“I just don’t understand how a people who experienced injustice and genocide don’t call it out when it’s happening to someone else,” says a woman who identifies herself as Jesse K. She’s holding a handmade cardboard sign that reads “JEW FOR FREE PALESTINE” at an October 20 demonstration on the National Mall calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza war. That’s how many of the signs and speakers are characterizing the fighting; although the Israeli government has identified Hamas as the enemy, these demonstrators say Israel’s military is waging war against all Palestinians living in the 25 x 6-mile Gaza Strip.
Jesse K. doesn’t want to give her full name because she fears it might make things difficult at work. “I work for a Jewish organization, but…they are more Orthodox. It’s complicated,” she says, intermittently pursing her lips and halting her words before continuing. She’s hesitant but wants to talk. “Sorry, it’s just a lot. But I felt like I needed to be here. I’m surprised more Jews aren’t.” She notes that while Jewish Americans and their counterparts in Israel have ample reason to be scared, she feels Democrats have embraced Israel at all costs. “If more Jews showed up [at demonstrations like this] it would be easier to discuss the occupation. I’m educating myself about it all the time.” Jesse K. thinks many allies are terrified to speak up for fear of being accused of antisemitism. “You should be able to criticize the actions of some without being charged with criticizing an entire people or race.”
The Friday demonstration comes at the end of a week of protests organized by various groups calling for a cease-fire in Gaza. This one is sponsored by more than a dozen: racial justice groups, including the Movement for Black Lives and Dream Defenders; pro-Palestinian groups such as the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights and American Muslims for Palestine; and the far-left Jewish groups IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). Two days ago, several hundred people marched from a JVP rally to the U.S. Capitol and were arrested after occupying the Cannon Building’s rotunda.
Many of those in attendance are men wearing the black-and-white keffiyeh scarf associated with Palestinian nationalism. Others wear red-and-white versions or drape Palestinian flags around their shoulders. Many have positioned themselves on a grassy middle section of the National Mall in front of a stage set up on 3rd Street near Madison Drive NW. The U.S. Capitol Building provides a backdrop to the east. American Muslim scholar Omar Suleiman addresses the crowd, speaking of the responsibility to bear witness to violence and preparing to lead the men before him in prayer, as more arrive and lay their prayer mats on the gravel path at the edge of the grass. Non-Muslims who are there to support a cease-fire are invited to observe from the periphery. Behind that, a small group of women in headscarves, some in full burqas, form a small line to conduct their own prayer.
A Jewish supporter standing nearby holds a sign that reads, “MY JEWISH FAMILY WANTS PALESTINIAN FAMILIES TO BE SAFE.” While she’s been attending demonstrations supporting Palestinian liberation for years, she doesn’t want to go on record either, for fear of reprisal at work. As we’re talking, a man approaches. He’s in street clothes and has no sign, no scarf or kippah to identify his nationality, religion or sympathies. “Excuse me,” he says to the Jewish woman, his hands held together in a prayer pose and head slightly bowed but meeting her eyes with his. “I just wanted to say thank you for being here. It means so much.”
A third demonstrator, whose Jewish grandfather fled Poland in the early 1930s, offers what’s quickly becoming a refrain—that her employer “wouldn’t like me being quoted.” Still, she doesn’t think calls for a cease-fire should only be on Palestinian Americans to make. “Fear has led us to the place we’re at,” she laments, referring to what she says is the stifling of dissent from Jewish voices. “That’s not a way to solve problems.”
After the Muslim prayer is finished, Democratic Congresswomen Cori Bush of Missouri and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan take the stage together to condemn President Biden’s full support of and aid to Israel. “Sending more bombs, more weapons will only lead to more violence!” Bush yells to the crowd, which boos loudly. Earlier in the week, Bush introduced a ceasefire resolution in the House. Tlaib was one of nine co-sponsors, and according to The Intercept there are now 18 House members, all Democrats, who have signed on in support.
“The targeting of civilians, no matter their faith or ethnicity, is a violation of international humanitarian law,” the resolution states, noting that “between October 7 and October 16, 2023, armed violence has claimed the lives of over 2,700 Palestinians and over 1,400 Israelis, including Americans, and wounded thousands more.”
At the rally, Bush and Tlaib neither condemn nor justify the horrendous October 7 attacks by Hamas on Israelis—the name Hamas is not uttered by any rally speaker this reporter hears. Tlaib cites a Data for Progress poll taken between October 18 and 19 in which 66 percent of all voters surveyed agreed that the United States should “call for a cease-fire and de-escalation of violence in Gaza to prevent civilian deaths.” However, in a Harvard CAPS/Harris poll conducted over the same period, 70 percent of voters said they thought Israel should “eliminate Hamas, not end its campaign against Hamas now.” The latter poll also found voters were split by age group more than party; 48 percent of those surveyed between the ages of 18-24 agreed it wasn’t time for a cease-fire; among those 65 and up, support for continuing to attack Hamas was 82 percent.
There are many more speakers. DaMareo Cooper, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy (one of the event’s sponsors), says he wants to talk directly to “the people on the sidelines wondering if they can say anything, whose values have them in a situation where they’re like, ‘How do I stand on my values of being anti-colonialist and not look like I’m antisemitic…how can I stand on my values of wanting an oppressed people to be free and not looking like I’m pro-terrorist?’
“We’re not asking you to make a choice about what side you’re on,” Coopers says. “We’re asking you to make a choice about whether you believe in humanity or not. Do you believe in human thriving or not?”
Rabbi Jessica Rosenberg is joined on stage by Rabbi Alissa Wise. Rosenberg says they are there on behalf of “the rising Jewish movement for justice in Palestine” and Jewish Voice for Peace (an organization the Anti-Defamation League characterizes as radical and that “advocates for a complete economic, cultural and academic boycott of the state of Israel.”)
“We say ‘never again’ for anyone!” Rosenberg calls. “No safety for any of us without safety for all of us!”
On the way home to nearby Maryland, I see a woman riding the escalator up from the Medical Center metro station in Bethesda and remember seeing her at the same station on my way in to the DC rally. She’s wearing a black-and-white scarf over her head with a white baseball cap over it. There’s a buzzing bee embroidered on it above the words “bee kind.” Her name is Maryam. She’s Muslim American and went to the rally to hear Omar Suleiman speak. She doesn’t like that President Biden took sides. “What about the Americans who are stuck in Gaza?” she asks, stressing that both Israelis and Palestinians “both have a right to live.” Her bus arrives and as she steps on to it, she turns and calls out, “You title your thing ‘Stop the killing.’ Stop all the killing—and then we’ll talk!”
Top Image: A demonstrator at the October 20, 2023, demonstration near the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, DC. All images by Jennifer Bardi.