A ceasefire vigil held by Biden administration staffers outside the White House, December 13th, 2023.
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Two weeks into Israel’s assault on Gaza, some State Department employees had already signed on to memos criticizing the White House’s unconditional support of the bombings. These memos, sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken through the agency’s official “dissent channel”—a sanctioned way for employees to show opposition to government policy without fear of retaliation—were the first signs of opposition to Israel’s bombardment from within the United States government.
In the following months, as the administration’s unwavering support for Israel has continued, dissatisfaction within the administration has grown to an unprecedented pitch, with thousands of Biden administration officials coming out against the White House’s Israel policy. On November 10th, over 1,000 employees at the US Agency for International Development—a government body that administers humanitarian aid around the world—anonymously signed an open letter calling on President Joe Biden to demand an immediate ceasefire. Four days later, over 500 Biden administration officials from 40 government agencies also sent the president an anonymous letter calling for a ceasefire and more humanitarian aid for Palestinians in Gaza. (The number of signatories has since risen to over 850.) The next month, over three dozen staffers held a vigil outside the White House demanding that the president come out for a ceasefire. And just last week, Biden campaign staff joined in by issuing a ceasefire call addressed to the president. “You have said numerous times that silence in the face of human rights violations is complicity. We agree, which is why we are speaking out now,” the campaign staff letter read. “As your staff, we believe it is both a moral and electoral imperative for you to publicly call for a cessation of violence.”
To understand the scale of the dissent within the administration as well as the reasons behind it, Jewish Currents interviewed two Biden staffers about why they each signed the November 14th ceasefire letter, why they have not yet resigned, and whether they think Biden is listening. Both staffers requested anonymity to protect themselves from workplace retaliation, and are identified by their middle initial. This transcript, which combines the two conversations, has been edited for length and clarity.
Alex Kane: What has it been like for you to work for the Biden administration as it arms and backs Israel’s mass killing of Palestinian civilians?
N: It feels terrible; I feel very conflicted. Given the weapons transfers to Israel, it has been hard to execute my mission at work, even though what I do in the administration is not directly connected to this at all.
It has also been difficult to raise my concerns, either in a personal or an official capacity. Personally, I don’t know how honest I can be with the people around me. And officially, going against the policy of the administration is certainly not in our job description. This means that outside of dissent memos that certain agencies offer, there isn’t really a formal way to capture dissent within the administration.
It has been very important to connect with other staffers who are also unhappy with the policy decisions that the administration is making. Organizing with others has made me feel like I’m not alone, and that there is some value in us staying so that we can create a blueprint for dissent within the government.
AK: What made you decide to sign the call for a ceasefire?
N: As an American Jew, this is very personal for me. My community is involved in enabling what is happening in Gaza, and it’s our responsibility to stop that. Also, as someone who works within this administration—with a level of power and privilege that many don’t have—it feels doubly important to speak up, even if I don’t work directly on the issue.
M: It’s also personal for me as a brown woman who is a religious minority in this country. My people went through genocide and occupation only a few decades ago, so although I am not Palestinian, it hits really close to home. It’s also just being human. I am going on social media and watching genocide and ethnic cleansing unfold, knowing that I work for an institution that is not leveraging its power over Israel to stop this—that is in fact throwing its weight behind the aggressor. All of it compels me to be a dissenter within the administration.
AK: Who exactly are the dissenters? Is it all junior staffers, or are there higher-level people dissenting as well? Is there a generational, or racial, divide in who is dissenting?
N: We had people from at least 40 different agencies—from across the entire executive branch—signing the November 14th letter. The dissent is widespread: People across racial, religious, and generational lines are disappointed and frustrated with the US’s unfettered support at all costs for what Israel is doing, the continued sending of weapons, and the refusal to humanize Palestinians and value their lives in the same way as Israeli lives.
While organizers skew younger, there are several senior staffers from various agencies, and from within the White House itself, who were involved in the writing of the letter, and additional senior staffers have also signed on. Even leadership from my agency has expressed disappointment and frustration with how the US has responded. I think the real gap is between the very small inner circle of people who are making policy decisions around this and the rest of the people within the administration.
AK: How do you make sense of the scale of the dissent?
M: The dissent is intense because the level of aggression and the death toll are unprecedented. And due to social media, we are able to watch this genocide unfold day after day. There are Palestinian journalists in Gaza who are broadcasting some of the most horrific things I’ve ever seen. Because people are much more online today compared to, say, during Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, this social media narrative is now reaching a wider audience.
N: People also see that there’s a serious disconnect between the lessons we learned from the last 20 years of the War on Terror and what the US government is helping Israel do right now. For years, people within the intelligence and national security community have talked about how the best counterterrorism strategy is to not kill civilians. But right now even this idea is being disregarded, which fuels dissent. Dissent has also grown due to the massive shift in American public opinion on Israel/Palestine that has taken place over the past decade: It makes sense that staffers’ opinions would be reflective of that shift.
Biden administration staff are younger and more diverse than staffers in previous administrations, and a lot of us came to public service with the idea of using our power to change things in the world that are wrong. But while we are touted as the most diverse administration in history, it feels very disillusioning to see that leadership doesn’t listen when we counter the policy decisions they are making. People are fed up with that.
AK: As Biden staffers, what impact do you hope your dissent will have?
M: Our voice is uniquely powerful because we are President Joe Biden’s own staff. My hope is that it’s going to become untenable for him and his closest aides to ignore not only the majority of Americans calling for an end to this violence, but also many of the staff he himself has picked to execute his agenda.
N: A ceasefire call from within the administration adds to the pressure coming from other places. It also inspires bravery from others on the inside. In the government, there is a culture of deference, and of not expressing disagreement, so by being very public, we hope to open up space for dissenters to find each other. Lastly, us speaking up shows the broader public that there are people on the inside who understand what’s at stake.
AK: Do you know if your dissent is being raised in the highest-level conversations around the Biden administration’s Israel policy?
N: I don’t know how seriously it is being taken in terms of influencing policy decisions, but I do know that there’s discussion about our efforts among folks in the White House, including some of the president’s senior advisors. There is also concern within the communications office and the Presidential Personnel Office, which does all the hiring for the administration. Most of the conversation is centered around how to avoid making it seem like the administration is divided. The very high-level senior people in the administration would like this to not be a story.
AK: Does your boss know that you signed the letter? Are you worried about personal retaliation?
N: My bosses do not know about my involvement in this, but even so, I am worried about retaliation. We have received information from within the White House about people looking to retaliate against the folks involved. There have also been several Freedom of Information Act requests levied at appointees of color, or Muslim or Arab appointees within agencies, trying to see if they have mentioned Israel, Hamas, and Gaza on their work devices in order to look for anything to use against them.
AK: We’ve seen a lot of dissent, but so far only two people—Josh Paul, who worked in the State Department bureau that oversaw US weapons sales to foreign countries, and Tariq Habash, a policy adviser in the Department of Education—have publicly resigned over the administration’s position. Why stay in the job rather than leave and make a statement about your opposition?
M: It’s a good question. It’s hard to justify doing work in an administration that has thrown their full weight behind what I consider a genocide. There are a variety of reasons people stay, such as a risk to their career, threats to personal safety, and other reasons that I personally face that I can’t go into because they would be self-identifying. But for a lot of people, the list of reasons to leave is growing.
N: Myself and a lot of people have thought about resigning. Some of us are facing a lot of pressure from within our communities to resign. We get a lot of people emailing and reaching out to us to say, “You should just resign.” I think that’s very fair. However, some of us still feel that we can use our unique position as insiders to shift the conversation both internally and externally.
AK: What comes next for Biden administration dissenters?
M: It continues to be an exercise of figuring out what levers we can push that will be the most influential. But, with the most recent resignation, I wouldn’t be surprised if more people simply leave as a way to express dissent. People might not do it publicly because they are worried about their safety, but I can imagine people leaving without saying anything because they can no longer justify working for this administration. I understand this feeling well: Not a day goes by where I don’t think about leaving.