With the grim talk of kidnapped children, murdered Jews, and surging antisemitic crimes in America and worldwide, the big rally in Washington on Tuesday November 14, organized by the American Jewish community, might have been a downer.
But the event, which I spent some time at, left me uplifted and optimistic about the future of America, American Jewry, and the U.S.-Israel relationship.
I showed up early—just after the gates officially opened, at 10 am. It's a big space and there weren't yet many people there and I had that nervous feeling that the rally might backfire. What if they threw a big rally to support Israel and fight antisemitism and hardly anyone showed up?
Fortunately, that's not at all what happened. The crowd that turned out was impressively large and not at all embarrassing. There's a lot of talk about how the American Jewish community has diminished in power and numbers from its 20th century peak. But it didn't seem that way yesterday. The American Jewish community that was able to pull off the "Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jewry" event on December 6, 1987, that was a formative event in my youth used a similar playbook to achieve a similar result in 2023. The organizational and logistical skills and grassroots strength and muscle are still there, available to be called on. And for a supposedly aging community, it was a young crowd—college students from Hillels, Jewish day-school students from as far away as California, Texas, Colorado, and Chicago.
The 1987 rally was Natan Sharansky's idea, and, at least as I understand it, this one was, too. Sharansky took the stage Tuesday as he had in 1987 and made the point that just as the Jewish people and America had managed to defeat the Soviet Union by working together, so too in the current war we will defeat Hamas and the antisemites. For those who remember the Soviet Union or who understand and know the history, it was a tremendously reassuring point, and a reminder of what progress has been made over the past generations.
The most powerful political moment of the rally was when Senate Majority Leader Schumer, Senate Republican Joni Ernst, House Speaker Johnson, and Democratic House leader Hakeem Jeffries joined hands and said together, repeatedly, "We stand with Israel." I've had my harsh criticisms of Schumer over the years, but he was at his best Tuesday. All four congressional leaders gave strong, morally clear statements of support, with Johnson winning particular cheers for a line about how "the calls for a ceasefire are outrageous." For all the New York Times' endless fantasizing about how the Democratic Party or the American Jewish community are abandoning Israel, or about how the American Jewish community is bitterly divided or alienated by Prime Minister Netanyahu, when push came to shove, the politicians and the regular Jews showed up.
Or at least the politicians from Congress did. In 1987, Reagan sent Vice President Bush to address the rally. This week, the Biden administration sent its State Department antisemitism envoy, Deborah Lipstadt. Lipstadt, who is Jewish, addressed the community using awkward pronouns: "their," "your." Where was Kamala Harris? Where was Biden himself, who is up for re-election? They may have had their reasons for skipping. Maybe they figure they have the Jewish vote locked up, or the hostage negotiations are too delicate, or the scheduling just was impossible. But it was a notable absence.
Fox News reported the crowd as 290,000. A front-page New York Times photo described it as "thousands." The contrast would make a good example in some media-literacy class.
On the drive back from the airport this morning my traveling companion asked me whether I'd seen many counterprotesters. I encountered one or two people wearing Yasser-Arafat-style checkered scarves and carrying posters, but that was about it. The best decision the rally organizers made might have been to call the event for a weekday. The pro-Hamas types were otherwise occupied—they all had to show up to teach their classes at the Ivy League universities.
The situation at the universities is no laughing matter, and neither is the one in Israel or in Gaza. But the gathering in Washington helped to put them into perspective and increased my confidence that this war will eventually end with a victory as decisive and dramatic as the one that Sharansky recalled over the Soviet Union.
The stage of the November 14, 2023 rally in Washington.