Aaron Troodler, Heather Ross, Jarrad Saffren and Andy Gotlieb
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 — and the Philadelphia area was well represented with numerous busloads of pro-Israel supporters making the trip.
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, tens of thousands of individuals representing different communities, organizations, schools and synagogues gathered on the National Mall under a clear blue sky and took part in the “March for Israel.”
Organizers had requested permits for 60,000 people but claimed nearly 300,000 attended.
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.
“It energized everyone there to stand up for Israel,” said Rob Kitchenoff of Wynnewood, a past president of the Jewish National Fund for Eastern Pennsylvania. “It was more than a feel-good thing. It was a pushback.”
“Here is the whole day: [Actor and author] Debra Messing really energized the crowd, saying, ‘You are not alone.” We are all together,” Kitchenoff added.
Michael Balaban, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said that between schools and the Jewish Federation, about 40 buses traveled to the rally, carrying about 2,500 people.
“We didn’t know what to expect, and within three days our buses were full, so if we could have gotten more buses we could have probably gotten more people,” he said.
The important thing, Balaban said, was that everyone came together.
“It was a great show of unity among all different denominations at a time when standing in solidarity is incredibly important,” he said.
The huge crowd began arriving early, with many people taking their places at 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 and stood proudly with Israel as a range of speakers addressed the crowd.
The speakers included families of some American hostages, bipartisan congressional leaders, interfaith allies and Natan Sharansky, the renowned human rights activist, former political prisoner in the Soviet Union, former Israeli government official and former chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Author, lawyer and civil rights advocate Van Jones; Dillard University President Rochelle Ford; and Broadway actress Tovah Feldshuh addressed the crowd as well.
The event featured musical performances by Israeli music stars Ishay Ribo and Omer Adam. Before the main program, there was a pre-show rally for students, who heard from social media influencers and others.
“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 COP, 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.
Area residents deemed the day meaningful.
“We need to free the hostages. And we need to fight antisemitism,” said Cantor Beth Goodlev of Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne. “It warms my heart to see how many people are here. Am Yisrael Chai.”
“I was just, I guess, like pleasantly surprised just by the turnout. I always expected thge Jewish community to come out and support one another, support our brothers and sisters in Israel, but it’s always you know pleasant surprise to see how strong and how determined the people are In DC today and hearing from my friends and family in Israel,” said Gabi Leon of Huntingdon Valley, who took a Jewish Federation bus to the event.
Leon explained why standing with Israel, a country she’s visited several times is important.
To me, it is a safe place. I feel safer in Israel than I do in America sometimes, she said. “It’s just this idea that if something were to happen here, we have a place to go.”
“Everything I’ve done with Israel and every time I’ve been there, it’s just, you know, strengthened my connection and I was so happy I got to come today.”
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.
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 that we are hearing 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.
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.
CNN reported that the Department of Homeland Security deemed the rally a “Level 1” security event, a designation typically reserved for major events like the Super Bowl.
Donell Harvin, a former DC chief of homeland security and intelligence, told CNN that the designation was unprecedented for marches and protests in Washington, D.C.
The streets around the National Mall were blocked by police cars, city dump trucks and military vehicles, CNN reported.
CNN reported that no credible threats or counterdemonstrations were identified, citing a U.S. Capitol Police intelligence assessment.