Two people were arrested during protests outside the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in the District that left a Palestinian American man bloodied and injured.
D.C. police say the suspects and victim got into a verbal altercation and one man punched the victim, Kamal Nayfeh, in the face. A video recording of the incident shows Nayfeh, 55, falling to the ground as two men strike him in the eye with a wooden pole as he is kicked.
A police report of the Sunday afternoon incident at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center indicates the beating might have been motivated by the victim’s religion or ethnicity, although the suspects were not charged with hate crimes. Yosef Steynoitz, 32, was charged Sunday with felony assault and Rami Lubranicki, 59, was charged with assault with a deadly weapon, D.C. police said.
The AIPAC conference, which states its goal as strengthening and promoting Israel-American relations, draws protests each year. This year, IfNotNow, a left-leaning group of Jewish Americans who opposes Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza, marched with hundreds of people in downtown Washington to the convention center to protest the conference.
Yonah Lieberman, a founding member of IfNotNow, said when his group arrived it was greeted by members of the Jewish Defense League — a militant, far-right Jewish organization that states it will fight anti-Semitism “by any means necessary” and which the FBI has deemed a terrorist group. Members of other antiwar groups also were present as members of IfNotNow chained themselves to the two main entrances to the convention center.
Lieberman said one of the group’s members also suffered a concussion during an altercation with JDL members.
Representatives of the JDL didn’t respond to a request for comment. A lawyer for Steynoitz said he didn’t have a comment on the case and a lawyer for Lubranicki did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.
Ben Doernberg, 28, traveled from Boston to attend the protests with IfNotNow. He said he witnessed JDL members burning a Koran and Palestinian flag, and hitting protesters in the head with wooden flagpoles.
He said a man wearing a vest that read “Jewish Defense League” approached him from behind and broke a wooden pole over his head.
“The reason we went down there was to say the status quo in the Jewish establishment is not taking moral leadership, and I end up getting hurt because there are these far-right Jewish extremists there, and no one at the conference comes to protect us,” Doernberg said. “To me, this is an example of why we were there in the first place.”
In the beating of Nayfeh, a video appears to show the suspects wearing shirts with the JDL logo. They are also carrying flags bearing the logo.
Nayfeh, a community college professor from North Carolina, was in the District with his wife to visit their daughter, a Georgetown University law student. He said they were dropping their daughter off at the protest and wanted to make sure she would be safe before leaving her there.
He said he approached a woman carrying an Israeli flag who was yelling that Palestine doesn’t exist. According to Nayfeh, he calmly told her that he was from Palestine. From there, he said, a group affiliated with the JDL started pummeling him. He was taken to a hospital, where he said he received 18 stitches on his injured eye.
“I thought we were in the U.S. This is not some third-world country where you get beat up at a protest,” Nayfeh said. “I thought we could go to a protest peacefully and say our message, but those people were there to commit violence.”
Marshall Wittmann, a spokesman for AIPAC, didn’t comment on the presence of the JDL, but he condemned the violence that occurred.
“We deplore all violence and any violations of the law that occurred outside of the Convention Center,” Wittmann wrote in an email.
Nayfeh is back home in Charlotte, still surprised that he was injured at a protest he didn’t plan to attend. He said he doesn’t want to identify the perpetrators as Jewish, noting that despite the assault, he gained friendships during his time in the nation’s capital.
“I don’t want to call these people Jewish or Israelis, they were just violent people,” Nayfeh said. “In D.C., during the protest, I gained a lot more Jewish friends after this. Many people were so nice, peaceful and helpful to me.”