On Monday morning, a coalition of more than one dozen local elected officials and activists from Jewish Voice for Peace, the Campaign for Palestinian Rights, If Not Now, Dream Defenders, the Adalah Justice Project, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Institute for Middle East Understanding, and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) gathered in front of the White House. The representative group — which included activists, state law makers, and Tony and Emmy award winning actress Cynthia Nixon, an active member of DSA, former New York gubernatorial candidate — gathered together to announce a five-day hunger strike for a ceasefire in Gaza.
The strikers will continue to gather outside the White House daily between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. until Friday. They include Delaware State Rep. Madinah Wilson-Anton, New York Rep. Zohran Mamdani, Oklahoma Rep. Mauree Turner (who is queer), Virginia Rep. Sam Rasoul, and Michigan Rep. Abraham Aiyash. Reps. Zohran Mamdani and Madinah Wilson-Anton are among the half dozen participants who have committed to avoiding food for the entire five days. The rest will fast for less than five days, though each taking daily shifts.
According to reporting from Time, when Delaware lawmaker Winston-Anton was invited by Mamdani to take part in the hunger strike, she started to cry. Though vocal on social media and various protests, she said that she still felt helpless, “I wanted to do something else but I just didn’t know what.” (A sentiment that I believe is shared by so many right now.)
When interviewed by The Cut, Nixon shared that “one of the things we’re doing with our hunger strike is calling out to President Biden, who has experienced such devastating personal loss in his own life — though he has been strangely and disturbingly insensitive through the tremendous suffering and killing in Gaza right now. He is known for his empathy. It’s one of his strengths as a leader, so we’re imploring that he listen to the will of the American people, 70 percent of whom want there to be a cease-fire.”
This was echoed by New York Rep. Zohran Mamdani, who noted that in a recent poll conducted by Data for Progress, roughly two-thirds of U.S. voters say they either “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” with a permanent ceasefire. A similar Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 68% of respondents agreed with the statement “Israel should call a ceasefire and try to negotiate.”
Nixon described the public attitude and crossroads succinctly, “we’re at a watershed moment where politicians have not caught up yet. I’m very encouraged by the number of Congress members who have now signed on for a ceasefire, but the number is certainly not yet reflective of what the American people want.”
Mamdani, who invited Nixon to participate in the demonstration, told The Guardian, “We are taking this action of hunger striking to showcase the actions of President Biden, It’s President Biden’s actions that are leading to the bombing of Palestinians, the starving of Palestinians. So we are starving ourselves to make visible what is so often erased, which is the Palestinian experience.”
While Israel and Hamas have declared a four-day temporary ceasefire that began November 28th and has since been extended for an additional two days, to allow for the release of more hostages and prisoners. There is significant worry that once the the “temporary” pause closes, violence that is already untenable will only increase (According to reporting from Aljazeera, Israeli officials have already suggested that the bombing in Gaza will resume with an even greater intensity once the temporary truce expires). This is on top of an already existing blockade by Israel making it near impossible for Palestinians to find food and clean water, a situation the UN World Food Programme has said leaves Gaza’s civilians facing the “immediate possibility of starvation.” Oxfam has described the starvation as a “weapon of war.”
This hunger strike in front of the White House is not meant to be poetic politics or symbolism; no one engages in hunger to be pretty. The very real starvation faced by civilians in Gaza can be hard to grapple with or face from within the various privileges of the United States. The activists of behind this work hope that whatever “shock value” of their demonstration will help put personal faces on a movement for freedom. As Nixon explained to The Cut, “it’s happening the week after Thanksgiving, a time when people get very distracted and caught up in the holidays.”
Nixon, who was one of more than 260 artists who previously signed an open letter calling on President Biden and Congress to commit to a ceasefire, went on to say “None of this is normal. None of this is routine and none of this can be allowed to continue.”
For Nixon, who has been involved in grassroots activism for decades, the call for a ceasefire is personal. A family friend, Thane Aboushi (previous candidate for Manhattan district attorney) is a Palestinian New Yorker who by chance found herself in Israel the night before the attack on October 7, causing fear for her safety and that of her family. But also, Nixon’s eldest son, who is Jewish and lives in Chicago, encouraged her to leverage her celebrity and privilege to do something:
“Two of my three children are Jewish. My oldest son in particular is extremely involved in the movement for justice for Palestinians and has been very active in Chicago, where he lives and was arrested for his protest about a week and a half ago.
When this was starting, we spent a lot of time on the phone with him. He was doing everything he could in terms of protests, speeches, speaking in articles. He said to my wife and me point-blank, ‘You have a much bigger megaphone than I do. And I just implore you at this moment to do everything you can to bring attention to this.’ His Jewish identity is very central to him. He’s the grandson of two Holocaust survivors. He said, for him, ‘never again’ means never again for everyone.”
Of course, Cynthia Nixon’s decision to join the hunger strike comes at a time when other actors in Hollywood have recently been made to face public punishment for advocating for Palestine. Most notably, Susan Sarandon was recently dropped by her talent agency, United Talent Agency (UTA), for speaking at a pro-Palestine protest. Scream star Melissa Barrera was fired from the franchise’s upcoming movie for her pro-Palestine social media posts. While Cynthia Nixon noted a need to be cautious in selecting her words, her belief remained steadfast: “This is a terrible time for Palestinians and Israelis. It’s a particularly terrifying moment for Muslims and Jews in America and across the world, where we’re seeing so much Islamophobia and antisemitism and attacks. That said, I feel we can’t be living in a world where saying the mass slaughter of civilians is wrong. That can’t be a thing we’re not allowed to say.”
While Nixon will only be participating in the strike in front of the White House on Monday and Tuesday (today), her understanding of her role in the protest is what’s stayed with me the most. One of the things that we most think about when reporting on celebrity involvement in the fight for Palestinian human rights and freedoms is, how do we keep the story about what’s the actual story? I wavered on covering Cynthia Nixon’s involvement at all, worried that it would overshadow the work of countless activists who have come together to make this hunger strike even possible. For that, Nixon said it simply and to the point, “We’re a group of people who have a megaphone, a large platform.”
There have been so many headlines today on variations of “Cynthia Nixon joins hunger strike for ceasefire in Gaza” — and its shined a brighter light on these protests than maybe would have otherwise been able to be achieved. And now she’s happy to step aside and put the bright light and loud noise of her microphone on the activists who need it most. I hope we all remember to do the same.