At pro-Israel rally in U.S., left-leaning Jews describe sense of abandonment

Participants in a massive pro-Israel rally near the White House on Tuesday described a distressing sentiment they’ve been grappling with for weeks.

In summary: A sense of betrayal.

Jewish Americans said colleagues, friends and allies they so frequently agree with unexpectedly went silent after the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7.

“Nobody wants to talk about it,” said Jill Berkman, a longtime Democrat and non-religious Jew from Maryland. 

“Many of my Democratic friends who’ve supported so many other groups — just don’t want to talk about this.”

She was standing in a sea of blue and white Israeli flags amid an enormous crowd Tuesday on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Woman with Israel flag as kerchief wipes tear
Lisa Klug, of Toronto, wipes away a tear Tuesday while attending a Washington rally in solidarity with Israel and against antisemitism. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Some people held defiant signs, bearing slogans like, “We’re done explaining our right to exist.” Some, with chants of “No ceasefire,” loudly rejected the idea of a pause in fighting while Hamas still governs Gaza.

Lauren Fialkow, for her part, was holding a pride rainbow, along with other signs. One said, “Say no to Hamas, say yes to hummus.”

She’s a progressive Democrat and was a Bernie Sanders delegate at the last Democratic convention; she studied Hebrew and Arabic to better understand the Middle East, and once worked for a Jerusalem-based peace organization.

“Since [Oct. 7] happened, I’ve personally just been in emotional turmoil. Just depressed and feeling helpless and powerless,” said Fialkow, who travelled from California for the rally.

“And it just really means a lot to be here.”

She said she’s been unnerved by a jump in reports of hate crimes against Jews, and by vandalism against Jewish properties right around the anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Woman in front of Washington Monument holds sign that says:
Lauren Fialkow of California is a progressive Democrat who says she’s disturbed by how she and other Jews have been treated since the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7. (Alex Panetta/CBC)

Being called a ‘Nazi’

She described one hurtful exchange with someone she knew, an ally from the 2020 election campaign.

He posted a comment on Facebook about the Middle East; she said he could also have mentioned Jewish hostages, including babies.

His reply left her flabbergasted. 

She recalled him writing back: “Nazis like you disgust me. People who are supporting concentration camps should not have a platform to talk.”

Members of Jewish communities are afraid, she said, and recent events have merely reinforced people’s belief in the need for Israel.

One of the speakers at the rally, Alana Zeitchik, recently wrote about how disturbing it was to see friends and allies incapable of uttering simple words of sympathy.

Six of Zeitchik’s relatives have been kidnapped, including three-year-old twins.

She said it feels like supporting the hostages’ release is seen as taking sides, as being pro-war.

“It doesn’t need to be political to share in my grief,” she said from the stage.

“You can abhor the suffering of Palestinian families, and Israeli families like mine. You can call for peace — and the immediate return of innocent men, women and children.”

Crowd rejects pause in fighting: ‘No ceasefire!’ 

A left-leaning political commentator, Van Jones, drew a mixed response from the crowd.

Jones, an African-American Democrat, noted Jews had been among the most steadfast supporters of the civil rights movement. They faced arrest and imprisonment for standing with Black Americans in the 1960s.

Speaker at podium with Israeli and US flags behind him
Political commentator Van Jones was cheered at the rally for saluting Jews’ work on civil rights, but his call for curtailing Israel’s military campaign led to chants of ‘No ceasefire.’ (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Now, as Jews are afraid amid a rise in hate crimes, he said: “I don’t want to be silent.”

That drew cheers. 

But then he was briefly drowned out after appearing to call for a slowdown in Israel’s military campaign.

“I’m a peace guy,” Jones said, urging an end to rockets and bombs being directed at both sides.

People began chanting: “No ceasefire!”

On the other hand, when the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mike Johnson, called the idea of a ceasefire “outrageous”, the crowd cheered loudly. 

Grappling with the staggering death toll

The growing humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza is fuelling calls for such a pause, including from hundreds of U.S. federal employees who signed a letter protesting the overwhelmingly pro-Israel stance of President Joe Biden.

The death toll reported in Gaza is more than 11,000. That’s roughly one of every 200 people in the territory dead in the conflict, a death toll far higher than the 1,200 Israelis killed in the original Oct. 7 attack.

The Israeli government has insisted civilian deaths have been driven by Hamas’ practice of shielding itself in civilian areas.

Case in point: Gaza’s largest hospital. Israel said its military was carrying out an operation against Hamas within Al-Shifa Hospital on Tuesday.

Its contention that the hospital sits atop a Hamas hub received high-profile backing from the United States. The White House said Tuesday it had seen evidence that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad use hospitals, including Al-Shifa, to conceal tunnels, run military operations, hold hostages and possibly store weapons.

WATCH | Sickest patients ‘left to die’ at Gaza hospital:

Gaza hospital patients in peril as Israeli troops near, power runs out

2 days ago

Duration 6:14

Featured VideoThe largest hospital in Gaza has ceased to function and deaths among patients are rising, says the WHO. The director of the Al-Shifa hospital is calling on Israel, the U.S. and Egypt to evacuate the newborns from the facility.

In the very next breath, it urged Israel to avoid attacking the site. 

“To be clear, we do not support striking a hospital from the air,” White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters. “And we do not want to see a firefight in a hospital.”

Hours later, the Israeli military moved in. 

Man in white hair speaks at podium
Christian pastor John Hagee once said God sent Hitler to cause the Holocaust, in order to lead to the creation of Israel and help fulfil biblical prophecy. He was invited to speak at Tuesday’s rally. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

On social media, many progressives fumed at top Democrats for participating in the rally alongside people they view as political extremists.

One, for example, is a Christian Zionist televangelist who has been a prominent figure for decades in the pro-Israel evangelical movement in the U.S.

John Hagee once gave credit to God for sending Adolf Hitler to cause the Holocaust, which helped lead to the 1948 creation of Israel. He has also expressed desire for war pitting Israel against Russia and Iran, describing it as a precondition for the biblical rapture.

Chuck Schumer raises fist while speaking outdoors
Leading members of the U.S. Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, spoke at the rally. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

“Israel — you are not alone,” John Hagee said during Tuesday’s rally. He also started a chant aimed at showing the unity among Jews and Christians: “We are one!”

In order to broaden its political tent, the pro-Israel movement has aligned with extremists like Hagee, lamented Eric Alterman, a historian who has written about U.S. politics as it pertains to Israel.

He added that Hagee’s organization, Christians United for Israel, is by far the largest pro-Israel organization in the world.

The irony, Alterman said, is that American Jews are overwhelmingly liberal, and are divided about Israel and its policies, but in the eyes of Christian evangelicals: “Whatever Israel wants to do is great. As long as it’s not making peace.”

For example, Fialkow is no fan of the Israeli government. 

She is convinced that peaceful co-existence with Palestinians is not only the right thing to do — it’s also the only pathway to Jewish security.

How do we get there? That’s the hard part.

She says the types of kids she worked with in Jerusalem, Arab and Israeli, offer hope for a post-Hamas future.

But when it comes to achieving that reality, she said so many opinions from people who live outside the region come from a place of ignorance — whether it’s how to conduct war, or how to make peace. 

“Everyone here likes to be, ‘We’ve gotta do a two-state solution,’ ‘Gotta do a one-state solution,’ ‘a three-state solution,'” she said. “We don’t know what the hell we’re talking about.” 

The first step is replacing the leadership in Gaza, she said: “There is no room for Hamas.”

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