Why the Israel rally in DC mattered

A historic day and its placards tell a very big Jewish story.

People attend the March for Israel rally, Nov. 14, 2023, on the National Mall in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

(RNS) — “For those who want to be shaken and stirred.”

That is the tag line of this column, and occasionally I understand why it is appropriate.

Ever since Oct. 7, the date of the Hamas pogrom in Israel, I have been shaken.

I am hardly alone. I am part of a shaken people and a shaken humanity. The macabre horrors of Oct. 7 were bad enough. The aftermath — the legitimization of raw Jew-hatred, even and especially on our nation’s college campuses — has left many of us shaken to the core of our beings.

But “stirred” — that was what happened to me yesterday at the historic rally for Israel in Washington, D.C.

Why did I attend? Because I have attended every historic rally for Jewish causes in Washington — the 1987 rally for Soviet Jewry, which succeeded in making this issue a political priority, and the 2002 rally for Israel — as well as the historic demonstrations this past summer in Jerusalem.

If history is going to be made, I like to show up.

Some takeaways.

You can’t count Jews.

Everyone was wondering aloud: “How many people are here?” News sources tended to say “tens of thousands.” The organizers themselves said 290,000.

What do we learn from this? You never can count Jews anywhere. Once you get beyond a minyan, Jewish mathematical skills start to crumble. How many people were at services? We rabbis are notoriously bad at math(!). How many members do we have in our synagogue? We think X, but we are not sure. How many Jews live in our community? We say Y, but then again, maybe …

After all, this is what God promised Abraham. “I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore” (Genesis 22:17).

Just as you cannot count the sand on the seashore, you will never be able to come up with an accurate number of Jews.

Here is a photo of the rally.

Crowds of supporters gather on the National Mall at the March for Israel on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

Crowds of supporters gather on the National Mall at the March for Israel on Nov. 14, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

You try counting. It’s like the sand on the shore.

But, if it is true that there were, say, 200,000 people at the rally, and there are, say, 7.6 million Jews in the United States, that means that 2% all American Jews were there.

Not too shabby.

Except, it wasn’t just Jews. I spotted any number of Christian groups there as well (more on the Christian part, later).

Rick and Amy Bookwalter attend the March for Israel on the National Mall, Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023, in Washington. (RNS photo/Jack Jenkins)

Rick and Amy Bookwalter attend the March for Israel on the National Mall, Nov. 14, 2023, in Washington. (RNS photo/Jack Jenkins)

But, as for Jewish diversity (more on that later), there were Jews of all flavors of religious life, and Jews of all flavors of Israel activism — from right to left.

That was certainly true of the speakers. To name a few: Natan Scharansky, Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, scholar-activist Mijal Bitton, Israeli President Isaac Herzog and many others.

The speeches from politicians were, in some ways, the most impressive, including those by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and (this will surprise some of my readers) Speaker of the House Mike Johnson.

The mothers of several hostages spoke about their children. I imagine a river of tears flowing from the Mall.

The music? Amazing. Ishay Ribo, Matisyahu …

As I said, Speaker Johnson was particularly eloquent. So was Pastor John Hagee, of Christians United for Israel. I have long been allergic to Pastor Hagee’s right-wing, fundamentalist version of Zionism, and his end-of-days theology. But, for a few hours, it didn’t matter. The rally reminded us of a new, emerging reality: When you’re up against a world of enemies, you no longer have the luxury of curating your friends.

You want Hamas defeated? You want the hostages home? For the moment, that will need to be enough.

So, why did I feel so alone? I met up with a few friends, and I unexpectedly ran into some old friends.

And yet, there I was in a crowd of hundreds of thousands of Jews. How is it possible that I didn’t run into more people that I knew? I checked this out with some other people who were there, and they reported the same thing.

You can be in a crowd of hundreds of thousands of Jews and still be alone. Which is some kind of metaphor for what it means to be a Jew in the world today — to be with your people and yet to be alone and to be lonely.

Even the act of getting to the rally featured antisemitism. Ask a group of people from Detroit about that. They landed at Dulles Airport and the bus drivers who had been hired to bring them to the rally walked off the job, refusing to transport them.

“We have learned from the bus company that this was caused by a deliberate and malicious walk-off of drivers. Fortunately, many were able to travel to the march, and we are grateful to the drivers of those buses that arrived,” said David Kurzmann, senior director of community affairs at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.

The rally itself was a sea of signs and banners. Let’s visit some of the more unusual ones.

(Photo by Jeffrey Salkin)

(Photo by Jeffrey Salkin)

These were really nice people. They told me they are the only socialist union that fully supports Israel’s right to exist, to defend itself, and stands squarely behind the Jewish people’s battle against Jew-hatred. 

The lesson? While many on the extreme left seem to have turned against Israel, even trafficking in antisemitism, we do have allies in unexpected places.

(Photo by Jeffrey Salkin)

(Photo by Jeffrey Salkin)

I spoke to the woman who was carrying a placard that read “#MeToo. UNless UR a Jew!” This is what she said.

#Metoo is about women who have been sexually abused. We are supposed to believe women. We women are supposed to stand up for each other, right?”

So, why is it that when we talk about how Hamas raped and sexually abused Jewish women — even dragging them naked through the streets of Gaza — people are either refusing to talk about it, or actually denying it?

Didn’t we say “believe women”? Or is it only Israeli women that we are not supposed to believe?

Notice, by the way, the way she wrote it. “UNless … ” As in, the U.N.; as in, the United Nations.

I emerged from that conversation shaken and stirred.

(Photo by Jeffrey Salkin)

(Photo by Jeffrey Salkin) 

Another sign read “Asian Jews Against AntiSemitism.” Consider: Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in New York — one of the most publicly recognizable clergy in America — is Asian. She is not the only Asian Jewish clergy.

This sign rebukes those who think Israel is a white, colonialist, apartheid state and that Jews are essentially “white.” Such claims erase the racial diversity of the Jewish people. Any trip to Israel, or a visit to most synagogue religious schools, would remind you of that diversity.

(Photo by Jeffrey Salkin)

(Photo by Jeffrey Salkin)

What does “Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea” really mean? Per one sign I saw, “My family lives between the river and the sea so the chants mean genocide for me.”

Those people who chant “Palestine will be free … “?

Here is what they are not chanting. “Two, four, six, eight, we want a Palestinian state!”

Many Jews would agree, albeit with serious reservations and concerns.

No. This means: From the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, there will be Palestine.

Just Palestine.

No Israel.

There are only three ways the Jews leave Israel: by boat, by plane, by (God forbid) body bag.

Those who chant that slogan should know that. That is why Rep. Rashida Tlaib was censured for saying it. It is genocidal.

We should be grateful to this woman’s placard for making that clear.

(Photo by Jeffrey Salkin)

(Photo by Jeffrey Salkin)

Another sign reminded us of an unmitigated tragedy and horror: Vivian Silver, 74, was killed in the Hamas attack on Kibbutz Be’eri.

Here is the terrible, cruel irony.

Vivian was a peace activist. As The New York Times reported:

Ms. Silver was known for her commitment to peace efforts between Israelis and Palestinians. After the war in Gaza in 2014, she co-founded Women Wage Peace, which lobbies for a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. She also helped found and direct the Arab-Jewish Center for Empowerment, Equality, and Cooperation and served for years on the board of directors of B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization. Ms. Silver regularly drove sick Palestinians from Gaza, near her home, into Israel for medical treatment as part of the Road to Recovery organization.

Vivian fought for Palestinian rights and dignity. To the Hamas terrorists, it just didn’t matter.

The best part of the day, in some ways?

When I was on the plane from Palm Beach to Washington, with a layover in Atlanta, the pilot on the Delta flight made an announcement.

In essence: “There are many members of the Atlanta Jewish community on this flight who are on their way to Washington to rally for Israel. We wish them a safe flight and a successful day.”

A round of applause from everyone on the plane.

That was a blessing.

The whole day was a blessing.

Being part of history can shake and stir you.

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