Since October 7, large, pulsing crowds have gathered at rallies around the world, with signs above their heads and chants on their lips, to convey their simmering frustration, outrage and fear over the ongoing hostilities between Israel and Hamas and the resulting casualties.
On a sunny, cold and breezy Tuesday, pro-Israel demonstrators gathered on Washington, DC’s National Mall, decked in the blue and white colors of the Israeli flag, and called for Hamas to free its hostages, expressed concerns about rising antisemitism in the US and pushed for American policies to remain steadfast toward Israel.
“As Jews, we don’t want to feel alone. And we have often throughout our history felt isolated,” said Adam Roffman, a rabbi with Congregation Shearith Israel in Dallas who attended Tuesday’s rally in DC with his wife, Rabbi Shira Wallach.
“And just the opportunity to stand here with not just Jews, but supporters of Israel, after a very, very difficult and emotionally gut-wrenching month fills us with such hope and joy to really just see so many people here who care about our brothers and sisters in Israel and care about the future of Israel as a vibrant home for the Jewish people.”
Days earlier, at a pro-Palestinian event last Friday night in New York City’s Columbus Circle, demonstrators waved Palestinian flags and carried homemade signs reading “Cease Fire Now!” and “Stop bombing kids,” as they marched to Grand Central Terminal and Times Square. They criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and accused the country of apartheid and genocide, pushed for a ceasefire in Israel’s military campaign and challenged American leaders to end their support for Israel.
“I go through periods of extreme distress and anguish and sadness over what’s happening,” Laila Rodenbeck, a 24-year-old who attended Friday’s rally, told CNN. “It’s only when I attend one of these rallies that I come back feeling a little bit more hopeful that the tides are starting to change.”
CNN spoke to some of the demonstrators at these two recent rallies to better understand why thousands have joined marches and what those in attendance hope to accomplish. Here’s what they said.
Why they showed up
Many attendees of Friday’s rally declined to provide CNN with their last names out of privacy and safety concerns. Some wore medical masks or a checkered black and white keffiyeh, a traditional scarf, to cover their faces, wary of being identified or doxxed – a form of online invasion of personal privacy – for their political views.
Elizabeth, a 42-year-old teacher, said she joined the demonstrations after seeing images of children suffering in Gaza.
“It’s because I have a daughter, and I see all those children (in Gaza),” she said, gently pushing her 2-year-old daughter’s stroller. “We just don’t want to support people being bombed.”
Elizabeth Oram, a 70-year-old nurse and adjunct lecturer, waved a Palestinian flag during the march, her short blonde hair falling onto the top of a white KN95 mask. She said she is a longtime supporter of Palestinian rights and had seen the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories go from “very bad to absolutely barbaric.”
“I’m 70. I need to be able to tell my grandchildren that when this happened, when a genocide happened, that I did not sit still – that I spoke out,” she said. “That’s what I need them to know.”
The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was adopted after World War II, defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
Sami, a 20-year-old French student at a London university, was visiting New York when he came upon the rally. He told CNN he felt inspired to stay and attend after seeing images of the violence in Gaza on social media.
“I see all the videos and the pictures, and it’s horrible – I see this every day, every time on social media, on Twitter, on Instagram,” he said. “Every day, these atrocities in front of my eyes. I feel a lot of pain for them and I want this massacre and this genocide to stop.”
The “March for Israel” in DC on Tuesday brought out thousands of Israel supporters from across the country in what is believed to be the largest pro-Israel gathering in the US since the start of the war.
Demonstrators held aloft Israeli flags, raised signs saying, “Free the hostages” or “Let my people go,” or wore clothing emblazoned with the faces of hostages.
Sara Blau, a student at the University of Maryland, attended the rally on the National Mall wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the face of Omer Neutra, a high school friend who was kidnapped by Hamas on October 7 and is believed to be held hostage.
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.”
Michal and Noam Sheps, a married couple from New Jersey, said they came to show support for the hostages and for Israel.
“We’re one nation and we’re all supporting each other, and we want the hostages to be released. It’s extremely important,” Michal said. “(We’re here) for peace, for the safety of the people that are in Israel and for the hostages.”
Noam added: “We want to make it clear that this is an important issue and we stand with our brothers and sisters in Israel and that we send them our support, hopefully through America and America’s backing as well.”
Sharon Strauss, 64, of Rockville, Maryland, attended the rally with an Israeli flag tied around her shoulders and carried a sign featuring the Jewish Star of David in the colors of the LGBTQ+ flag. She said she attended the rally to show solidarity with Israel as well as the LGBTQ+ community.
“I have a transgender son. And one of the things that really worries me about this conflict with Hamas and the ultra-conservative group of their followers … if you look at countries where Hamas and ISIS dominate, people who are LGBTQ, they’re not safe,” she said.
What concerns them
For Pritam, a 20-year-old New York University student with a keffiyeh draped around his neck, attending Friday’s rally served as an opportunity to show support for the greater Muslim community.
“I’m a Muslim. I feel like our people are dying out here,” he told CNN. “I feel like it’s our job as the younger generation to speak up.”
Lulu, a 24-year-old graduate student, told CNN she felt a mixture of “anger, rage – but also resistance” while attending the rally. She said she doesn’t feel safe because pro-Palestinian supporters are being doxxed for their position.
“I truly believe no one is free until everyone is free,” she said. “I just think that we really have to hold the ground down and stand up at any cost.”
Gurmukh, a 23-year-old research assistant who came to New York for college, said he wanted to be on the right side of history. “It’s less about pro-someone or anti-someone, it’s just basic human rights.”
“I don’t really think that it’s political or religious at all at this point. We’ve gotta take care of people,” he said.
Several of the pro-Israeli demonstrators said they had concerns about their personal safety as Jewish Americans.
Josh Segel, a student at Towson University in Maryland, told CNN affiliate WJLA he has recently become wary of wearing a kippah on his head and his silver Star of David chain around his neck.
“I always grew up wearing my Jewish star out and not having to think anything of it,” he said. “But now, going out of the house – depending on where I’m going – I need to worry about if I have it on or if I have it out.”
He said he’s now fearful and worries as he walks on the Towson campus. “I may have to second guess who I’m walking by or who I’m sitting next to in class,” he said. “You can’t tell who it’s going to come from.”
Noam Sheps also expressed his concerns about his personal safety.
“I’ve never felt so uneasy being an American Jew before,” he said. “I don’t think Israel, here, as a character, is an oppressor. I don’t think Israel invited this. I don’t think the Israeli citizens deserve this. And so anyone today who feels like they could dismiss what happened on October 7th in pursuit of an errant ideology about liberation or resistance movement has become emboldened by the barbaric behavior. And that means that every single one of us here in America today and elsewhere is at risk.”
Evan, 24, who declined to give his last name for privacy reasons, said he lives in a densely populated Jewish area but still has concerns about his safety.
“Unfortunately there is, even within those communities, there is still fear,” he said. “We definitely feel it everywhere.”
What they hope to achieve
A number of demonstrators said they attended Friday’s rally to push American policymakers to press for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.
“It just seems very clear that there needs to be a ceasefire,” said Derek, a 35-year-old massage therapist. He held up a piece of cardboard with the words “Cease Fire Now!” scrawled in sharpie.
Most demonstrators “are looking for a reality where Israelis and Palestinians can live in harmony, not where one or the other is wiped out of the land,” he added.
“I would hope that there will be a ceasefire as the first step,” said Rodenbeck, the 24-year-old, who works in the nonprofit sector. “And I would also hope that there would be an end of the occupation of Palestinian land, that there would be a future in which Jews and Muslims and Christians in Palestine can all live in safety. That would be the outcome that I’m hoping for.”
Alex Papadopoulos, a 36-year-old working in media production, said attending the rally was a way of taking action and showing solidarity with Palestinians.
“I would hope to see some sort of plan ahead. The ceasefire of course, and then moving forward to get in there and just to actually rebuild,” she said. “And obviously, I hope we can find another president, not Trump, not Biden, somebody else to step up.”
The pro-Israeli demonstrators pushed for Hamas to immediately release the more than 200 hostages who were taken October 7.
“We can’t really have a ceasefire until the hostages are released,” said Strauss, the 64-year-old from Maryland.
She said she hopes for a path forward for both people to live safely.
“I have Palestinian friends. I think they have a right to be safe and to have their own homeland. I believe in a two-state solution. But it can’t be that … Jewish people
can’t call Israel home.”
Ami Forman, a 15-year-old from New Jersey, stood toward the front of the crowd close to the stage with his father and his high school classmates, who all attended the march to show support for Israel.
“I would like to see the destruction of Hamas, the protection of the Jewish people, and overall a creative support of the Jewish people throughout the entire world,” he said.
Wallach, the rabbi from Dallas, said she believed Israelis and Palestinians had a “common enemy” in Hamas.
“Of course, we want the Gazans to be able to live lives of dignity and have access to healthcare and education and places to live,” she said.
“It breaks our hearts to see how Hamas is using its own people as human shields. It breaks our hearts to see the loss of life over there as well. So, one of the things that we dream about is that we can unite against the common enemy and know that nobody will have to be afraid of terrorists anymore.”
CNN’s Zoe Sottile reported from New York, Chandelis Duster reported from Washington, DC and Eric Levenson wrote from New York. Gabe Cohen also contributed reporting.
For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com