The alarm went off at 5:00 Sunday morning, usually peak REM time for this insomniac. But this was no ordinary Sunday. I had a 7:00 am flight to catch for No Fear: A Rally in Solidarity with the Jewish People, at the U.S. Capitol that afternoon.
The rally, presented by the ADL, the AJC and a number of other Jewish groups, was organized as a response to the sharp spike in antisemitic incidents in recent months. There have been small, sporadic rallies around the country, but a national rally in Washington DC, I figured, with the Capitol in the background, would be an especially momentous occasion.
I can’t say it was bravery, or ignorance, or maybe misplaced confidence in the DC police, but it was a quick and easy decision for me. I had to be there. I just couldn’t resist the chance to support Jewish solidarity in the nation’s capital. These are unprecedented times for American Jews, and an event like this, promoting a cause near and dear to my heart, was necessary and overdue.
Admittedly, when I first heard the words in the name — No Fear — it didn’t exactly invoke a warm and fuzzy feeling. My mind raced. Why are they telling people not to be fearful? I hate it when someone tells me not to worry. Maybe I should be fearful. Maybe antisemitic thugs will show up and things will turn ugly. Am I really up for this?
But it was time to brave the haters, the crowds and the wicked DC summer humidity.
It was time to show up.
My early flight gave me lots of time to mull around the Mall area before the event. There was already a palpable early buzz in the air. People were clearly feeling festive, with their Jewish pride on full display, many carrying signs, banners and flags, with the perfect musical soundtrack in the background. It was instantly heartwarming. There were Jews from all denominations and non-Jewish supporters as well, many carrying their own banners, including signs of support from a few African countries.
I was keeping a close eye on the presence of security. In past years, I would’ve barely noticed them; but now I was carefully monitoring their numbers, noticing their faces, assessing their toughness and studying the strength of their riot gear. One of the volunteers there told me that an undercover agency of ex-Secret Service agents was there, a claim I couldn’t corroborate but wanted to believe.
So I felt a bit re-assured. Just a bit.
The size of the crowd, according to most estimates, was somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 people, along with a virtual global audience that was watching via a live feed. Not exactly the Million Man March — a rabbi from New York told me they should call it the “Minyan Man March” — but still a solid and highly energized group. The Times of Israel had been publicizing the event, so I knew that there were Israeli’s who were watching. I felt their presence and hoped that this scene of Jewish solidarity among diaspora Jews a half a world away would warm their hearts.
I met up with Rabbi Asher Lopatin, the always cheerful Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC. Rabbi Lopatin is the definition of what having a zest for life looks like. He had a steady stream of people greeting him (I swear that guy knows people everywhere) and of course a big smile and a positive attitude. His joy was instantly contagious, and seeing him made me 100% certain I was exactly where I needed to be.
The program was a two-hour nonstop line-up of passionate and diverse speakers, from Elisha Wiesel (Elie Weisel’s son) to Meghan McCain to members of Congress to an African-American Pastor to a former white supremacist to Rabbi Shlomo Noginski, the Boston rabbi who was stabbed in broad daylight just a week and a half ago.
McCain got the crowd pumped up by proclaiming, “My name is Meghan McCain and I am a Zionist.” She spoke of the importance of “calling out the crazy people” on both the “right and the left.” She said that she knows people who are “afraid to display their mezuzahs ... and that’s bullshit!”
Rabbi Noginski, his freshly wounded arm bandaged and in a sling, walked slowly to the podium and started out by quietly saying he is “very weak.” It was a sobering and powerful image, one that made the reality of antisemitism especially real. The crowd stilled as he told us that years ago, when he emigrated to the U.S. from the Soviet Union, he “never imagined that I would experience something like this in this country.”
Elisha Weisel stressed the need for Jewish solidarity, regardless of politics or denomination. “We must hear each other,” he implored, because “a divided Jewish community is our enemy’s dream.” He talked about how his father “lived through the darkest of nights, but fought through it by living as a proud Jew.” To a thunderous applause, he concluded by declaring “I have no fear!”
Despite the wilting heat (the “feels like” temperature was 99 degrees, not that I needed my phone to tell me), the crowd remained fully engaged with each speaker. There were songs and frequent chants of “No Fear” and “Am Yisrael Chai” (the people of Israel live). There were warm shouts of support for the speakers, especially for the college student who faced death threats because she supported Israel, and the former white supremacist who explained how his life changed after a Jewish stranger invited him to Shabbat dinner, and to the African-American Pastor who quoted Dr. King and led the crowd in the Shema.
Sunday’s rally was a memorable, feel-good display of solidarity, but it was not without its flaws or controversy. The crowd size was no doubt smaller than the organizers had hoped for, and several left-wing Jewish groups — notably J Street and Peace Now — declined to participate, reportedly over divisions about Israel and the definition of antisemitism.
Such is the unfortunate reality of the state of Jewish solidarity these days.
But for those who were there, physically or virtually, I think it’s safe to report that they got a much-needed boost of morale. I know I did. At a time of brazen physical attacks against Jews and defacement of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, on a steamy July afternoon, at the foot of the U.S Capitol, we witnessed Jews and non-Jews coming together to take a loud and courageous stand against antisemitism and for solidarity.
A beautiful mental image that I will carry with me forever, along with a renewed infusion of hope, that most cherished Jewish commodity.