WASHINGTON (JTA) — Organizers of a pro-Israel rally at the National Mall in Washington on Tuesday claimed that 290,000 people showed up for the event, making it one of the largest gatherings of Jews in U.S. history at a time when an ongoing war in Gaza has sharply divided public opinion around the world.
An additional 250,000 people watched the event through a live stream, organizers added. Other Jewish marches that gathered over 100,000 people include one in 1987 in support of Soviet Jews and one in 2002 in support of Israel during the second intifada.
In more than three hours of speeches on Tuesday, a range of politicians, actors, musicians, activists and U.S. college students presented a strong front in support of Israel and spoke about the rise of antisemitism around the world since Hamas’ attacks on Oct. 7 and Israel’s subsequent war in Gaza. Many speakers also demanded the safe release of the more than 200 hostages still being held by Hamas in Gaza.
In a live feed from Jerusalem, Israeli President Isaac Herzog said “we will heal, we will rise again and we will rebuild.”
The message from the main organizers, the Jewish Federations of North America and Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, was unity. It was a rare moment that brought together leaders of both political parties passionately pushing a similar message.
“We stand here in a city often divided by partisan lines, but not when it comes to Israel,” said Harriet Schleifer, the chairwoman of the Presidents’ Conference. “Democrats and Republicans stand together — supporting the Israeli people as they seek peace, justice and the safe return of hostages.”
Schleifer also praised President Joe Biden, who has asked Congress to send more than $14 billion in emergency assistance to Israel. “President Joe Biden has been the steadiest ally and champion of our shared values,” she said. “We are grateful for his leadership.”
The message thrilled the audience, but subtle differences in messaging also emerged from the prominent Democrats and Republicans who spoke, and also between the Biden administration and Israel.
Mike Johnson, the newly installed Republican speaker of the House, said the United States would reject widespread calls for a ceasefire. “The calls for a ceasefire are outrageous,” he said to loud cheers.
Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, both New York Democrats, did not mention a ceasefire. The Biden administration opposes a ceasefire and backs Israel’s ultimate goal of dismantling Hamas but differs with Israel on the degree to which there should be pauses in fighting to bring humanitarian assistance into Gaza.
Biden is under intense pressure from a number of congressional progressives as well as some staffers in the State Department and elsewhere to force Israel to declare a ceasefire.
Sen. Jacky Rosen, a Jewish Democrat, and Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican, also spoke. It was not clear why Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, was unable to attend.
Beyond the politicians, celebrity speakers including Debra Messing, Michael Rapaport and Tova Feldshuh called for Jews to wear their identities with pride.
“My name is Tovah Feldshuh,” began the Broadway star, repudiating decades of entertainment pressure on Jews to disguise their identities. “My Hebrew name is Tovah Feldshuh. My stage name is Tovah Feldshuh.” The audience cheered.
Messing, who has been active in campaigning for Democrats, alluded to the heartbreak many Jews on the left felt after failing to hear robust condemnations of Hamas by progressives after Oct. 7.
“I know you are alone, I know you are afraid, I know you feel abandoned by people you thought were friends,” she said. “Looking out today I know we are not alone, because we have each other.”
Three relatives of hostages being held in Gaza also spoke.
“We hostage families have lived the last 39 days in slow motion torment,” said Rachel Goldberg, mother of hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin. “We all have third degree burns on our souls.”
An array of Jewish organizations across the political spectrum attended the event. The inclusion of some of the more right-wing speakers, including Johnson and Pastor John Hagee — the head of the influential Christians United for Israel group who is an opponent of LGBTQ rights — caused controversy before the rally. “A dangerous bigot like Hagee should not be welcomed anywhere in our community,” the liberal pro-Israel lobby J Street tweeted on Tuesday morning.
“There is no middle ground in this conflict — you’re either for the Jewish people or you’re not,” Hagee said in his speech on Tuesday.
But several speakers, including liberal CNN analyst Van Jones, called for the protection of Palestinian lives while emphasizing Israel’s right to defend itself, and that joint message was continually given a warm reception by the crowd.
“We must stand together to secure a just and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinian people,” Jeffries said to applause.
Dr. Rochelle Ford, the president of Dillard University in New Orleans, a historically Black university, said it was time to “stand with Israel, and to stand with the Palestinians who suffer under Hamas’ cruel rule in Gaza.”
The rally started and ended with cries of “Am yisrael chai”— “the people of Israel live.” William Daroff, head of the conference of presidents, said the tally was counted by magnetometers used by security at entrances.
“Do not cower, allow no one to make you afraid,” said Deborah Lipstadt, the Biden administration’s antisemitism monitor. “The message is built into the Jewish people’s most ancient history — Jews are strongest in their most broken places.”