By Ron Kampeas and Rudy Malcom
More than 2,000 people spent a sweltering afternoon in front of the U.S. Capitol at a rally on Sunday that denounced antisemitism as un-American and made the case that Jewish identity and support for Israel are inextricable.
Those were the unifying messages of the “No Fear” rally, but there were differences among the speakers and in the crowd on how precisely Israel figures in the fight against antisemitism.
Speaker Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, stressed the need to promote unity among the Jewish people itself.
“While we can have differences, we need to reaffirm the basics: that we’re all Zionists and pro-Israel,” he said. “What joins us together as a community is far greater than what divides us.
“None of us should need to be at a rally against antisemitism in 2021,” he added. “But we do need to be here. Because we must again respond to vile rhetoric, physical attacks and symbols of hatred against our people.”
Some of the most searing messages came from people who have suffered antisemitic attacks in recent years. A recurring theme among these speakers was that they never expected to suffer such attacks in the United States.
Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Shlomo Noginsky, who sustained stab wounds in a July 1 attack in Boston, appeared with his arm still in a sling, and in evident pain.
“I was born in the Soviet Union in the city of St. Petersburg,” Noginsky said in Hebrew, having explained that he was still too pained to speak fluently in English. “I remember how even as a young child, I experienced terrible antisemitism. Never in my darkest dreams did I imagine that I would feel the same way here in the United States, the land of freedom and endless possibilities.”
The crowd shouted “hero!” as Noginsky spoke. He had held the attacker at bay outside a Chabad facility where about a hundred children were in summer camp.
There was a sense among some attending the rally that Jew hatred was closing in from all sides.
Joel Taubman, a rising second-year law student at George Washington University (GWU), noted how, among both the right and the left, there is a “growing acceptance of antisemitic voices that have always been there but until recently were less accepted.”
The only instance of antisemitism being “out in the open” for Ava Shulman used to be when Klansmen marched down 16th Street to the Capitol in 1965.
“My father turned the sprinklers on, and their white outfits got all wet,” she said. “Now it’s just so pervasive.”
Shulman noted that most of the attendees were older, which she attributed to apathy among younger people, who, she said, don’t “remember the Holocaust.”
Notably absent were representatives of more left-wing groups that were asked to join but opted out of attending because some of the sponsoring groups adhere to a definition of antisemitism that encompasses harsh criticism of Israel, including the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel. Groups like J Street and Americans for Peace Now oppose BDS, but object to defining it as antisemitic.
Melissa Landa, who leads the Alliance for Israel, a relatively new group that has as a central tenet that BDS is antisemitic, set the tone at the outset of the event. She had launched plans for the rally after antisemitism spiked during the Israel-Gaza conflict in May.
She spoke of the “shared promise for our children, that they will be free to live as proud Jews, and exercise their religious liberties granted by the United States Constitution, free to wear their yarmulkes and Magen Davids and free to speak their love of Israel without being attacked in the streets of New York or Los Angeles.”
Landa, like other speakers, named lawmakers on the left or the right that have in recent months incurred accusations of antisemitism. Mentions of Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat whose criticism of Israel has been seen by Jewish groups as crossing into antisemitism, notably garnered much louder boos than those of Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican who has drawn fire for peddling antisemitic conspiracy theories and for likening coronavirus restrictions to Nazi laws.
Elisha Wiesel, the son of the late Holocaust diarist and Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel, had joined the planning of the rally to bring in mainstream and liberal-leaning groups after Landa hit a wall in bringing them in.
A couple from Kensington, Bruce and Malka Kutnick, were unnerved by the presence of the far Jewish right at the rally. Malka Kutnick said she had been reassured by Wiesel’s claim before the rally that both people who don’t care about Israel’s existence and Kahanists — followers of the late extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane — would not be welcome. She held a placard that read “No to occupation, No to antisemitism.”
“I was just accosted by someone in a Kahane shirt,” she said. “He said I should stand with the Neturei Karta.” A small cluster of that fringe group, which is both haredi Orthodox and anti-Zionist, gathered on a green across the street.
Marie Berlin-Fischler, a 28-year-old Washington, D.C., preschool teacher, stood with a poster reading, “My fellow progressives, you missed a spot: Stop antisemitism.”
She said she felt untethered from the progressive movement, which she otherwise supports.“The issue is that in this country as of late, I don’t feel as though anyone like me can exist in a progressive space anymore without checking my intersectionality at the door,” she said. “When I am asked to be part of myself as I show up to these spaces, the gap is closing. There’s nowhere for people who want to be American, the way I do.”
“Intersectionality should be a good word for us,” said Israeli-American activist Judith Shamir. Yet Jews are often seen as part of the establishment, she said, which ignores millennia of persecution and oppression.
To fight this perception, Shamir joined a group in Fairfax that seeks to foster respect and relationships between cultural and religious communities.
A Tennessee native, Sarah Boxer, whose parents and grandparents were born in Israel, was familiar with right-wing antisemitism in the South. But she said she wasn’t expecting to encounter a different kind of hate when she arrived at GWU three years ago.
“I’m scared at times to go into progressive spaces because I know that if I reveal myself to be Jewish, and especially Israeli, I will be questioned and not trusted,” Boxer said. “I don’t agree with a lot of stuff the Israeli government does. I don’t believe I should be targeted because of where my family is from or happens to live.”
“There’s so much hate and division in our country, and we have to try to stop it,” said Susan Salwen, who came from New York to attend the rally. “A couple of weeks ago, I went for a walk and was wearing a Camp Ramah T-shirt with Hebrew letters on it. All of a sudden I became aware for the first time that I could be a target.”
“I’ve spent my life marching for everyone else,” she said. “I didn’t think I’d have to march for myself.”
Major mainstream groups like the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith International, as well as the Orthodox Union and Reform and Conservative movements, signed on as sponsors, but few of their representatives spoke.
Wiesel appeared to nod to the concerns that some liberal groups had — that criticism of Israel and support for the Palestinians would be conflated with antisemitism at the rally.
“We can disagree even passionately, without being divided. We can even disagree on Israel,” he said. “We must not tolerate calls for an end to the Jewish state of Israel, through a one-state solution that once again leaves the Jews defenseless. We must also not tolerate denigration or hatred towards the aspiration for dignity and self-determination of our Palestinian cousins. If we hate, we will not win.”
David Weinstein, who lives in Silver Spring, said that more progressive groups would have attended the rally if Israel had not become a wedge issue.
“There is legitimate criticism that can be made of Israel, and I’m not saying that shouldn’t be made,” he said. “But it’s tragic that 19 years ago, 100,000 people came out to rally at the height of the Intifada, and here there are maybe 3,000 or 4,000.”
Ivy Schamis said that she has gotten more involved in social issues after two of her students were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., while she was teaching the history of the Holocaust.
“Originally, we thought it was an antisemitic attack, that my class was targeted because I was teaching a class on the Holocaust,” she said.
Schamis moved to Washington after participating in the March 2018 March for Our Lives, one of the largest protests in American history. She said that gun violence and antisemitism go hand in hand.
Not yet ready to return to the classroom, Schamis is an office manager at the Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital.
“I’m afraid, but I tell myself that I have to be rational. It happened to me, and it could happen again. It really could. I mean, I work in a Jewish school, and I know there’s a lot of hate out there, but I can’t hide from people,” she said. “I need to live my life and try to be part of the solution.”
Ron Kampeas is Washington correspondent for JTA. Rudy Malcom is a Washington-area writer.