WASHINGTON – Former Perry High School student Tomer Ben-Ezer said he has not always felt comfortable living in Washington, but that was not the case Tuesday as he looked around at the crowds and the Israeli and U.S. flags filling the National Mall.
“There’s going to be hate, of course, there’s going to be antisemitism, but as long as we are together, we’re going to be stronger,” said Ben-Ezer, an Israeli flag draped around his shoulders.
He was one of several Arizonans who joined thousands in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol for the Americans March for Israel. The event, organized by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, comes in the wake of more than a month of fighting between Israel and Hamas.
More than 1,200 Israelis, many of them civilians, were killed in a surprise Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants in Gaza. Roughly 230 hostages were also taken in that raid, most of whom are still unaccounted for.
A call for release of the hostages, including some U.S. citizens, was one of the main rallying cries of Tuesday’s event. That was echoed by Jon Kasle, who came from his home in Tucson to show his support at the rally.
“We’re here, first and foremost, for the hostages. So that they’re released, so that some humanity is shown to people who are now suffering untold types of experiences,” Kasle said.
The Israeli military has responded to the Oct. 7 attack by heavily bombarding Gaza in the weeks since, in what it called an effort to destroy Hamas. More than 11,000 Palestinians have reportedly been killed in the fighting, leading to protests across the U.S. as well as demands for a cease-fire from some groups, including some members of Congress.
On Oct. 18, hundreds of demonstrators, many wearing “Jews say cease-fire now” shirts, showed up at the Capitol demanding a cease-fire. On Tuesday, a small group of counter-protesters who identified themselves as rabbis also called for an end to hostilities.
Along with the tensions has come a rise in reported hate crimes against both Jews and Muslims. Since the war in Gaza began, the Anti-Defamation League said it has seen a 316% increase in antisemitic incidents compared to the same time last year, while the Council on American-Islamic Relations reported a 216% rise in anti-Arab attacks.
Ben-Ezer said he has seen it firsthand, saying posters he put up for a recent recital were defaced Friday with an antisemitic death threat. He said he feels “fearful of showing my actual political views, or showing where I’m from, what I believe in or my origins.”
“It’s kind of funny because it’s the capital of the United States and I thought it was going to be very diverse, politically and nationality-wise, but apparently I was wrong,” Ben-Ezer said.
Despite the tense backdrop, and heightened security, the mood at Tuesday’s rally was largely upbeat and peaceful.
The densely packed crowd stretched for blocks between the Capitol and the Washington Monument along the National Mall, holding hands while they sang, prayed and chanted, often in Hebrew. Under a clear and sunny sky, speakers – including family members of some hostages – fired up the crowd and congressional leaders took the stage to reaffirm their support for Israel.
The rally came as Congress is debating a White House request for $14.5 billion in emergency aid for Israel.
The House passed a stand-alone bill earlier this month to provide the aid – but pay for it with a $14.5 billion reduction in the IRS budget, which both the Democrat-controlled Senate and the White House oppose.
Democrats have proposed including Israel aid, along with funding for Ukraine and border security, on a short-term budget extension that must pass by Friday to keep the government open. But the House late Tuesday passed a Republican budget plan that does not include the funds.
Arizona resident said he Eddie Calderon flew to Washington early Tuesday so he could be part of the rally. He preferred to focus on the positive atmosphere of the event.
“You know every single Jew here loves each other,” Calderon said with a smile.