By Jonathan Landay
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Washington on Tuesday for a “March for Israel” to show solidarity with Israel in its war with Hamas and condemn rising antisemitism.
Streets were closed around much of downtown amid heightened security, as people gathered in bright sunshine on the National Mall, many draped in Israeli and U.S. flags.
“We are here to show the world that we won’t be exterminated again,” said Marco Abbou, 57, a personal trainer from Hackensack, New Jersey, who is originally from Israel.
Protests and public demonstrations — both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel — have rippled around the world since gunmen from the Palestinian militant group Hamas rampaged through southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people, according to Israel, and taking about 240 hostages back to Gaza.
Israel responded with a strict blockade on Hamas-controlled Gaza, and an aerial bombardment and ground offensive that Palestinian authorities say has killed more than 11,000 people, around 40% of them children.
As well as protests, the conflict has sparked a rise in antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents in the United States including violent assaults and online harassment, according to advocacy groups.
Organizers of Tuesday’s demonstration said they estimated 200,000 people were attending to show U.S. support for Israel, demand the release of hostages and condemn antisemitic violence and harassment.
People in the crowd held up signs showing the names and photographs of people kidnapped by Hamas, and chanted “bring them home”. Other placards included “We have no where else to go” and “civilians who praise the slaughter of Jews are not innocent.”
Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident and chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel from 2009-2018, called for the crowd to fight for Israel.
“We’ll fight against those who try to give legitimacy to Hamas. We will fight for Israel. We’ll fight for every Jew. We will fight against antisemitism,” Sharansky said.
“We defeated Soviet Union. We’ll defeat our enemies today.”
The largest demonstration in Washington so far related to the conflict on Nov. 4 drew thousands who called for the U.S. government, Israel’s main backer, to call for a ceasefire.
‘NOT INTERESTED IN PEACE’
“A ceasefire is a pause that would allow Hamas to rearm,” said Ariel Ben-Chitrit, 33, a federal government worker from Herndon, Virginia, who was carrying a blue and white Israeli flag at Tuesday’s protest.
Ben-Chitrit expressed regret Palestinian civilians were suffering and Gaza hospitals being subjected to extreme conditions, but said the only way to end the conflict was to eliminate Hamas.
“Hamas has proven they are not interested in peace,” he said.
The Biden administration has rebuffed calls for a ceasefire but has urged Israel to grant pauses in the fighting for civilians to move to safer locations and for humanitarian aid to enter Gaza.
Underscoring support in the U.S. Congress for Israel, busloads of senators and members of the House of Representatives attended the pro-Israel rally. Senator Charles Schumer, the Senate’s Democratic majority leader, and the highest-ranking Jewish elected U.S. official, rescheduled his weekly press conference to attend.
“Hamas’s goal was to scare us. Those perpetrating the poison of antisemitism and bigotry around the world are trying to scare us,” Schumer said. “But we will not allow history to slide back to the days of the Holocaust when Jews were targeted and murdered and butchered.”
Authorities ordered an increased police presence for the demonstration, the House’s Sergeant at Arms said on Monday, but it added there was no specific threat and measures were being taken out of an abundance of caution.
Tuesday’s rally included Orthodox Jews wearing long black coats and black felt hats, gaggles of children, and self-described “progressive liberals” such as Erica Taxin, 56, a yoga studio owner from Philadelphia.
She said she disagreed with other progressives calling for a ceasefire.
The militants “didn’t just take hostages but killed children and peacemakers,” she said, referring to murdered Israeli activists who advocated peace with the Palestinians. “How does that have anything to do with social justice?”
Israel’s President Isaac Herzog said in a video address that outbursts of antisemitism anywhere are an embarrassment to all civilized people and nations.
“Jews in America must be safe. Jews all over the world must be safe,” Herzog told the crowd.
The only counter demonstration witnessed by Reuters correspondents was outside the main crowd enclosure, where several dozen Orthodox Jews from anti-Zionist group Neturei Karta chanted “1, 2, 3, 4, Zionism no more,” and “down, down the state of Israel.”
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Writing by Simon Lewis and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Daniel Wallis)