The Jewish Observer
News from Middle Tennessee's Jewish Community | Sunday, March 3, 2024
The Jewish Observer

‘Let our people go’: Thousands of protesters call on Hamas to release hostages at March for Israel

JFGN National Mall

Nashville’s Jewish community sent more than 60 people to the March for Israel rally in Washington, DC.

Tens of thousands of people rallied in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 14 to demand the release of the hostages in Gaza, efforts to combat rising antisemitism and continued U.S. congressional and presidential support for Israel. 

Pro-Israel supporters — including 65 from Nashville — united in response to the estimated 240 hostages taken by Hamas during its Oct. 7 surprise attack on Israel and the Israeli death toll surpassing 1,400 

The protest featured multiple guest speakers including actresses, politicians, ambassadors, Israeli president Isaac Herzog and the family members of hostages taken by Hamas. The event was organized by the Jewish Federations of North America and Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. 

Leslie Kirby, the president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Nashville, arranged for 65 Jewish Nashville community members to fly to D.C. for the demonstration. In attendance were Kirby, CEO Dan Horwitz, community engagement associate Eitan Snyder, rabbis from local synagogues and other community members. 

“I think this is a historic moment, and there’s a lot of confusion about what’s going on, and I think people need to hear loud and clear that there’s no moral equivalence between Hamas and Israel,” Kirby told The Jewish Observer Nashville. “Whatever you may think about the Israeli government and policies, it’s not okay to kidnap people and rape people and murder them and to have so many people not be willing to say that is really traumatic for a lot of Jewish people. So it’s important to bring a group here and stand in the face of that.”   

Ritchie Torres, a representative for New York’s 15th congressional district, spoke in support of Israel, citing key historical moments of terrorism. 

“Israel has a right to defend itself and America has a duty to stand with Israel in her struggle for survival and self-defense,” Torres told the crowd. “Israel must do to Hamas what the U.S. did to ISIS and Al-Qaeda in the 21st century. We must do to Hamas what we did to the Nazis in the 20th century. … No one expected the United States to enter into a ceasefire with the Empire of Japan when 2,400 Americans were murdered in Pearl Harbor. No one expected the United States to enter into a ceasefire with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban when 3,000 Americans were murdered on 9/11.” 

He added that Israel is held to a “dangerous double standard” compared to other countries when it comes to terrorism, which he said should not be the case.  

CNN political commentator Van Jones also spoke at the rally in solidarity with the Jewish community. 

“I’m here because the horror and the terror that unfolded in Israel and Palestine have sent shockwaves far beyond their borders,” Jones told the crowd.  

His call for peace — “No more rockets from Gaza and no more bombs falling down on the people of Gaza” — was met with the crowd’s chant of “No ceasefire.” 

Tali Izhaky, a member of NowGen’s Israel committee who attended the march, said she agrees with Israel’s right to defend itself. 

“You can’t agree with a terrorist organization to a ceasefire when they break ceasefires and commit these horrible war crimes,” Izhaky told The Jewish Observer Nashville. “You can’t agree to something when it doesn't mean anything on their end."

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‘Bring them home’ 

Other attendees said they want to prioritize the release of the hostages taken by Hamas and ensure their safe return to their homes. Rabbi Joshua Kullock of West End Synagogue said that a ceasefire is “probably not the right answer right now.” 

“We are all in favor of a ceasefire as long as Hamas releases the hostages, but as long as that doesn’t happen, there is not really any room for ceasefire,” Kullock said. “The pressure should be put [on] Hamas so that they release the hostages, they renounce the terror.” 

Attendees brought and distributed posters of the hostages, who range in age from nine months to 87 years old, according to Daniel Shek, the head of the diplomatic department at Families of the Hostages and the Missing Forum. Each “kidnapped” poster contains the name, age, home country and a photo of the person taken captive by Hamas. Chants of “Bring them home” filled the National Mall.  

Rachel Goldberg, the mother of 23-year-old Hersh Goldberg-Polin, spoke at the event, saying she has not seen her son since he attended a music festival in southern Israel and was taken hostage by Hamas.  

“Why is the world accepting that 240 human beings from almost 30 countries have been stolen and buried alive?” Goldberg asked the crowd. 

A ‘direct danger to our democracy’ 

Deborah Lipstadt, a historian and ambassador, spoke out against antisemitism, which she said is the world’s “oldest, largest form of prejudice.” The Anti-Defamation League reported that antisemitic incidents in the U.S. spiked nearly 400 percent since the war began in the Middle East. 

“It is an affront to the integrity of our laws. It is a gateway to prejudice, racism, injustice of every form,” Lipstadt said of antisemitism. “It is a direct danger to our democracy, and we, the United States, will fight it. Full stop.” 

Singer-songwriter and actress Montana Tucker said both of her grandparents survived the Holocaust and she grew up hearing their experiences of the time leading up to it. She drew parallels between the 1940s and the present day, specifically how people were silent in the face of prejudice. 

“The lies began to spread about Jewish people, who we are, how we pray, what we represent,” Tucker said to the crowd. “These lies, they’re spreading again. The violence is rising again. The threat is real again.” 

Tucker said the young people of today can choose to be silent, like the masses during the Nazi regime, or stand up for what is right. 

The group of Nashville community members included 15 middle and high school students and five Vanderbilt University students. The Israel on Campus Coalition offered $250 per attendee for college students to attend the march, designed to offset travel expenses. Kirby said some individual community members donated to send a student to the rally.  

Kirby said students have been “bearing the brunt” of antisemitism since Oct. 7, so she was especially glad to see student representation at the rally. In October, Cornell University officials sent police to guard a Jewish center and kosher dining hall on campus in response to antisemitic online threats. At Harvard University, a group of student organizations signed a statement blaming Israel for Hamas’ attacks. 

Students across the country have reported feeling unsafe on campuses due to this rising hatred, per the Associated Press. President Joe Biden’s administration condemned the “alarming” rise in antisemitism in American colleges and universities. Staff in the departments of Justice and Homeland Security have facilitated conversations with campus law enforcement officials, according to a statement from the White House. 

‘A word of appreciation’ 

Kullock said he is grateful to the Biden administration for supporting Israel immediately after the Oct. 7 attack. Biden visited Israel on Oct. 18 and gave an Oval Office address appealing for more funding for Israel upon his return. He requested $14.3 billion in aid to Israel on Oct. 20, the majority of which will contribute to air and missile defense systems.  

“I want to appreciate and thank the administration for going and embracing Israel right away. Standing next to Israel at this time, it’s not easy,” Kullock said. “Lots of people [are] putting pressure, and they have been able to say that Israel has the right, but also the duty to defend itself against Hamas, so first of all, it’s a word of appreciation, thanking the government.” 

Rabbi Shana Goldstein Mackler of Congregation Ohabai Sholom said she wants to see  continued support. 

“I’m hopeful that the assistance will still come from D.C., from our government to support Israel and that finally the world will hear our need to rescue those 240 hostages before any peace can be waged,” Mackler said. 

Jewish Nashvillians take on D.C. 

Kirby said the Jewish Federations of North America announced the March for Israel on Nov. 6, and Kirby said she arranged for 65 Jewish community members to come to D.C. within three days. Originally hoping to bring 25 community members to D.C., she said she was pleasantly surprised by the larger turnout.                                                      

“We kind of just put out a call to the community and reserved airline tickets and said first-come-first-served, and we filled up really quickly,” Kirby said. “I’m just really gratified that people took the time to come and be present.” 

She added that there is a lot of nuance regarding the Israel-Hamas war. 

“The key message I would send is that people don’t have to choose: you can be sorry for Palestinian children suffering and Jewish children suffering and I think a lot of people in our country and the world right now feel like they have to pick a side and make it a binary,” Kirby said. 

Kirby said she has hope that the demonstration’s demands will be met, such as the release of the hostages. 

“Some of the goals seem really lofty that are hard to attain, just the idea that there’ll be peace and that kind of thing,” Kirby said. “We’re a long way from that, it doesn’t mean we don’t work toward it, but it’s not like that’s going to happen tomorrow.” 

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