People from across the United States converged on the nation’s capital on Nov. 14 for a historic event in support of the state of Israel.
Against a backdrop of rising anti-Israel sentiment in the international community and a surge in antisemitism in the United States and around the world, nearly 300,000 individuals, representing different communities, organizations, schools and synagogues gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., under a clear blue sky and took part in the March for Israel. Another 250,000 people watched the event on the livestream and on CSPAN.
The rally, which was spearheaded by Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, had three primary objectives according to the event organizers — showing solidarity with Israel, demanding the immediate release of the hostages being held by Hamas and condemning the rise in antisemitic violence and harassment.
The huge crowd began arriving early, with many people taking their places on the National Mall hours before the rally was scheduled to begin. Amid a sea of blue and white, attendees of all ages waved Israeli flags, held up signs of support, sung Hebrew songs and stood proudly with Israel as a range of speakers addressed the crowd.
The speakers included families of some American hostages being held by Hamas, bipartisan congressional leaders, interfaith allies and Natan Sharansky, the renowned human rights activist, former political prisoner in the Soviet Union and former Israeli government official. Actress and advocate Debra Messing and U.S. Special Envoy to Combat Antisemitism Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt were among the other event speakers.
The event also featured musical performances by Israeli music stars Ishay Ribo and Omer Adam; the world famous acapella group, the Maccabeats; and Jewish reggae singer, Matisyahu. Before the main program, there was a pre-show rally for students, who heard from social media influencers and others.
President Isaac Herzog of Israel addressed the crowd via videoconference from the Western Wall. “The people of Israel are eternal, and no one will break us,” Herzog said. “‘Never again’ is now.”
“Since Oct. 7, we have been a people under siege. We have been brutally attacked in Israel and those attacks have continued here in the United States through the tsunami of Jew-hatred and antisemitic attacks against the Jewish people and demonstrations by Hamas sympathizers that glorify and minimize the barbarity of Hamas. And it’s important for the American people and American Jewry to stand up in the face of this situation and speak out and to speak out as one. The American people are unified in their support for Israel, and the American Jewish community is unified in its support for Israel,” William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents, said in an interview.
“By speaking out together, tens and tens of thousands of us on the National Mall, we spoke with one voice saying we support Israel and its war against the most terrorist army, we condemn antisemitism in all of its forms and we demand the immediate return of the hostages,” he added.
Citing the rally’s timing, Daroff noted that they chose Nov. 14 because Congress was in session and considering emergency supplemental legislation that includes more than $14 billion to help Israel combat Hamas.
“We wanted to ensure that when we thanked Congress and asked Congress to continue to support Israel, that Congress was actually in session and there and listening. And so, the timing was purposeful and impactful with Congress in session,” he said.
In an interview, Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of JFNA, discussed the need to thank the Biden administration and Congress for their strong support of Israel, particularly since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, a sentiment that Daroff also mentioned.
“I believe that everyone understands the importance of American support of Israel in its effort to eradicate this terrorist threat and restore safety and security to its people … We want to say thank you to them. And we know they’re hearing from contrary voices. It’s very important for them to see — to visually see — the fact that what they’re doing is supported by the overwhelming majority of Americans and certainly of the Jewish community,” he said.
Noting the pain that the Jewish community feels as it’s been more than a month since Hamas kidnapped approximately 240 hostages and dragged them back to Gaza, Fingerhut said, “We know that the American government is paying attention, but we want to make sure that the world doesn’t forget.”
Fingerhut and Daroff both talked about the significance of the crowd size and the importance of having so many people attend the March for Israel.
“We have to be counted. This isn’t something you could sit home and watch on Zoom. This is a moment to stand up and be counted and to be here,” Fingerhut said. “There was only one place to be on Tuesday, Nov. 14, if you care about Israel and you care about America’s role in the world, and that is on the National Mall.”
“This is on par with other major events that the Jewish community has hosted at seminal times in our history. And I refer to the 1987 march for Soviet Jewry and then more recently in 2002, the rally for Israel during the Second Intifada,” Daroff said. “This was a very moving event, with tens and tens of thousands of Jews and non-Jews standing together in solidarity. And this was a moment in history that we’ll look back on and remember and people will ask, where were you?”
“There’s an incredible amount of anxiety in our community, of people wanting to speak out, of people shocked that our erstwhile allies are not our allies, that they’re out there minimizing and rationalizing Hamas terror and this gave us the opportunity to come together as one people with our real allies — with members of the Christian community, the African American community and the Latino community — who are standing with us, who are not prevaricating, and seeing that is incredibly fulfilling. And I think that will give us the energy together that we need, as one Jewish community, as one American community, to walk together during these troubled times,” Daroff added.
“I think particularly at this moment in time, several weeks after Hamas’ attack on Israel and with the rise of antisemitism, both globally and around the United States, it was important for the American Jewish community and its many supporters to come together and make a clear statement to the American political leadership and to the broader American society that we must work to get Hamas out of Gaza, we must work to free the hostages and we must all work to eliminate antisemitism in all its forms … This was one of those moments in American Jewish history where there’s a clear statement by our community about coming together and what we must do going forward,” said Gil Preuss, CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
Noting the significance of having people from across the country participating in the rally, Preuss said, “Right after the attacks there were many solidarity gatherings, each in their own city and in their own community. But this was the first time that we came together as one Jewish community, one Jewish people, to make a clear statement in Washington, the nation’s capital, about what this country must stand for and what is so important for the Jewish community at this time.”
For Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of Anti-Defamation League, having so many people in D.C. standing in support of Israel and standing against antisemitism was vital. “It is energizing and it is heartening, but more than anything, it’s important,” he said in an interview. “It’s important to see how many Jews and non-Jews … people from all walks of life came to our capital to say ‘never again’ and to remind the elected officials and the people watching at home that this is where the majority of the country is, right here, right now.”
The Combat Antisemitism Movement, a global coalition dedicated to fighting antisemitism, organized its vast network and funded more than 8,000 Jews (200 buses) from across the United States to attend the rally.
“We are at a moment in history that it’s important to be together … The things that we have seen in southern Israel from Hamas have been shocking … I don’t think that anyone would have imagined that you’re going to see a modern pogrom on Jews in 2023. And this is what happened … it shocked everyone,” CAM CEO Sacha Roytman Dratwa said in an interview.
After noting that it was critical for the Jewish community to be in Washington, D.C., to thank the government for standing with Israel and for its efforts to combat antisemitism, Roytman Dratwa focused on the dangerous anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric at pro-Palestinian rallies and on college campuses.
“It’s our time to digest what we’ve seen and to understand that every slogan that we hear on the streets means what they say. … When we hear, ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,’ and other slogans like ‘free Palestine,’ at the end of the day, they’re really touching on the life of every student on campus, of every American, and of every citizen of the world,” he said.
“When it’s so global, at certain moments, people need to be together … Now it’s time to be together, to show how powerful we are, that we have the energy to fight back, that we have the liberty to share our opinion that we are not afraid,” he added.
“In American Jewish history, major rallies have served as a way to galvanize people to action, raise people’s awareness and ensure continued mobilization in an effort. But in this case, the Jewish people also need to raise their morale,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. “The goal of Hamas was to terrorize the Jewish people, create doubt in Israel’s ability to defend itself and to bring enormous pain, and they accomplished that goal. It also sowed seeds of horrific despair, and now we have to do what we as a people have done historically, which is reach for our inner pride, dignity, strength and backbone, and march forward with pride in being Jewish. After the horrific massacre, I think this rally was an extraordinary testament that the Jewish people will continue to thrive and prosper.
“I have never seen the Jewish community so united in my life and that brings me strength and hope. I do believe that just as Israel rose from the ashes of the Holocaust, we too will rise again to a period of reduced antisemitism. … We are showing the strength of our people, and that is giving Hamas the best response. They killed a lot of our people, but they will never break our faith in Israel, and they will never break our strength as a people,” Halber added.
With the rally being held in Washington D.C., the local Jewish community turned out in force, representing Jewish day schools, synagogues and community organizations.
For school-aged children, the rally presented a unique opportunity for them to be together during this important time for Israel and to help further their education and advocacy on Israel through firsthand experiences, according to educators at local Jewish day schools.
“This is that type of generational experience,” said Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, head of school at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville. “I recall in the 1980s, there was a Soviet Jewry rally in Washington, and we view this rally in that way. Our school is standing in solidarity with Israel. It’s an opportunity for our students to express that support, if they choose to do so.”
Local Jewish high schools had their students attend the rally, with most of the Jewish day schools having their middle school students attend with chaperones or with their parents. Elementary school students didn’t attend with their respective schools, but taking the day to attend the rally was an excused absence at several local schools.
“We encouraged parents to take their kids to the rally, and we made it known that it counts as an excused absence,” said Lindsey Jacobson, chief advancement officer at Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School in D.C.
Jacobson said that when the school administration initially heard about the rally, it wasn’t a difficult decision to allow students to attend.
“It’s a very natural, organic choice to have the students go, as Zionism is a major part of their education,” Jacobson said.
Many faculty members from local Jewish day schools attended as well, which led to the rest of the staff stepping up and working together to ensure that their co-workers could take part in the rally.
The event presented some logistical challenges for administrators handling transportation details for an event that was scheduled approximately a week in advance and which they knew would attract an enormous crowd.
Plans varied between schools, with Milton and Charles E. Smith choosing to take their students to the rally via bus and to get them as close as possible to the National Mall, while Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville had their school’s attendees take
Berman brought roughly 300 students and 50 staff members to the rally, and even more attended with their families, according to Sarah Sicherman, Berman’s director of marketing and communications.
In addition to taking part in the rally, Berman went the extra mile to make Jewish community members coming from out of town feel welcome. The school hosted high school students from other visiting schools for davening before the rally and for a kumzitz after the rally, according to Sicherman.
Local synagogue leaders also made plans for their congregants to attend the rally.
Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac promoted the event to its members and coordinated a central meeting place to meet so they could attend the rally together, according to Rabbi Adam Raskin.
“Everybody has felt the need to do something, and I think this was a great way to contribute to the cause of Israel,” Raskin said, noting that the rally was important to his congregants and engendered a sense of togetherness that they need.
Like the schools, synagogues also varied in how they handled transportation to the rally. For example, Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church invited members to meet at a designated Metro spot and travel together to the event, according to Rabbi Amy Schwartzman.
The DMV contingent was part of the huge crowd on the National Mall, which broke out into song during the musical performances, and chants of “bring them home” and “Am Yisrael Chai” were chanted repeatedly throughout the rally.
The event organizers viewed the event as a success and were heartened by the large crowd.
“The event today showed the strength and resilience of the Jewish people. That notwithstanding doubts and headlines and the like, the fact that tens of thousands of Jews came out today to express their support for Israel, their opposition to antisemitism and their demand for the release of the hostages speaks to that resilience,” Daroff said.
Braden Hamelin contributed reporting to this story.