Reflections on the March for Israel

We needed to be in Washington, DC yesterday—as Americans and as Jews, standing proudly and without fear among almost 300,000 others.   

For some, this trip to DC echoed other rallies that we or our parents or grandparents attended; as American citizens, we take seriously what the First Amendment protects: “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for redress of grievances.” We lobbied leadership to improve the lives of women in the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession and Pageant. Fifty years later, in 1963, large numbers of Jews—including rabbinic leadership—participated in the iconic March on Washington for civil rights. We also stood together yesterday as American Jews remembering the rally of December 1987, when 250,000 Jews, filling the National Mall, demanded that millions of Russian Jews be allowed to leave and that the American president pressure the Soviet premier to make that happen. And 15 years later, in 2002, we gathered 100,000 strong to support Israel during a spate of suicide bombings marking the Second Intifada. 

Throughout the years, we have been involved in rallies and marches demonstrating against the genocide in Darfur and for the welfare of workers, human rights at home and abroad, climate action, and women’s rights, as well as a variety of other causes. 

Yesterday, we came from across the country—close to 300,000 strong—to express our deep gratitude to our president for the comprehensive and extensive support for Israel that he and the US government have displayed since October 7. We came to demonstrate our steadfast support for our brethren in Israel who are engulfed in grief and enmeshed in the war against Hamas. And we came to make our voices heard, as List College student Talia Bodner, a spoken word poet, so emphatically expressed when she spoke at yesterday’s event: “We sing for Israel, our voices sweet like songbirds, and WE WILL BE HEARD. Our love for our homeland transcends more than words, and WE WILL BE HEARD. Hear us now, hear our message word for word, today we raise our voices loud to the world, and WE WILL BE HEARD. WE WILL BE HEARD.” You can also see a video of her appearance at yesterday’s rally here

And we came to call attention to the insidiousness of antisemitism, which has resurged with a vengeance some 80 years after the Shoah. We gathered in the light of day to dispel any thought that we might be intimidated into keeping silent or staying in the presumed safety of the shadows. What we heard on the Mall yesterday was an echo of the exhortation in Isaiah 58: “Cry with full throat, raise your voice like a ram’s horn,” so that cruel injustice against Israel and its captive citizens will be redressed and the alarming hatred against Jews vanquished.  

For me and for my colleagues, it was also a day to be proud of our own JTS family, and especially the students in all our academic programs. JTS, like most institutions of higher learning, rarely cancels classes, for learning is the foundation upon which action is built. In recent years, we canceled classes and rented buses only twice. First in 1996 for the funeral of JTS rabbinical student Matthew Eisenfeld and his fiancée Sara Duker, who were murdered in a bus bombing in Jerusalem, and again for the 2002 rally during the second Intifada.  

Though our undergraduates had classes at Columbia and Barnard yesterday, they and our graduate-level students attended the rally in full force: undergraduates who have been courageous in living as Jews and in speaking out against pro-Hamas propaganda and antisemitism; rabbinical, cantorial, graduate, and education students who have been supporting students, congregants, and unaffiliated Jews in communal spaces, schools, and campus Hillels through their internships and jobs. They understand that they are the future leaders of this extraordinary American Jewish community and that leadership entails solidarity in threatening times.  

We know that the impact of yesterday’s events will inspire them as they become future Jewish leaders. As one William Davidson School student shared, “The March for Israel in Washington, DC on November 14 was the most incredible and inspiring experiences of my life. Being surrounded by a massive sea of Jewish people from across the United States was so powerful, and I couldn’t help but be in awe of what I was a part of. Being together as a community, from far and wide, was a miracle and a blessing.” A Rabbinical School student also added, “It felt auspicious and holy to be with the Jewish people at such a significant moment.” 

We know, of course, that opinions differ on how the war against Hamas and its aftermath should be conducted. Our dreams for the future of the land that we love differ considerably. That diversity was part of our strength yesterday. The words of Natan Sharansky when reflecting on the 1987 demonstration to free Soviet Jews, ring equally true now. He reminded us that “the real power we Jews have is when we are united: United doesn’t mean we are of the same opinion . . . Different opinions or different organizations doesn’t mean we can’t be together in the same struggle.”  

Yesterday we united to address the most basic struggles: The return of the hostages. The vision of a Jewish and democratic state. The extinguishing of antisemitism everywhere. 

Let us build on the spirit of the rally working with solidarity, determination, and mutual respect to ensure the safety and security of the Jewish people throughout the world and the thriving of a devoted and diverse Jewish community that evokes pride and deep gratitude.