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Thousands took to the streets in Washington during pro-Israel march

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered on the National Mall here in Washington today. The rally was billed as a march for Israel. It was intended to show solidarity as Israel wages war in the Gaza Strip in response to the October attack by Hamas. NPR's Joel Rose was there and is now here. Hi, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Describe the scene for us. What was it like?

ROSE: Yeah. This march was arranged quickly by Jewish groups across the country. They brought busloads of people to the National Mall from New York in great numbers, but people came from even further away - places like Boston, Cleveland, Los Angeles. And a big part of the National Mall was just a sea of white-and-blue signs and Israeli flags under a heavy security presence starting at the stage a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, stretching nearly three-quarters of a mile all the way to the Washington Monument.

SHAPIRO: And what was the overarching message?

ROSE: Well, it was billed as a show of solidarity with Israel. Israeli President Isaac Herzog addressed the crowd by video from Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG: We come together as a family - one big mishpacha - to march for Israel. There is no greater and more just cause than this.

ROSE: But that was only part of the message here. The organizers also wanted to denounce what they call a rise in antisemitism and hatred, and they wanted to push back against critics of Israel. Protesters around the world and here in the U.S. have called for a cease-fire in Gaza as the humanitarian crisis there deepens, and Israeli leaders have rejected those calls. So have many political leaders in the U.S. And it was interesting today to see the top leadership of both U.S. parties speaking at the event in front of the Capitol, including Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and the new Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana, who got a rousing ovation for saying Israel should not agree to a cease-fire. They were part of a long list of passionate speakers. The rally was supposed to last two hours but went way over that.

SHAPIRO: And that list of speakers also included some parents of hostages who are still being held by Hamas in Gaza. What did those parents say?

ROSE: Yeah. Several mothers and other relatives of hostages who are being held by Hamas spoke, and it was a very emotional call not to forget about those hostages, including some who are very young and very old. Orna Neutra is the mother of Omer Neutra. He's a dual citizen of the U.S. and Israel, a 22-year-old originally from Long Island, N.Y., who was serving in the Israeli Defense Forces when he was believed to have been captured by Hamas on October 7. Here's a little bit of what she had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ORNA NEUTRA: Omer, you're not just my beloved son. You touch so many in deep and profound ways.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Bring them home. Bring them home. Bring them home.

ROSE: And you can hear the crowd on the mall there, chanting, bring them home; bring them home.

SHAPIRO: So those were some of the voices from the stage. What about voices in the crowd? What did you hear from people you spoke to?

ROSE: The people in the crowd had many different reasons for attending today. I heard a lot of concern about the hostages, some people at the protest - or at the rally who identified very strongly with the state of Israel and its right to defend itself against Hamas' incursion. Here's Shera Sacks of Maryland, who has family in Israel who live near the border with Gaza.

SHERA SACKS: Israel needs to be able to defend itself. I think that it helps for everybody around the world to see the support that Israel has.

ROSE: But others were much more ambivalent, not only about attending the rally but also about the way Israel is conducting the war in Gaza. I spoke to one young man named Yoni Schechter from New York City. Here's part of what he had to say.

YONI SCHECHTER: There's the antisemitism part, the hostage part and just the vision for a peaceful future that's not just a warmongering rally.

ROSE: Despite those misgivings, Schechter still felt that it was important to be on the mall today and to be a part of this event.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR's Joel Rose reporting on that rally of tens of thousands of people on the National Mall here in Washington, D.C., this afternoon. Thanks, Joel.

ROSE: You're welcome, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH SONG, "SOUR SOUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.