Jewish Federations of North America estimate 290,000 people attended March for Israel
WASHINGTON DC -- Thousands of demonstrators from across the country gathered in Washington on Tuesday to support Israel amid the war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Amid security concerns, the National Guard assisted local police to ensure safety around the event.
Tovah Feldshuh, an actress known for her portrayal of former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, referenced the Jewish traditions surrounding death to express her grief over the Israelis killed in the fighting or taken hostage by Hamas terrorists.
"I stand here for the kidnapped babies and the Holocaust survivors abducted and hidden somewhere in Gaza. We stand here together as the yahrtzeit candles for over 1,400 slaughtered in the sovereign state of Israel only because they were Jews," she said. In the Jewish faith, a yahrtzeit candle is lit to mark the anniversary of a death.
A bipartisan slate of lawmakers who addressed the crowd also called for the release of hostages.
"We will continue fighting for the release of all hostages 'til they return to safety," vowed Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who then led the crowd in chants of "Let them go!" and "Bring them home!"
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries said, "There's a question on the minds of many of us: Where do we go from here?"
"We must stand with Israel in its effort to decisively defeat Hamas and make sure that this brutal terrorist regime can never rise again. We must make sure that every single hostage is returned home safely, and then we must stand together to ensure a just and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinian people," he said.
Sen. Joni Ernst, while calling for the "complete and total destruction" of Hamas, vowed the United States will not "shrink back and shudder in fear."
"The brutal reality of Hamas cannot be diminished. They murder babies. They rape women. They abuse the elderly. They killed 30 of our fellow Americans, hundreds of our Israeli friends, and are currently, right now, holding 200 innocent men, women, and children hostage," she said.
Upon the conclusion of Ernst's remarks, Schumer joined hands with Ernst and Jeffries, who then grabbed Speaker Mike Johnson by the hand, and led a chant of "We stand with Israel! We stand with Israel!"
Yet underneath that projection of unity, Democrats are sharply divided over Israel's course and its treatment of Palestinians. President Joe Biden now is urging Israel to restrain some of its tactics to ease civilian suffering in Gaza after voicing full-throated solidarity with the Israelis in the war's early weeks.
A succession of speakers took the stage to denounce the Hamas attack and what they said was a virulent spread of antisemitism internationally, "an embarrassment to all civilized people and nations," in the words of Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who addressed the crowd by video from the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
After "the largest massacre since the Holocaust," he said, "let us call out together, never again."
"No one will break us," he vowed. "We will rise again. ... There is no greater and just cause than this."
Lawmakers were shown videos of Hamas' surprise Oct. 7 terror attack on Israel, which killed about 1,200 people, mostly in southern Israel near the Gaza Strip, according to Israeli officials. Johnson said in his remarks at the rally on Tuesday that the lawmakers "wept as we watched the film together. Most couldn't sit through it."
Aid to Israel was not included in a short-term government funding bill the House passed Tuesday evening.
Many of the demonstrators wore Israeli flags wrapped around their shoulders, flowing behind them, or held small Israeli flags in their hands. They also held placards with names and photos of the people who had been taken hostage in Gaza, often holding them up as the crowd shouted "Bring them home!" Security was tight, with dump trucks blocking access to the mall and police dispersed throughout the area and on horseback.
"I hope that it shows solidarity" with Israel, said Jackie Seley of Rockville, Maryland, who came with friends from New York. "And I hope that it raises awareness for the hostages that are currently in danger."
Politically, the conflict has particularly torn open divisions in the Democratic Party between staunch Israel supporters who back Israel's military campaign to defeat Hamas, which the U.S. has designated a terrorist group, and progressives who are advocating for a cease-fire to the devastating fighting, which has caused an unfolding humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
At one point during the rally, organizers played a video with Jewish students talking about antisemitism, reflecting how the conflict is playing out on college campuses.
Noa Fay, a Columbia University student, said many of her peers were feeling helpless about antisemitism they were seeing on campus, but she vowed not to be silenced.
"I will continue to shout," she said. "We should not have to do this. But we can do this, we must do this."
The ensuing war after the Oct. 7 attack has killed over 11,200 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, and 180 in the West Bank, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.
On Nov. 5, thousands of pro-Palestinian protesters came together in Washington to call for a cease-fire and an end to the siege on the Gaza Strip.
Growing concerns are mounting over the Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza, which is running extremely low on resources and where Israel claims Hamas is running a command center.
President Joe Biden sounded an optimistic note earlier Tuesday about the prospect of getting some of the hostages out of the Gaza Strip, despite the fighting rendering the transportation of aid difficult.
"I've been talking with people involved every single day. I believe it's going to happen, but I don't want to get into detail," the president told reporters.
When asked about his message to the hostages' families, he responded, "Hang in there. We're coming."
The "March for Israel" -- a rally on the National Mall rather than a march -- was organized by the Jewish Federations of North America. A permit filed with the National Park Service said the organizers expected to bring up to 60,000 people to Washington to "show solidarity and support for Israel and the Israeli People."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.