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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Jewish groups rally for Israel on National Mall

People gather at the March for Israel rally on the National Mall in Washington, Nov. 14, 2023. Along with top U.S. lawmakers, educators, artists, students and relatives of some of the hundreds of hostages seized by Hamas were scheduled to appear.

By Campbell Robertson, Michael Wines and Zach Montague

Demonstrators from across the United States gathered Tuesday on the National Mall in Washington in a vast show of solidarity with Israel as it wages war in the Gaza Strip in response to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.

The rally, called the March for Israel, was intended by organizers to respond to critics of Israel, where about 1,200 people were killed in the attack, and meant as a loud signal to U.S. politicians not to waver in support for Israel as calls grew for a cease-fire. In speeches by lawmakers invited to address the rally, there were no signs of such wavering.

“We ache with you, we stand with you and we will not rest until you get all the assistance you need,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader and highest-ranking Jewish elected official in the country.

Following Schumer in a bipartisan lineup of speakers was House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La. “The calls for a cease-fire are outrageous,” he said, setting off a “No cease-fire” chant from the crowd. “Israel will cease their counteroffensive when Hamas ceases to be a threat to the Jewish state.”

The march was arranged in a matter of days by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Schools, synagogues and community centers sent buses of attendees. By the time speeches began, the Mall was crowded with people from Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, Boston, Philadelphia and other places around the country, waving American and Israeli flags and holding signs declaring support.

Over the course of the event, tens of thousands of people had converged on the Mall, the national park that sits between the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument. The U.S. Park Police, which has jurisdiction, does not provide official crowd estimates, nor does the city’s Metropolitan Police Department.

Tamara Wilkof, 71, was among the hundreds who had come to Washington on around two dozen buses from Cleveland. “It’s definitely a unity message,” she said, adding that she believed people had been galvanized by the surge in antisemitism since the attack. A fellow marcher mentioned that a Jewish cemetery in the Cleveland suburbs was vandalized with antisemitic graffiti last weekend.

Artists, students and relatives of some of the hundreds of hostages seized by Hamas spoke at the rally, many connecting the current war in Israel to the long history of Jewish persecution, from ancient Egypt to the Nazi regime. Speakers who were imprisoned in a Soviet gulag or whose families had fled Iran said they saw ominous signs in rising antisemitism in the United States and around the world.

“Today we come together as a family, one big mishpachah, to march for Israel,” said Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who spoke by video from the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

One of the speakers was the Rev. John Hagee, a televangelist with a record of offensive statements about Jews and Muslims. But organizers said the roster of speakers was aimed at reaching across divisions and striking a bipartisan tone, a task made easier by the broad support that Israel has drawn in Congress.

The vast majority of U.S. lawmakers have rejected calls for a cease-fire, maintaining that Israel’s military campaign — which the Health Ministry in Gaza says has killed more than 10,000 people — is justified by an imperative to destroy Hamas, the group that controls Gaza.

David Cohen, 64, of Cleveland, wanted the focus to remain on the brutality of Hamas and not just support of Israel. Holding a sign condemning Hamas as “anti-USA, anti-you,” he said that he wanted to “make the point that we’re the canaries in the coal mine here.”

“Hamas wants to eradicate Israel, but they don’t want to stop there,” he said. “It’s anti-everything except them.”

U.S. policy has been staunchly pro-Israel so far, but there has been growing pushback in some congressional offices and in the Biden administration, as well as among Democratic voters, over how the war has been unfolding and its toll on civilians, especially children.

In a series of internal cables, dozens of State Department employees have signed memos to Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressing profound disagreements with the Biden administration’s approach to Israel’s military campaign.

Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y., one of the most pro-Israel voices in the House, warned in a speech early in the program Tuesday that the “narrative has shifted against Israel.” He insisted that a cease-fire with Hamas should be off the table, saying it was like America entering into a cease-fire with Japan after Pearl Harbor.

The rally was in part a response to large protests across the United States and the world denouncing the Israeli military campaign in Gaza, which has been plunged into a humanitarian crisis. Several speakers expressed concern for innocent Palestinians dying in Gaza, while insisting that their suffering was fully the fault of Hamas. Anila Ali, a Muslim women rights activist, was cheered when she said that Muslims and Jews needed to forge a lasting peace.

Still, many attendees and speakers said that beneath much of the criticism in recent weeks of Israel’s campaign, they sensed a stark antisemitism. There was a particular focus on what was happening on U.S. college campuses, which have been riven by debates over the war.

“I know that many of my peers faced with so much hatred and antisemitism on campus are feeling helpless and hopeless,” said Noa Fay, a student at Columbia University who spoke at the rally. “But to them I say, ‘Look around you.’”

This is how many attendees described the rally, as a kind of antidote to the newfound loneliness and isolation they have felt in the weeks since the attack.

“I realized over the last month or so how often I don’t want to be seen as Jewish in public,” said Hallie Lightdale, 63, a psychiatrist from suburban Philadelphia. Coming to the Mall — to the largest crowd of Jewish people she had ever been in, she said — offered a reassuring sense of community. “I’m Jewish American — both Jewish and American,” she said. “I’m not one without the other. And Jewish Americans need our country to be with us.”

For many of those on the Mall, even those who disagreed with elements of Israeli policy, it was the rise in antisemitism in the United States, more than support for Israel, that had prompted them to join.

“It can be a step in the right direction, a show of unity on the basics, even if down in the nitty-gritty there are some fundamental disagreements,” said Max Nozick, 27, who said he had noted a frightening spike in antisemitic incidents in his community in the Maryland suburbs.

Some of his Jewish friends were reluctant to come to the march because they did not support Israeli policy, and he, too, had concerns about the Israeli government. But he said that denouncing the Oct. 7 attack — and anyone who endorsed such violence — was not a complicated question.

“Oct. 7 specifically, I think we’re talking about terrorists,” said Nozick, who had a large Israeli flag draped across his back like a cape. “I’m pretty comfortable picking a side there even if I don’t necessarily agree with all the policies of the country with the flag I’m wearing right now.”

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