WASHINGTON — Hundreds of thousands of people filled the National Mall on Tuesday for the biggest pro-Israel rally in a generation, demanding release of hostages held in Gaza and denouncing the antisemitism unleashed by the Hamas attack 40 days earlier.
“It’s been quite a few years since we felt like there was an existential crisis for Israel,” said Joel Schwitzer, Dallas-area director of the American Jewish Committee, one of hundreds of North Texans at the March for Israel. “This feels different than anything I can remember.”
Security was tight, with streets around the mall closed and a heavy presence of police. Busloads from synagogues across the Northeast and Midwest converged on the capital. Texans by the hundreds flew to the capital.
Organizers said 290,000 people were on hand to show solidarity with the Jewish state, the hostages, and each other — more even than a 1987 march to protest Soviet oppression of Jews.
Jewish groups announced the rally last week to counteract the antisemitism and animosity towards Israel that have spiked since the Hamas attack on Oct. 7.
“We’re Americans,” said Dena Ofengeim, 30, who left Dallas for Boston three years ago2 adding she attended to defy the uptick in “psychological warfare against Jews.”
Her father fled the Soviet Union decades ago and lately, she said, “my dad’s been talking about ‘never again.’ I thought he was exaggerating but he’s right. People don’t take these things seriously. First they dehumanize us. Then they come for us.”
Relatives of some of the 240 hostages held in Gaza pleaded for their release. Signs in the crowd that read “Kidnapped” showed their photos. Groups prayed for the safety of Israeli forces between speakers.
“I couldn’t not come here,” said David Kogut, 71, a retired pediatric dentist in Dallas who has a relative in Israel recovering from a gunshot wound to the spine, suffered in the early hours of the attack.
He held a sign that read “Dallas stands with Israel.”
The five-hour rally was held with Congress in session, in part to keep up pressure on lawmakers to approve $14 billion President Joe Biden wants to send Israel in security aid. The request has been bogged down amid resistance to requests for $9 billion in humanitarian aid for Gaza and $61 billion for Ukraine.
The new House speaker, Mike Johnson, R-La., vowed that Israel will get the aid it needs. So did Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat and the highest ranking elected Jewish politician in U.S. history.
Johnson drew cheers when he declared that “the calls for a ceasefire are outrageous … . Israel will cease their counteroffensive when Hamas ceases to be a threat to the Jewish state.”
The crowd chanted “no ceasefire!”
“Never never never will we forget the evil of Hamas,” Schumer told the crowd.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog, speaking by video feed from the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest site in Judaism, denounced “the Hamas savagery.” Pleading for the hostages, he invoked Moses’ plea to the Pharaoh before the exodus from Egypt.
“Once again in Jewish history we demand, let our people go,” Herzog said. “There is no greater and more just cause than this. … Today we come together as a family, one big mishpachah, to march for Israel.”
John Hagee, senior pastor at San Antonio’s Cornerstone Church and a staunch supporter of Israel, told the crowd: “I am here to deliver a singular message: Israel, you are not alone!”
“We pray for the leaders of Israel and the people of Israel. May God give you the wisdom of Solomon, and the courage of King David, and the victories of Joshua,” Hagee said. “After the Oct. 7 massacre we must all make choices. … We choose peace, or terror. We choose Israel, or Hamas. There is no middle ground in this conflict. You’re either for the Jewish people, or you’re not.”
A 1987 march for Soviet Jewry drew 250,000 people. During a Palestinian uprising in 2002, 100,000 Israel supporters gathered at the Capitol.
“Many of your grandparents fought for our freedom,” Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident who spent years trying to emigrate, told the crowd Tuesday.
He described the anguish of daily funerals in Israel.
“Wherever you go you hear more and more stories about torture and murder. How do you keep going? You do it together,” he said.
He lamented “another front in this war” — the outbreak of antisemitism at Harvard, Yale and other elite U.S. universities, where students have cheered “this modern pogrom…. They speak about justice and they are ready to welcome the killers of babies. We will fight against those who try to give legitimacy to Hamas.”
Chants of “bring them home!” broke out repeatedly during the rally. Placards showed the same message. T-shirts read “End Jew Hate.”
“I can’t sleep at night because I’m imagining what it’s like for these hostages. I have children the age of some of them,” said Rabbi Shira Wallach. “Oct. 7 was a pogrom,” a massacre of innocents.
She and the other four clergy from Dallas’ Congregation Shearith Israel were at the rally. They came with 30 or so congregants, some holding signs that read “Dallas stands with Israel.”
“Hamas is the common enemy” of Israel and of the 2 million Palestinians under their control in Gaza, the rabbi said.
The current crisis has forged rare unity between secular and religious Jews, and between factions in the U.S. and Israel that support and oppose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies of expansion into the West Bank.
“I’m not a religious person,” said Dallas resident Arona Ackermann, 53, whose grandparents fled Lithuania in 1933 for what became the nation of Israel in 1948. Given the current peril, she feels an “intense obligation” to honor the sacrifices “from all of my ancestors” and those defending Israel now.
“I want the Palestinians to have peace and I want them to build their own country alongside us, and I want them to either leave us alone or partner with us,” she said.
The conflict began with a series of raids Oct. 7 that killed 1,200 people, organized by Hamas, which the United States and European Union view as terrorists. The Iran-backed group, whose goals include driving all Jews out of Israel, has controlled Gaza since 2006.
Israel identified roughly 70% of the dead as unarmed civilians, including children and elderly.
Some bodies were burned and mutilated.
“It’s important to remember the sheer barbarism of the attacks of October 7,” said Schwitzer. “No country would allow that to happen unchecked.”
Israel’s response has been fierce. After weeks of bombardment and a ground operation still underway, the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry has put the death toll at more than 11,100 people. Most are women and children.
That’s one in every 200 people in Gaza.
As news outlets have documented, that was a big part of the Hamas strategy — to provoke a heavy handed response that would turn world opinion against Israel.
Hamas also wanted to halt a growing thaw in Arab-Israeli relations, which the group feared would ease pressure over the Palestinian cause. Iran was especially alarmed by an impending pact with Saudi Arabia, its top regional rival.
Pro-Palestinian protesters have demanded a ceasefire. Israel rejects the idea, arguing that would let Hamas regroup.
“Little babies were snatched and taken hostage,” said Robin Stein, chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston. “We want everyone to remember there are 240 hostages. No other country would even consider a cessation of operations while you’re at war.”
Israeli tanks reached the gates of Al Shifa Hospital, the largest in Gaza, on Monday.
Israel says Hamas uses tunnels under the hospital as a headquarters. American officials support the assertion but also echo growing international concerns about the hundreds of patients and medical personnel who have not evacuated, despite Israel’s urging to do so.
Gaza health officials say 32 patients have died since Saturday, including newborns whose incubators were unable to run for lack of power.
A Nov. 4 pro-Palestinian march in Washington drew tens of thousands of protesters. A march in London last weekend drew 300,000 people, according to police.
The Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations spearheaded the March for Israel.
Much of Tuesday’s rally was aimed at combating the antisemitism that has boiled since the attack.
“I can tell you without hesitation… at the White House or in the Congress, at home or abroad, this government stands shoulder to shoulder against Jew-hatred,” historian Deborah Lipstadt, the Biden administration’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, told the crowd. “Nowhere. Not now, not ever.”