Reflections from the March for Israel in Washington DC

On November 14, the largest Jewish rally in American history took place in the capital city of Washington DC. 290,000 Jews marched in support of Israel and returning the hostages. Habonim Dror North America participated in the rally through the Peace Bloc, made up of left-wing Jewish organizations and movements. Two movement leaders reflect on their experience at the march:

By Peri Albert

Heading to the pro-Israel march last week created a whirl of emotions. I found myself so excited to be surrounded by Jews, after spending the last few months away from that community and away from the movement. I was also nervous to see what kind of perspectives I would find there. I went to stand with the movement and to support Israel and to denounce antisemitism and Hamas. However, I also went to denounce Bibi and his government. I went to support the innocent Palestinians who are being killed by the Israeli military. I went to advocate for the return of the hostages who are forced to remain in captivity. I went for Vivian Silver and her efforts towards peace.  

At the march I held up a sign that read, "The real battle is not between Israel and Palestine, but between those who want to coexist and those who want to kill the other side." This quote comes from the words of the father of Yousef Bashir. I wince when I hear people speak of their support for one side while ruling out the idea of peace, compromise, or conversation with the other side. I support Jews and Israel, and I do not support Bibi and his horrific actions and government! I support the right to have freedom in Palestine and I do not support Hamas! 

I write to my movement now but I will continue seeking out conversations that make myself and others uncomfortable in the larger world, because that is necessary as we strive towards peace and coexistence. I do not attempt to demean the fear and anger of anyone; this period of time is so incomparably difficult. But that is why it is the most important time to speak to each other and try to listen so we can really hear. 

The chanichimot who were with us at the march got to witness a slightly controversial conversation between myself and a few others and a Jewish teacher from New York. Regardless of our differing opinions and experiences, we were able to listen to one another. That's all I hope to leave with anyone who has read this far. Please, please try to see the other side. Not to agree, but to hear. These conversations are the ones that Hamas and the Israeli government fail at. We can be stronger. Thank you and Aleh V'Hagshem.

By Gavriella Troper-Hochstein

The choice to _____ wasn’t obvious. We say this a lot in the movement. “It’s not obvious…” That he would go to work on that project. That she would move to Israel. That they would work at a different machaneh. That this kvutza would attend that seminar, or build another one. But what do we really mean when we say this? 

“It’s not obvious.” Perhaps what we really mean is - even as we make our choices, our hearts are pulled in two directions. Such is what I felt on the morning of November 14th, and in the days leading up to it.

For weeks now, I had spent every day fighting back the tears and despair that threatened to overwhelm me at any moment. In defiance of that despair I temporarily relocated to Philadelphia to help the Mazkirut Artzit manage all things Workshop-related. In between the endless meetings, the emails and phone calls, I couldn’t stop myself from scrolling through social media - pleas from Israeli families to help locate missing loved ones, gruesome images and descriptions of Gazan children, bodies recovered so mutilated as to be unidentifiable, and everywhere: anger. Anger. Anger. I am not an angry person by nature. All I know to do when I hear such horrors is grieve. I grew increasingly disgusted with people I had long loved and respected. People who I thought capable of great compassion suddenly were calling Gazans animals, or celebrating the slaughter of former movement members on the kibbutzim in the south of Israel.

When I first saw the news about the rally, my heart sank into my stomach. I pictured more of the same: religious and right-wing Jews (some of whom are my friends and former classmates) chanting and cheering for the decimation of innocents in the name of avenging other innocents. I pictured pro-Palestine counter protestors (some of whom are my friends and former classmates) screaming at the rally attendees. I feared at best it would be a foul display of misplaced pride in violence, and at worst a flood of actual violence would finally burst the dam of tension that built up on social media and spill over between so many people whom I love.

So when we asked the question in the HDNA central office, “should we go to the march?” my first instinct was no. We talked about it for a long time - what would it mean to go? What would it mean not to? If we went, what would we be saying to the world? To ourselves? To the maapilimot? Finally, we decided that it was more important to be there as a voice of dissent than to not be there, and to sit in silence. “No one will miss us if we aren’t there, but everyone will see us, and maybe, hate us if we are,” we agreed.

Before the rally, I traveled with the Mazkirut Artzit to Maryland to attend a board meeting and to see some people in my kvutza. On Monday night, which happened to be Rosh Chodesh Kislev, after a long two days of work, I sat with my friends at the dinner table and we blessed the new month. We asked for a month of light amid darkness, of community and connection, of healing, and of peace. I felt warmth and hope in my heart, more than I’d experienced in many long weeks. 

That night we learned that Vivian Silver, alumna of HDNA and founder of Women Wage Peace, had been confirmed murdered by Hamas on October 7th.

It sounds foolish now, but for the long weeks since October 7th, thoughts of Vivian had kept me going. Here was someone who had dedicated her whole life to healing the wounds between Israelis and Palestinians. Even as I grieved her kidnapping and worried for her wellbeing, I knew that when she was eventually returned to us, she would bring words of hope: “they’re just people, just like we are, in pain. Keep fighting for peace - we have to keep fighting.” When I learned of her death, I nearly lost all hope.

I didn’t say any of this to my friends as we stood in the kitchen on Monday night, holding one another and the grief of the world in our arms. Instead I said, “so we’ll go tomorrow and march for peace, for Vivian. We have to carry on her legacy now.” And that is what we did.

On Tuesday morning, we got up early. We drove to the metro station, arms full of poster board and markers and an enormous vinyl HDNA banner. We rode the DC metro into the capital with hundreds of Jews all around us. Walking to the National Mall through the streets of the capital, we were surrounded by people and organizations I liked and respected, as well as many that disgusted me. Gathering with the peace bloc outside the rally, I felt my energy start to rise. We spread our banner out on the lawn, and people stopped to read it and ask who we were. A middle-aged man came up to us with tears in his eyes; “You don’t know how much it means to see Habonim here,” he said. “I was in Habonim in Argentina, in the 70s. I didn’t know you were still around.”

As we walked down the wide avenue towards the stage, carrying our banner and signs, people stopped us again and again. A young man in a kippah and tzitzit asked to take a picture with us. “I just got back from Jerusalem, where I work with a small left-wing organization of religious Jews fighting for peace. I’m so glad you are here.” He left again, excited to tell his friends that we had been there as part of the peace bloc. Over and over, we heard from strangers, “I’m so glad to see you here. I’m so glad Habonim came.” An elderly alum. A sibling of a maapilol. Parents and grandparents of chanichimot. After so long feeling voiceless in my values, I started to feel like maybe, there were people who wanted to hear the message of the youth.

In the crowds and confusion, we found ourselves standing apart from the rest of the peace bloc, in the midst of a large number of Yeshiva University students. This wasn’t the plan, and I started to get nervous. Sideways glances (and glares), whispers, backs turning, surrounded us… I wondered if this was a good idea. I didn’t feel, in those first minutes in the crowd, that we were really among our people. But that was the problem - these were our people, the Jewish people, in their kippot and long skirts, with their “Israel Forever” signs and their waving flags. And I refuse to be a part of a Jewish people that does not include all Jews, even the ones with whom I vehemently disagree. So I made myself smile and greet the people who frowned at us, and ask them, “Why are you here today? How do these signs we’re carrying make you feel?” We sang Od Lo Gamarnu, and people looked politely confused. We sang Al Naharot Bavel, and people smiled, and then we sang Im Tirtzu, and a handful of teenagers actually joined in. And then we finished singing, and the conversations began.

The first person to approach us was a professor from YU. I was carrying a sign that quoted Isaiah 40:1 (“Comfort my people”) and also read “Peace in Vivian’s name.” The professor very politely asked me what my sign meant to me. I told him Vivian Silver’s story, about her life’s work and her death. “I’m here to honor her legacy, to demand a better world for Jews and Palestinians.” Like many of the people I spoke to that day, he thought the sentiment was nice, but that we were insane to believe there was any hope for peace, ever. Over and over, people asked us, “how can you negotiate a peace when there’s no one on the other side willing to negotiate?” Over and over, we reminded them that we weren’t there to tell politicians and war-makers how to do their work, only to say what we expected from them. I guess the people at the rally I spoke with thought it was “the other side” that needed convincing, but if anything, the cynicism I saw among my fellow Jews proved to me that, even in the wake of the pogrom of October 7th, the greatest barrier to peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians really may be a lack of hope.

Standing in the hot sun for hours, as person after person attempted to persuade me that advocating for the shared liberation of Jews and Palestinians means I am crazy, or less of a Zionist, or perhaps even a traitor to my fellow Jew, my heart was no longer pulled in two directions. I knew with the greatest certainty that I was exactly where I needed to be. I told an old woman who moments earlier told me she had given up hoping for peace that I had often felt that same despair, but I tried to keep fighting anyways, and she suddenly began encouraging me, telling me not to give up on the dream. A group of teenagers from an Orthodox Jewish Day School asked me about the meaning of the sign “No security with occupation” and I explained to them what military occupation of the West Bank means for both Israelis and Palestinians. They nodded, and asked questions, and told me they’d never learned about that before.

There is a Talmudic concept that is vital to the development of Jewish law: machloket l’shem shamayim, or an argument for the sake of heaven. It means an argument so just, so necessary, that it is holy, and that those who engage with the argument are themselves elevated. I would like to suggest a variation: in this moment, the Jewish people faces not machloket l’shem shamayim, but a machloket l’shem adam, an argument for the sake of humanity. We are engaged in a holy disagreement - many of us find our hearts pulled in two directions, and they should be. The soul of our people and the mortal lives of millions hang in the balance, as we find ourselves faced on all sides only with choices that seem to lead to unbearable suffering. To choose one suffering over another is to abandon the sacred argument, to choose the easy and the obvious path.

It’s not obvious that HDNA would be present at a rally to support Israel (subtext: unequivocally) in Washington D.C. If we hadn’t been there, I’m not sure anyone would have noticed. But because we were there, Jews from incredibly diverse and different backgrounds than our own recognized us, and heard our voice, and argued with us. We were able to engage with people who never would have seen us as whole people, let alone legitimate Jews, and to stake a claim for the fate of our people. It’s not obvious to be in this argument, and it’s not easy. My heart is pulled in more than two directions every day, as I mourn, and feel deep horror, and apathy, and fear for friends and family and strangers. But I will keep choosing that un-obvious path, the holy, painful argument, because it is the only way I know how to live as a Jew.