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  • Eric Santomauro-Stenzel

Rep. Cartwright ‘83 confronted over Israel support at Common Ground

Says he’s “praying” Sec. Blinken’s advocacy works to avoid IDF entering Rafah

Students for Justice in Palestine protestors drape a Palestinian flag from the balcony as (L-R) Mimi Geerges, Rep. Matt Cartwright, and former Rep. Steve Russell speak. | Gabriel Bit-Babik ‘25 for Monitor

THE CHAPEL – Tuesday night’s Common Ground event moderated by journalist Mimi Geerges with Congressman Matt Cartwright ‘83 (D, PA-08) and former Congressman Steve Russell (R, OK-05) took an unexpected turn when about a dozen student advocates, mostly with Students for Justice in Palestine, put Cartwright on the spot over his support for Israel during its siege on Gaza. Cartwright did not announce new policy positions but told the Monitor in an interview that students “expressed themselves very well.”

Thinking he was off camera after the event and Monitor interview concluded, Cartwright told SJP members he is “praying” Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s diplomacy works to shape the Israeli government’s approach. “If they go into Rafah, 30,000 is nothing compared to how many will die if they do that.”

Video courtesy of Students for Justice in Palestine

Cartwright has consistently voted for pro-Israel legislation in recent months. Students called on Cartwright to urge an immediate ceasefire and withdraw his support for US military aid to Israel. An SJP executive board member told the Monitor under condition of anonymity that “constant demonstration helps” and “We just saw that opportunity and took it.”

Since Hamas’s attacks on October 7th killed about 1,200 Israelis and abducted about another 240, the State of Israel has killed over 30,000 Palestinians and displaced most of Gaza’s 2 million+ residents, destroying all its universities, hospitals, and many humanitarian aid sites despite knowing civilians were there. Reporting by Israeli-Palestinian publications Local Call and +972 Mag on Wednesday found that the Israel Defense Forces decided in the first weeks of fighting that 15 to 20 dead civilians per junior Hamas operative, and 100 per commander, was acceptable “collateral damage.” They also found that the IDF has been “using an AI targeting system with little human oversight.”

During the event

Students, mostly seated in the left side balcony, held Palestinian flags, a traditional Palestinian keffiyeh, and signs with messages including “Ceasefire Now,” “We Are Funding A Genocide,” and “End US Aid To Israel.” The moderated discussion portion of the event moved forward normally, but the Q&A quickly became tense after the Monitor’s beginning question to Cartwright about whether there would be any red line Israel could cross that would make him withdraw military support.

Students hold protest signs in the chapel balcony. | Gabriel Bit-Babik ‘25 for Monitor

“I've written no fewer than four letters to the Biden administration urging humanitarian assistance,” said Cartwright, who represents a battleground district in northeast Pennsylvania. He asserted that civilians are “being used as human shields by Hamas, and it’s a horrible, gut-wrenching situation.” He recounted the October 7th attack and said in light of that violence he did not support a ceasefire. Comparing Israel’s bombing of Gaza to the US atomic bombing of Japan and firebombing of Germany in World War 2, Cartwright said “We don't own that moral high ground to tell Israel exactly thus and so and how far to go in your response. I'm not saying that won't change. But that's what that's where I'm going on right now.”

The SJP e-board member asked about the disproportionality of deaths, questioning Cartwright’s focus on October 7th (which she said she does not condone) without the same emphasis on Israel’s killing of civilians, restriction of humanitarian aid, and violations of international law both before and after the war.

“I'm very upset - if I've understated - how upset I am about what's happened to the innocent civilians and the unarmed–” Cartwright began, before a student in the balcony interjected.

“Then why haven’t you called for a ceasefire?”

Cartwright replied, “I'm not calling for a unilateral unconditional ceasefire. I'd like to see the hostages go back for a ceasefire–”

“What about the Palestinian hostages of Israel?”

Another student added that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declined offers for a ceasefire that would return hostages to Israel.

With only a couple of questions posed about subjects other than the war, student advocates engaged in a repeated back and forth with the panelists for about 30 minutes. At one point, some students shouted “shame!” over panelists’ responses.

To close, moderator Geerges asked Cartwright and Russell about being able to disagree civilly. Cartwright said “It's about not being arrogant. We've had some very smart young people raise their point of view, and I'm listening, I'm here to listen.” He continued, “It's arrogant people that don't listen, when people of good faith and good conscience, talk to you about what they believe in.”

“Then call for a ceasefire. Are you hearing us?” a voice rang out before Cartwright continued, recalling a Bible passage saying that “The answer is to love mercy, to do justice, and to walk humbly with your God.”

As former Rep.  Russell was finishing his answer saying shouting was not the answer, students erupted calling attention to the history of the Civil Rights Movement and other disruptive movements for social change. Students chanted “Free Palestine” as Russell attempted to respond. The cacophony drowned out the panelists as the event came to a close.

Rep. Cartwright lays out policy vision

In an interview with the Monitor after the event, Cartwright said of the students that “There are countries in this world where you will get hauled off to jail for talking like that. We don't do that here in America. We let people talk. And that's okay. They expressed themselves very well. And and they let their passion show, and that's okay, too.”

During the event, Cartwright championed his bipartisan legislation to enable about a million US Marines and their family members at Camp Lejeune who had been impacted by environmental hazards but “couldn’t even have a day in court” to sue the government. When discussing support for Israel, he also stated, “Do we do we go and tell a sovereign nation you must do this, you must do that? That's a place we haven't been, that's a place we haven't gone.”

Cartwright recently voted for HR 2882, legislation that included a provision conditioning US economic support to the Palestinian Authority on Palestinians never initiating or supporting an International Criminal Court investigation “that subjects Israeli nationals to an investigation for alleged crimes against Palestinians.” Asked by Monitor about his support for the legislation, Cartwright said “I’m still processing that, this is a hard, hard problem.”

“What really hit hard for me was looking at the footage of what happened on October 7. It brought me back to when I was a boy and I was looking at film reels of the Holocaust. These people are absolutely dedicated to the genocide of the Jewish people,” Cartwright said. He expressed faith in US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to “get this situation to a place where we Americans are comfortable.”

He further told the Monitor that while he has deep respect for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D, NY), he wasn’t “there yet” on Schumer’s recent call to replace PM Netanyahu. Asked about how he’s working to secure youth support for Democrats in the 2024 election when polling has shown widespread discontent among them over Israel policy, Cartwright said, “what's going on in the Middle East, I think, is more important than framing in terms of pandering for votes. And so I try not to think of it that way.”

As Cartwright approached the exit, SJP members stopped him to ask further questions and advocate for a ceasefire. A video recording of the conversation shared with the Monitor shows Cartwright saying that while “We don’t have the right to tell a sovereign nation what to do,” the US can “use diplomacy to get them there. And that’s what I’m keeping my fingers crossed, because if they go into Rafah, 30,000 is nothing compared to how many will die if they do that. So, I’m praying that what Blinken does works.”

The student recording began to ask a follow-up question, at which point Cartwright asked “Are you filming me?”

Students continued questioning Cartwright until Director of Common Ground Ty Seidule stepped in to escort him away. SJP members say they intend to take more actions in the near future to advocate for Palestine on campus.

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