The carnations arrived by the wheelbarrow. Blood-red, pink, orange and yellow, more than 10,000 stems were laid on the steps at the base of the Capitol against a clear blue sky.
Each was meant to represent a civilian life lost in the Israel-Hamas war one month in, encompassing Israeli and Palestinian people alike. They were brought over by more than 100 congressional staff members, all wearing masks to obscure their identities, for a walkout last week honoring the civilians killed in the conflict and calling for a cease-fire and the release of more than 200 hostages abducted by Hamas.
“We are congressional staffers on Capitol Hill, and we are no longer comfortable staying silent,” three of the aides, all of whom declined to give their names, declared, the Capitol dome towering behind them. “Our constituents are pleading for a cease-fire, and we are the staffers answering their calls. Most of our bosses on Capitol Hill are not listening to the people they represent. We demand our leaders speak up: Call for a cease-fire, a release of all hostages and an immediate de-escalation now.”
The walkout was the latest in a series of actions congressional aides have taken, almost all of them anonymously, to publicly urge members of Congress — their own bosses — to call for a cease-fire in Gaza.
As a tense political debate rages across the country and on the Senate and House floors — where elected officials have sparred over emergency aid to Israel, what if any conditions should come with it and even what language is appropriate for the debate — there is a more personal and in many ways more emotionally fraught discussion taking place inside the offices of members of Congress.
The vast majority of lawmakers in both political parties have rejected calls for a cease-fire, saying Israel has a right to go after Hamas after its brutal attack in southern Israel, in which 1,200 people were killed and more than 200 taken hostage. A cessation, many of them argue, would only embolden Hamas and allow it to regroup. Israel announced last week that it would institute daily combat pauses to allow civilians to flee and aid to enter Gaza amid skyrocketing civilian casualties and a worsening humanitarian crisis.
But many Democratic congressional staff members, most of them under the age of 35, have found themselves in stark disagreement with their bosses and the Biden administration on an issue that cuts to the heart of their values, according to interviews with more than a dozen aides and strategists, most of whom spoke on the condition that their names not be used for fear of imperiling their jobs and prompting personal attacks.
They say they have struggled to reconcile their personal convictions with their professional obligations, which by definition require that they keep their opinions to themselves and zealously advocate the position of the member of Congress who employs them. They have voiced their dissenting opinions in internal meetings and grappled with what to say on calls with constituents.
And many have concluded that they have no choice but to speak out — albeit most without using their names — in a remarkably open break from the cardinal Capitol Hill rule that holds that aides should stay in the background and never publicly contradict the boss.
“For a lot of people, this is a real red line,” said Jeremy Slevin, a senior adviser to Representative Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat who is among the few members of Congress in her party to have called for a cease-fire. “It’s so horrific what’s happening, and it’s so elemental to be able to oppose the bombing of a refugee camp, for example. And it feels like the conversation up here on Capitol Hill, it’s totally divorced from reality — from the reality on the ground in Israel and Gaza, but also from the reality of the views of their own constituents and staffers.”
Most lawmakers in both political parties are staunchly pro-Israel. There is typically little tolerance on Capitol Hill for harsh criticism of the Jewish state, which some members of Congress — particularly conservative Republicans — almost reflexively brand as antisemitic.
Some Democratic congressional aides have been outspoken on the record about their defense of Israel, in contrast with their co-workers who are challenging their bosses and who have generally felt compelled to stay publicly anonymous.
Adam Jentleson, the chief of staff for Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, recently wrote on X: “hamas just *broke a ceasefire* to slaughter innocents. some think hamas will now magically abide by a ceasefire. some of us think this is unrealistic & offers up more innocents for slaughter.”
Mr. Fetterman, a progressive Democrat, has vocally defended Israel and supported humanitarian pauses, but not a cease-fire.
In an email to staff members in late October, Mr. Jentleson reminded aides that while they were permitted to sign open letters anonymously, social media posts or comments that contradicted the senator’s positions were “prohibited.”
“You cannot use your status as a current Fetterman staffer to undermine John’s positions or otherwise make a public statement that is inconsistent with John’s views,” Mr. Jentleson wrote, adding, “As the saying goes, our names are not on the door.”
Aides typically play a significant behind-the-scenes role in advising and guiding lawmakers’ policy positions. But the large public displays of disagreement, including last week’s walkout at the Capitol and a wave of open letters to lawmakers, reflect a profound generational divide among Democrats about how far to go in criticizing Israel’s military campaign.
“I can’t think of a similar or comparable effort by staff,” said Mr. Slevin, who has worked in various jobs on Capitol Hill for the better part of a decade. “It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”
In the last few weeks, hundreds of staff members have signed on to letters calling on members of Congress to endorse a cease-fire. Dozens have appeared at pro-Palestinian demonstrations, including one steps from the White House where some hoisted signs that read, “Congress, your staff demands a cease-fire.”
“The voices of members of Congress hold immense power — we have seen it firsthand,” read one such open letter, which was led by Jewish and Muslim aides and signed by more than 550 staff members as of Nov. 9. “We now ask them to use that power to protect civilians in imminent danger.”
The signers accused lawmakers of ignoring the plight of Palestinian civilians killed in Israel’s military campaign while focusing intently on the Israeli civilians killed and taken hostage in Hamas’s attack on Oct. 7. The health ministry in Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, estimates that 11,000 civilians have been killed there over the last month.
“We have appreciated seeing nearly every member of Congress express quick and unequivocal solidarity with the Israeli people,” the letter said, “but we are profoundly disturbed that such shows of humanity have barely been extended to the Palestinian people.”
The signers wrote that they were staying anonymous “out of concern for our personal safety, risk of violence and the impact on our professional credibility on Capitol Hill.”
Around the same time, 500 former staff members on President Biden’s 2020 campaign, calling themselves Biden Alumni for Peace and Justice, wrote an open letter calling for a cease-fire. “If you fail to act swiftly,” they warned, “your legacy will be complicity in the face of genocide.”
More than 400 former staff members from Senator Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 campaign signed a similar letter to the Massachusetts Democrat, as did 400 former aides to Senator Bernie Sanders’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns.
Mr. Sanders, a Vermont independent, has rejected calls for a cease-fire. Both he and Ms. Warren have called for pauses to allow humanitarian aid to get to civilians.
“I am very proud of people who fight for what they believe in,” Ms. Warren said in a brief interview. “It’s something that my former staffers and I have shared in the trenches for years.”
She sidestepped a question about whether she had discussed a cease-fire with her current aides. There was “a very collegial give and take in our office on a very wide range of issues all the time,” Ms. Warren said. “I’m blessed to have people to work with who are smart, hardworking and passionate.”
The debate has gotten hotter and messier in other congressional offices. Adam Ramer, who was the political director to Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, resigned after less than a week on the job when the congressman declined to call for a cease-fire.
Mr. Khanna urged Israel to “stop the bombing of civilians,” but said he did not support a cease-fire because Israel had a legitimate interest in stamping out Hamas. He said that there were a range of opinions within his office, but that his obligation was to his constituents.
“I respect their conviction and passion, but we’re a country of 330 million people, and their voice is as one of those citizens,” Mr. Khanna said in an interview. “A congressperson is accountable to hundreds of thousands in their district.”
Aides acknowledged that it was rare, if not impossible, to find a member of Congress they aligned with on all policy issues. But they argue that the Israel-Hamas conflict has been particularly agonizing, leaving them feeling ashamed of their work.
“A lot of staffers feel like they live in an upside-down world,” said Waleed Shahid, a progressive strategist and former Capitol Hill aide. “They have to go into work and put their heads down, and just write a statement or release a statement from their boss that they absolutely in the core of their being disagree with.”
One staff member for a Democratic congresswoman who has not called for a cease-fire said that she had fielded hundreds of messages from constituents since Hamas’s attack and Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, and that the vast majority had been supportive of a cease-fire.
When the aide tried to tell senior staff members, she said she was rebuffed. When she raised the issue directly with the congresswoman, warning that constituents were saying they would not support her in 2024 if she did not call for a cease-fire, the staff member said she was reprimanded by a superior.
She described feeling nauseous at work and crying at the office.
Mr. Shahid said the discord was the result of a generational disconnect that could hurt Democrats electorally in 2024.
“The old guard of the Democratic Party has an outdated view of how unconditionally supportive their own voters are of Israel,” he said. “There’s a new generation of Democratic voters and electeds who want to be a bit more evenhanded when it comes to treating Israeli lives and Palestinian lives equally.”