There are still more than 200 hostages in the custody of Hamas, according to Israeli officials. And a group of Israeli Jews in the Philadelphia area are working day and night to get them out.
They are not government or law enforcement negotiators. They are not idealistic college students or 20-somethings with time on their hands. They are not even part of any larger Jewish organization.
They are just concerned Israelis who want to make sure that awareness of the hostages does not wane.
Organizing loosely under the BringThemHome hashtag and banner, these local Jews are talking in WhatsApp groups, rallying and making social media posts. They are calling in the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia whenever they need assistance from an organization with resources.
Many marched in the Jewish Federation’s rally from City Hall to the Liberty Bell on Oct. 16. A few days earlier, the Jewish Federation helped the activists get a permit to march from the Holocaust Memorial Plaza to City Hall. One Israeli American, a doctor, convinced his leadership in Jefferson Health to allow a rally with more than 200 people on one of its campuses. The activists are also putting up BringThemHome posters on college campuses and along city streets.
Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,400 Israelis. Israel has struck back in the Gaza territory and is believed to be planning a ground invasion.
“I haven’t slept one night since all this happened. I haven’t slept one night straight,” said Yair Lev, an Israeli American who lives in Merion Station. “I wake up and think not only about the hostages but the families.”
Other activists echoed Lev’s sentiment.
“Every moment that I have, and every moment that I don’t have,” said Shani Amram, an Israeli who lives in Ambler. “We don’t really sleep since everything happened. You feel like you’re doing something for the country.”
Hundreds of people are in these various WhatsApp groups, according to Lev. Large-scale coordination can happen in hours. It was Lev, a doctor in the Jefferson system, who planned the rally on its campus.
“In 48 hours, we were over 200 people,” he said. “Mostly Jews but not only Jews.”
Lev and Amram were both part of the local protest movement against Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul proposals earlier this year. They targeted the Main Line home and office of Arthur Dantchik, the billionaire donor to the think tank, the Kohelet Policy Forum, that came up with the proposals. After the protests, Dantchik made a public statement about how he would divest from the think tank.
These protests are less targeted, according to Lev and Amram. While they still focus on a specific goal, there is not one person they can target. Instead, they are aiming to combat what they see as misinformation in the media.
A recent explosion at a hospital in Gaza was immediately blamed on Israel by The New York Times. The outlet corrected its reporting hours later to reflect an Israeli intelligence assessment that Hamas was responsible.
The activists believe they must keep the narrative on Israel’s side. It was Hamas that perpetrated the attack on Israel and took innocent people hostage.
“It doesn’t matter now that it’s been concluded that it was the jihad that dropped this. It was concluded that Israel caused the genocide. It’s wrong,” Lev said. “We have to be strong about this, and we have to keep spreading the word: What Hamas did was the most heinous war crime.”
The Jewish Federation remains ready to help with whatever the Israeli Americans need, according to Jason Holtzman, the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.
“We recognize that the Israeli community here in Philadelphia are some of the most impacted by the events that have taken place in Israel,” Holtzman said. “So, we’ve been trying to work with them. Whether it’s helping them get a permit to secure a rally, asking them to speak at a rally or even working together to plan rallies.”
On Oct. 22 at the Overbrook Assembly of God in Philadelphia, an African American church, the Jewish Federation was part of a night to support Israel. Holtzman reached out to Lev to see if he wanted to speak. He did, and he brought “several Israelis” with him, according to Holtzman.
“It’s very powerful, and it’s mutually beneficial. They’re really committed and passionate about what they’re doing and are able to mobilize a large number of people in a short amount of time,” he said.