Unprecedented Interest in DC March for Israel

By | Nov 13, 2023
Israel, Jewish Politics & Power, Latest

Jewish politics and power

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1. The Politics of Rallying for Israel

Tuesday’s upcoming March for Israel rally in Washington, DC, just might be the largest Jewish-American show of force ever, perhaps even overshadowing the 1987 march for Soviet Jewry, which, with an estimated 250,000 participants, had gone down in history as the most powerful example of Jewish communal power.

In recent days, while maintaining a cautious tone regarding their prediction of crowd size, organizers of the rally for Israel have noted unprecedented interest in Tuesday’s event.

The initial permit request estimated some 60,000 participants, but with communities from across the country chartering buses and planes, with hotel rooms in the nation’s capital at full capacity and with Jewish day schools canceling classes to allow their students to descend on the National Mall, participation at the rally is expected to reach anywhere between 100,000-200,000, with some predicting more than a quarter-million Jewish Americans and supporters in attendance.

It will be a huge event, befitting the tragedy that hit Israel and the consequential military operation that has followed Hamas’s October 7 attack. But bringing together such a large swath of America’s Jewish community under a single banner is not an easy undertaking.

It’s no secret that American Jews are split on issues relating to Israel and its policies. Jews in the United States hold a variety of views on the way forward regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they do not have a single opinion when it comes to Israel’s relations with diaspora Jewry, and they can’t even agree on the definition of antisemitism.

Gathering a politically fractured community to share the same space and the same call required a careful delineation of goals for the October 14 rally: support for Israel, a demand to free all hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, and a call to fight antisemitism, which has been on the rise in the United States and worldwide since the Gaza attack. By keeping the goals general and somewhat vague (with no direct call on the Biden administration to take any specific action, no statement regarding military pauses or cease-fire, no word on whether releasing hostages should take priority to defeating Hamas, for example) and by allowing a diverse set of speakers, organizers of the March for Israel are seeking to avoid the pitfalls of Jewish political infighting. 

“We will hear sentiments we agree with—and very likely some we don’t,” J Street, the dovish pro-Israel lobby, wrote in a letter to its supporters urging them to attend the rally. “That is all the more reason for J Street supporters to participate in the rally, to represent our movement and our views and values, and to stand alongside many of our partner organizations.”

Americans for Peace Now, also on the left of the mainstream Jewish community on most issues relating to Israel, voiced a similar sentiment, calling on members not to “cede this ground to those with whom we disagree,” in the words of the group’s president and CEO Hadar Susskind in an email to members.

Those on the conservative end of the Jewish community will also have to make their own compromises, agreeing to share the rally with participants calling for Israeli-Palestinian peace and those who believe that Israel needs to exercise more caution to spare civilian lives in Gaza.

Tuesday’s rally represents a significant challenge to the Jewish-American community for other reasons. 

It will test its organizational ability to mobilize masses and, if successful, can deliver an important message to Jewish Americans who may be skittish about showing their identity in public given the sharp rise in antisemitism that they can feel safe and secure standing up in public for what they believe in. 

More important, the rally can reassure members of the community that despite political fractions and differences, there are still core issues and values that unite many.

2. On Cease-Fires and Humanitarian Pauses

There’s a fair amount of confusion, some of it perhaps purposeful, in discussing calls to halt Israeli fire in the Gaza Strip, and much of it surrounds the difference between cease-fires and humanitarian (sometimes referred to as “tactical”) pauses.

A cease-fire would require full cessation of Israeli actions in Gaza and would be an indication that the military campaign is winding down. A pause, on the other hand, is a temporary and localized halt in attacks in a defined, limited geographical area and for a specific purpose. In practical terms, what it means is that Israel stops airstrikes and ground attacks on a certain road or a specific location in order to allow the entry of humanitarian assistance, to provide uninvolved Palestinian civilians with a safe passage out of the war zone and to ensure safe release of hostages, if and when a deal on their release is reached.

These differences are at the heart of much of the debate about America’s expectations from Israel right now. While demonstrators on the streets of Washington and New York City have been chanting “Cease-fire now!” and some progressive lawmakers are echoing that call, the Biden administration has made clear that it is not asking Israel for a cease-fire. “A cease-fire now would simply leave Hamas in place, able to regroup and repeat what it did on October 7,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said, along with other top Biden administration officials.

Instead, Biden told Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he’d like to see multiple pauses in order to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Israel, after initially resisting the notion, has now agreed to daily 4-hour pauses in exit routes from Northern Gaza to enable safe passage of civilians. The United States has noted that when a hostage deal is reached, it will require a much broader set of pauses.

3. How Long is Long Enough?

While an American call for a cease-fire is not on the table right now, it may emerge in the future.

Biden administration officials have been reluctant to answer questions regarding the future of the war, stating only that it is up to Israel to complete its mission of defeating Hamas. Netanyahu, in a set of U.S. television interviews in recent days, said there is no deadline for ending the war.

Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said on Monday that “pressure has begun to bear on Israel. The pressure is not very high [now], but it is increasing.” Speaking to reporters in Israel, Cohen estimated that Israel has a diplomatic window of two to three weeks before pressure for a cease-fire becomes too intense.

It is likely that the extent of pressure on Israel to wind up its military operation will depend on the situation on the ground: the number of Palestinian civilian casualties and the humanitarian hardship facing uninvolved Palestinians.

It could prove to be the first significant moment of dispute between Biden and Netanyahu since the war broke out, and therefore it is being dealt with very carefully. The United States will seek to avoid any open clash with Israel, hoping that leaders in Jerusalem pay attention to Washington’s concern and understand that in order to maintain international support, there may come a time when Israel needs to start thinking of ending the war even if not all military goals have been achieved.

4. Leading By (Historical) Examples

Trying to understand the Gaza situation has sent all sides to seek historical equivalences and parallels. Israel, in a move that proved effective on the public diplomacy front, equated Hamas with ISIS, an accurate comparison given the atrocities carried out on October 7, and a clever way of conveying the situation to an American audience who may not know much about  Hamas but vividly remembers the horrors of ISIS.

On the American side, administration officials and military leaders used a set of examples from recent U.S. history to discuss with their Israeli counterparts the goals of the Gaza war and potential dangers of military intervention.

Pentagon officials pointed to the examples of America’s 2016 battle to defeat ISIS in the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. They noted the similarities–a vicious enemy bunkered up in an urban area full of uninvolved civilians, and the dilemma facing a military force seeking to defeat a terrorist organization while keeping collateral damage down to the unavoidable minimum. Both Mosul and Raqqa ended with America and its allies victorious, and while civilian casualties were numerous, military leaders still believe the numbers were relatively low thanks to careful planning and precise use of airstrikes and ground raids. As an example of how things can go wrong, Americans pointed to the 2004 battle of Fallujah in Iraq, where U.S. forces entered the city with full force, suffering heavy casualties and causing immense loss of civilian life.

Did these examples help convince Israelis to take a more cautious approach?

Perhaps. Israel agreed to delay its ground operation for more than a week and seems to be trying to set specific military goals rather than take over the entire area.

On Sunday, Netanyahu, perhaps inspired by the extensive use of historical precedents, added some of his own.

When asked during a CNN interview why he refuses to address the question of his personal responsibility for events leading up to October 7, Netanyahu looked to recent American history for help: “Well, did people ask Franklin Roosevelt after Pearl Harbor that question? Did people ask George Bush after the surprise attack of November 11?” Netanyahu responded (referring, of course, to September 11, not November 11, an understandable misspeak for a leader dealing with the stress of war.) 

5. Checking the Public Opinion Pulse

Where does the American public stand on the Gaza war?

The latest poll is one from The Associated Press-NORC last week.

Its key finding is a split among Americans on whether Israel has gone too far in its military operation in Gaza: 40 percent believe that it has, 38 percent think it’s been just right, and 18 percent hold the view that Israel has not gone far enough. The political divide is exactly what you’d expect: Democrats tend to think Israel’s response is too excessive, Republicans think it’s just fine and could perhaps be even harsher.

This response can provide an important clue to understanding Biden’s future moves: If this 40 percent figure increases in the coming weeks, and if more Americans, especially Democrats, feel that Israel is overdoing it, the message will reach decision-makers at the White House. A majority of Americans feeling it’s time to stop would signal to Biden that time is ripe to move to the next phase and begin discussing a cease-fire.

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