Families of hostages kidnapped by Hamas give heart-wrenching details at the packed ‘March for Israel’ in DC

Nov 14, 2023, 9:22 PM | Updated: 9:25 pm

People pray on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House before the 'March for Israel' rally ...

People pray on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House before a rally supporting Israel during its conflict with Hamas in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

(Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

Washington, DC (CNN) — Alana Zeitchik stood alone before a massive crowd that filled the National Mall. But she represented countless families in the US and around the world ripped apart by Hamas’ mass kidnappings and slaughter in Israel.

Related: Rabbi speaks on growing antisemitism in the U.S.

“I wake up each morning to remember this truth: My family is being held hostage by terrorists,” Zeitchik told the crowd from a stage Tuesday at the “March for Israel” rally in Washington, DC.

The march is believed to be the largest pro-Israel gathering in the US since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, which began last month when Hamas inflicted widespread carnage in Israelslaughtering childrentorching homes, kidnapping soldiers and civilians alike.

Six of Zeitchik’s family members have been held hostage by Hamas since October 7, when the militant group snatched them from their kibbutz.

“While the kibbutz was ravaged by Hamas, they hid in their bomb shelter for hours – until it filled with smoke and they could not hide any longer,” she said.

Zeitchik joined thousands of demonstrators in supporting Israel, denouncing antisemitism and demanding Hamas release its hostages. And like several other speakers, she also expressed sympathy for innocent Palestinians suffering during the Israel-Hamas conflict.

‘You don’t have to choose’

Hamas launched a coordinated attack on Israel from Gaza on October 7, killing an estimated 1,200 people and kidnapping about 200 hostages. The massacre in Israel coincided with rising reports of antisemitism in the US and other countries.

Israel responded by launching airstrikes on Gaza targeting Hamas, which often uses civilians as human shields. Israel’s attacks have destroyed homes and schools and severed access to life-saving care as the death toll rises among Palestinian civilians in the densely populated Gaza Strip.

More than 11,000 people have been killed in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah, drawing from sources in Hamas-controlled territory. A UNICEF spokesperson says figures from the Hamas-controlled health ministry in Gaza have historically matched those from the international children’s humanitarian agency.

But the world doesn’t need to take sides and support only Israeli civilians or Palestinian civilians, Zeitchik said.

“For too many, it feels like to care about one family – to love one child – is to diminish the suffering of another,” Zeitchik said.

“But the simple human truth is that you don’t have to choose. You can abhor the suffering of Palestinian families and the suffering of Israeli families like mine. You can call for peace and the immediate return of the innocent men, women and children who were violently taken from us. It doesn’t need to be political to share in my grief or in the anguish that the Israeli people are feeling.”

Actress and Jewish activist Debra Messing also emphasized her support for Israel, Jews around the world, and innocent Palestinians and Gazans.

“Those who hate us deny our humanity and our right to exist,” Messing told the crowd. “No matter. We know who we are. We know that even in – especially in – darkness, we stand united, proud, resolute.”

“We will worry for our global Jewish family and also hurt for the innocent Palestinians used as human shields by Hamas,” Messing said. “We will work to eviscerate Hamas and also pray for a free and flourishing Gaza.”

She also called for Hamas’ release of hostages.

“We will remember and work for the release of the 240 hostages as well as for the safety of the 2.2 million Gazans also held hostage by Hamas,” Messing said. “We will pray for the success of the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) in a war Israel did not start and did not want, but a war Israel will win – because we must.”

Allies and political rivals unite

Messages of unity at the rally spanned continents and political parties.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog addressed the crowd through a live video feed. Despite the thousands of miles separating them, Herzog told demonstrators they are united “to march for the babies, the boys and girls, women and men viciously held hostage by Hamas; to march for the right of every Jew to live proudly and safely in America, in Israel and all around the world.”

Herzog also thanked President Joe Biden, his administration and “so many members of Congress on both sides of the aisle” for their support of Israel.

Congressional leaders from both parties found common ground at the rally. Democrats Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries proclaimed steadfast support for Israel, as did new Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson and GOP Sen. Joni Ernst.

“We are here today as Republicans and Democrats to assure you that we will not shrink back and shudder in fear,” Ernst told the crowd.

A mother agonizes over an American-Israeli soldier held hostage by Hamas

IDF soldier Omer Neutra had a comfortable childhood growing up in Long Island, New York. The “optimistic and people-loving person” was always smiling and made friends wherever he went, his mother Orna Neutra said at the rally Tuesday.

“After graduating high school, he decided to take a gap year in Israel to connect with his roots,” his mother said. “As a descendant of Holocaust survivors on both sides, he understood the importance of a strong Israel. So being the person that he is, he made the decision to join his new friends and serve in the IDF and protect the country.”

But her son’s mission led to his capture by Hamas.

“Omer – born one month after 9/11 – celebrated his 22nd birthday only a few weeks ago, captive by Hamas,” his mother said.

She gave her son a poignant message from across the world:

“From a place of deep pain, we hold strong for you, Omer,” Orna Neutra said.

Omer Neutra’s high school friend Sara Blau also attended the rally, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with his photo.

“We were very good friends,” said Blau, now a student at the University of Maryland. “Everyone loves him. He’s funny. He’s kind, charismatic. He’s a natural-born leader and everyone’s being impacted really heavily by this.”

Blau said she wanted to join the march “to show my support for Israel. I’m a proud Zionist, a proud Jew and I wanted to be here to support my community.”

American support for Israel is critical, said Eric D. Fingerhut, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America – one of the organizers of the March for Israel.

“On October 7th, merciless Hamas terrorists launched the deadliest attack on Israel in its 75-year history, brutally murdering the most Jewish people in a single day since the Holocaust,” Fingerhut said in a statement.

The US ‘remains in a heightened threat environment’

The Department of Homeland Security deemed the march a “Level 1” security event – the highest possible level – after considering national importance, potential threats and the resources needed to ensure public safety, law enforcement sources said.

Such intense security was unprecedented for a march or protest in Washington, said Donell Harvin, a former DC chief of homeland security and intelligence.

“There has never been a First Amendment event in DC that has been designated as a … Level 1 event,” Harvin told CNN. “Those designations are reserved for high-profile events such as the Super Bowl, and World Series.”

The Level 1 designation allows the federal government to fill possible gaps in local security, including explosive detection, cyber risk assessments and venue screening. DC Mayor Muriel Bowser said the National Guard was deployed to assist local police.

“The U.S. remains in a heightened threat environment and recent events reinforce that,” a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson told CNN in an email.

“As the Israel-Hamas conflict continues, we have seen an increase in reports of threats against Jewish, Muslim, and Arab communities and institutions,” the DHS official said. “Lone offenders, motivated by a range of violent ideologies, pose the most likely threat. We urge the public to stay vigilant and to promptly report suspicious activity to their local law enforcement.”

Tuesday’s march followed other protests have denounced Israel’s airstrikes in Gaza. Some Jewish activists are among those calling for a ceasefire to prevent more civilian deaths.

Just blocks away from the site of Tuesday’s march, throngs of demonstrators recently gathered at Freedom Plaza in Washington to support Palestinian civilians and demand a ceasefire.

While many have called for a humanitarian pause in fighting so Palestinian civilians can be moved to safety, Israel has firmly rejected the idea as long as Hamas keeps holding hostages. But Israel has agreed to four-hour, daily pauses in military operations in Gaza to allow for evacuations.

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Families of hostages kidnapped by Hamas give heart-wrenching details at the packed ‘March for Israel’ in DC