By FATEMA HOSSEINI and RYAN MERCADO
WASHINGTON – Against the backdrop of the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, members of the Washington area Jewish community and elected officials on Friday joined to show support for Israel at a rally in the city’s Freedom Plaza.
“I’m here to say very clearly, we are here to stand with the state of Israel, to recognize the right of Israel to exist, to recognize the right for Israel to defend itself, to recognize the right of Israelis to live without fear,” Maryland Gov. Wes Moore told the crowd.
The “Stand with Israel” rally was jointly sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and several area synagogues.
“If you stand with Israel, you stand against Hamas and if you stand with the Palestinian people and their right to self determination, you also stand against Hamas,” Moore said.
Attendees came from many religious organizations, Jewish schools, universities, synagogues and workplaces. The event drew hundreds of people of all ages. Many wore blue and white, the colors of the Israeli flag, held protest signs that said “Stand with Israel,” or waved American and Israeli flags.
“This is the worst slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust,” said Guila Franklin Seigel, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. “So this rally does two things. It brings the Jewish community and our allies together at a critical time of grief and shock and anger to comfort one another and to speak in one voice. It also most importantly allows people to stand up and support Israel at a time when it is so vulnerable.”
On Saturday, during the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, militants from Hamas, an Islamist group that governs the Gaza Strip, attacked Israel. Thousands of Hamas members stormed into Israel and attacked communities, murdering hundreds of civilians. Militants also took between 100 and 150 Israeli hostages back to the Gaza Strip. Israel declared war on Hamas soon after. According to the latest count, over 1,300 Israeli civilians died in the attack.
“Hamas has tried to break the will of Israelis and Jewish people around the world… They failed because we’re more united today than I’ve ever seen us in my 30 years involved in this work,” said Ron Halbert, executive director of the Jewish Community of Greater Washington.
Moore brought up his experience as a soldier during the war in Afghanistan as he condemned Hamas.
“I’ve led soldiers in combat. I’ve seen not just the direct but the indirect impacts of terrorism, the collateral damage that it leaves … terrorists slaughter innocent women, children and the elderly in cold blood. And that’s what Hamas did.”
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, said “we shall not be moved, Israel. We shall not be moved, America. We shall not move all those in this world who are for justice and fairness and international law. Criminals must be called to account.”
Maryland has one of the largest Jewish populations in the United States, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, with 204,100 Jews, or 3.9% of the state’s population, in 2022. Many high-profile Maryland politicians are staunchly pro-Israel, including Rep. Jamie Raskin and former Govs. Martin O’Malley and Larry Hogan.
The state with the largest Jewish population is New York, with over 1.7 million Jews – the highest such concentration of Jewish people outside of Israel.
Both Democrats and Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation have thrown their support behind Israel, including Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-New York, who spoke at the rally.
“This is Israel’s 9/11,” Tenney said. “There are three things that I believe rise above the rest: military support, holding Iran accountable, and cutting off funding for terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah.”
Listening In the crowd were some with close connections to Israel.
“There’s no other place to be, you know. I am standing with our people letting them know that our voices need to be heard,” said Michael Chelst, operator of the Char Bar, a Washington kosher restaurant, who said he has family in Israel.
“No one is doing well,” Chelst said.
“I also have a lot of family in Israel and a cousin in the army,” said Sam Small, a 13-year-old student at Washington’s Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School, “and I think it’s really important that we show people, you know, that we’re strong and you know that even when we’re being attacked, we’re not afraid to be proud.”