

The officer told protesters the University’s private status meant officials could bar the group from displaying messages on the library, the namesakes of which — Melvin and Estelle Gelman — were prominent figures in D.C.’s Jewish community. Estelle Gelman served on the boards of several Jewish nonprofit organizations while Melvin endowed a chair of Judaic studies at GW.

The representative of SJP said a GWPD officer initially said the demonstration was compliant with the law and GW policy but later returned and said Coleman ordered the demonstration to shut down.

The representative said the group worked to make the display compliant with GW policy but felt the University has repressed SJP’s actions regardless of whether their demonstrations follow policy.

“I feel very frustrated with how the University has responded,” the representative said. “They have consistently shown that they do not respect our lives. They do not respect our right to free speech. They do not respect our right to organize against the ongoing genocide that is happening to our people.”

The officer told the protesters they could either pack up their belongings and leave or officials would take down the projector, adding that the group violated the Code of Student Conduct.

“The answer is no,” the officer said. “You have to stop. You can stop willingly and calmly and peacefully, or we’re just going to take it down.”

The student demonstrators took down the projection shortly after the exchange.

Speaking to the crowd after packing up their belongings, one of the protesters said the University hasn’t taken action against student demonstrations in support of Israel but feel officials have been retaliatory toward pro-Palestine events. In a gathering earlier this month, community members gathered for a vigil in Kogan Plaza on Oct. 9 to honor Israelis killed in Hamas’ surprise attack.

“At every single Zionist action that has happened on campus, every single action where they have explicitly supported the genocide of our people, nothing has happened,” the protester said.

Several Metropolitan Police Department and GWPD officers and officials from the Division for Student Affairs quietly oversaw an Oct. 10 vigil organized by SJP to honor Palestinians killed in the conflict.

“When we hold vigils in honor of our martyrs they shut them down, they send cops to terrorize us, they send reporters, they send administration,” a demonstrator said as the group left. “Remember what is happening on this campus — see it in real time.”

Granberg affirmed the right to freedom of expression in a pair of messages to the GW community while also condemning rhetoric that “glorifies acts of violence.”

The demonstrators stopped projecting at about 10 p.m. and prepared to leave while chanting “Who keeps us safe?” to answers from some crowd members of, “We keep us safe.” At the same time, other onlookers joined in unison to sing the national anthem of Israel and the Jewish song “Oseh Shalom,” a prayer for peace.

The SJP representative said the group is calling for an immediate condemnation of the violence toward Gaza and a retraction of all statements in which officials have labeled the group’s mourning as celebrations of terrorism. SJP “wholeheartedly condemns” Granberg and Coleman for being “complicit” in violence against Palestinian people, the representative said. 

“We want to name them explicitly as being involved in this University’s symbolic and material ties to genocide and to the Zionist entity,” the representative said.

In the hours following the demonstration, the event garnered the attention of advocacy groups, U.S. senators and millions of viewers on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter.

The nonprofit organization StopAntisemitism posted images depicting three of the projections and condemned the messages. In the post that’s since garnered more than 3.5 million views, the advocacy group — which often publishes the names, faces and social media accounts of people they deem antisemitic — urged Granberg to “immediately expel” the students involved and asked viewers to send them footage of the student demonstrators.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) quoted StopAntisemitism’s post, asking if GW leadership would condemn the demonstration. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) posted a similar message, calling for the students involved to be “severely punished.” 

Grace Chinowsky contributed reporting.

This post has been updated to reflect the following:

The Hatchet updated this post to include a Wednesday statement from GW. The Hatchet also incorrectly reported that GW SJP projected “Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea.” SJP projected “Free Palestine from the river to the sea.” We regret this error.

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About the Contributors
Cade McAllister, Events Editor
Cade McAllister is a sophomore double majoring in international affairs and political science from San Diego, California.  He is The Hatchet's 2023-2024 events editor.
Hannah Marr, News Editor
Hannah Marr, a sophomore double majoring in journalism and mass communication and history from New York, New York, leads the Administration and Finance beat as one of The Hatchet's 2024-25 news editors. She was previously the assistant news editor for the Student Government beat.
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