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 July 11 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.
“To stand united as one with thousands of other voices in a loud cry against antisemitism was empowering,” said Michael Balaban, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, who attended the event. “We must challenge this vile hatred through collective actions and our collective unity in support of a secure Israel and for our existence as a flourishing Jewish community and, on Sunday, we did just that.”
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, with his brother translating his words to 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 100 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, 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 with a central tenet that BDS is antisemitic, set the tone at the outset of the event. She first started planning 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 who 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 and others 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 on multiple occasions.
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.
Elisha Wiesel, son of Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, appeared to nod to the concerns of some liberal groups — 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 toward the aspiration for dignity and self-determination of our Palestinian cousins. If we hate, we will not win.”
Philadelphia-area residents were among those in attendance. The rally made an impression on them.
“The rally was an important statement for the Jewish people,” said Wynnewood attorney Robert Kitchenoff, a past president of the JNF Eastern Pennsylvania board of directors. “The rally was bipartisan, with representatives of the Biden administration, federal congresspeople and some state legislators speaking.”
“After Tree of Life, Charlottesville and the other more recent attacks, we must be vigilant. Never Again must have meaning, and we can’t be afraid to show our Jewishness. If we are truly a pluralistic society, we can’t accept being bullied,” he said. l
Ron Kampeas is Washington, D.C., correspondent for JTA. Rudy Malcom is a Washington-area writer. Jewish Exponent Managing Editor Andy Gotlieb contributed to this article.