May 11, 2024
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UN Rally Demands Release of Hostages

Rachel Goldberg-Polin, mother of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, addresses the crowd. Her husband, Jon Polin, stands to her right. (Credit: Judith Falk)

On Sunday April 7, an estimated 7,000 people attended a rally coordinated by the New York Hostages and Missing Families Forum and over 150 partnering organizations, demanding immediate international action to release the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza for the past six months.

Similar to other rallies post-October 7 calling for the release of the hostages, the event was held at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza across from the United Nations headquarters, and was marked by peace, Israeli and American flags held high, songs, cries of “Bring them home now,” and a host of speakers.

(Credit: Judith Falk)

Yet this rally was different, as it was unfathomable that the hostages have been held in captivity for six months.

Stated Eric Goldstein, CEO of UJA: “We came together in this very place, on this very stage, on October 10, three days after Hamas’ barbaric attack on Israel on October 7 … We gathered here again in this very same place on January 12 to mark 100 days of captivity. I don’t think any of us could possibly have imagined six months, 184 days after October 7, that we would still need to be here again on this stage still demanding the immediate release of the hostages.”

Mark Treyger, CEO of JCRC of New York, gave words to the frustration all were feeling: “Twenty-one-year-olds should be focused on their education and planning for the future. Grandparents, 86-year-old grandpas, should be enjoying the golden years of their lives. Babies should be held in the arms of their parents and loved ones. Parents should be watching their kids and their families grow.”

(Credit: Judith Falk)

As a stark reminder of what life in captivity looks like for the hostages, at the entrance to the plaza was a powerful exhibit of activists inside of cages wearing white, bloodied clothing and cuffed by their ankles and wrists to chains and shackles, mimicking the conditions described in testimonies of released hostages. As rally participants passed the exhibit, the “hostages” loudly cried, “Help!” and rattled their chains in an effort to break free.

The urgency of bringing the hostages home was highlighted by Shany Granot-Lubaton of the Families Forum, who stated that the number of hostages was 134 just a few days ago but it is now 133, as the IDF recovered the body of Elad Katzir in Gaza.

Explained Granot-Lubaton: “Elad was from Kibbutz Nir Oz and we know he was taken alive and managed to survive … for many months in captivity. But now, his body was found. This is why time is running out.”

A stark reminder of what life in captivity looks like.
(Credit: Judith Falk)

Rabbinical figures offered words of strength. Addressing the hostages’ families present, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, senior rabbi of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, said, “We are here to urge you to not lose hope, and we will stand with you no matter how long it takes.”

Rabbi Jonathan Kroll, principal of SAR High School, highlighted the upcoming holiday of Passover, noting that Passover “celebrates the freedom of the Jewish people from suffering and slavery. … Right now, 133 human beings of 26 different nationalities remain kidnapped and enslaved, and we demand that they celebrate their freedom this Passover with their families.”

One of the other nations impacted by October 7 is Argentina. Consul General Pablo Piñeiro Aramburu said, “As you well know, many Argentines suffered the atrocities committed by Hamas exactly half a year ago on October 7, 2023, in a terrorist attack in Southern Israel.” Referencing rescued hostage and Argentine national Louis Har, as well as the youngest known hostage, Israeli-Argentine baby Kfir Bibas, the consul general said, “The hostage situation has been and continues to be of utmost importance for the Argentine government.”

Former Prime Minister
Naftali Bennett. (Credit: Judith Falk)

Former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett issued a strong call to the global community to help get the hostages home. “It is the deepest duty of the Jewish state to bring our children home. Nobody can tell us to stop while there’s even one hostage there. Nobody can tell us, or preach us on proportionality, when there is one man or woman in the cellars or tunnels of Aza. The whole world needs to apply pressure not on Israel, but on Hamas, on Qatar, on the people who are holding them, every day.”

Several hostage families gave messages of thanks and frustration, and called to bring their loved ones home.

Rachel Goldberg, mother of hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin, who was seen taken by Hamas, said: “We have felt a lot in these last 184 days. But we have never felt alone, and we have never felt so much love from so many people who we’ve never even met. And for that, we are beyond grateful and thank you.”

Kidnapped poster and milk cartons.
(Credit: Judith Falk)

Ruby Chen, father of murdered American-Israeli hostage Itay Chen, stated: “We had the honor of getting phone calls from our friends here in the United States,” such as New York Governor Kathy Hochul and even President Joe Biden. Ruby said that he told all those who called the same thing: “We will only do a shiva when Itay comes back to us, and they have an obligation… to bring everybody back home.”

Shira Matalon spoke about her uncles Yossi and Eli Sharabi, who are being held hostage. Yossi was held captive with other released hostages, but a recent Hamas video showing his body revealed his death. The family is now fighting for the return of Yossi’s body and for Eli’s life. “When I stood here four months ago, I truly believed that a second deal was around the corner,” Matalon said.

The young Lilou Lifshitz, great-granddaughter of hostage Oded Lifshitz, stated in her quiet yet strong voice to “please bring them all home and please don’t lose hope.”

Seventy-one year old Louis Har, rescued from captivity by the IDF, addressed the crowd in Hebrew, and his determination was visible even to those who don’t understand the language. Reading a statement in English from Har was his son-in-law Idan: “I’m here today to shout out loud as I can on behalf of all the others … on behalf of all 133 hostages that are still in Gaza, [that they] must come back home.”

Sea of Israeli flags. (Credit: Judith Falk)

American politicians demanded that the world take action to bring the hostages home now.

Congressman Dan Goldman (D, NY-10) stated, “Since when do we not care about other Americans held hostage by a terrorist group? Since when does the International Red Cross and democratic nations and institutions around the world stay effectively silent in the face of a terrorist group illegally abducting civilians and keeping them in treacherous captivity? Is it only because they are Jewish that they are viewed differently?”

Continued Goldman: “But let’s be very clear, this is not just an attack on Jews or Israel. This is an attack on the Western world and our democratic way of life. Hamas is a terrorist proxy group of Iran, which, along with Hezbollah to Israel’s north, have committed themselves to the destruction of Israel and all Jews.

“But Iran and their proxies have also declared outright opposition to the United States and democracy in general. This conflict is not just Hamas versus Israel, it is tyranny versus democracy. Is it despotism versus freedom. It is evil versus good.”

Congressman Brandon Williams (R, NY-22), who was baptized in the Jordan River at 12 years old and recently returned from a trip to Israel, told the crowd, “I’m proud to stay that I stand with Israel.”

Asked by The Jewish Link about some of President Biden’s recent comments and actions regarding Israel, Williams responded, “I think that Israel needs friends more than ever right now, and friends that stand with them and make them strong. I think many of the actions of the administration in the last few weeks have sown doubt among our allies and have allowed our enemies to be strong. And I think it’s incredibly dangerous and irresponsible.”

Rachel Goldberg then shared her poem entitled “To the boys in the Room” with the massive crowd.

To the boys in the room, there are thousands and thousands and thousands of thousands of innocent civilians suffering terribly in Gaza, but I only know one of them. He and I share the same DNA, and we are both left-handed. Oh, now only one of us is left-handed. And he lived and grew inside of me for nine months, many moons ago.

To the boys in the room, every folk tale begins with the four words ‘once upon a time,’ and every deal or negotiation that you think of crafting should begin with one word: ‘hostages.’

To the boys in the room, to motivate and incentivize you, you will now be asked to hand over one of your family members. Your spouse, your father, your sister, your son, your brother, your daughter, your mother, your grandfather. If he has already passed on to the next world, we will supply you with a shovel. We will then hold on to your beloved one, and treat them exactly as our beloved have been treated until you come up with a plan for how to get these people back. And I reckon it will take you less than 184 days.

To the boys in the room, our Father who art in Heaven, call him by any name you wish; he will be home soon and boys, just you wait till your father gets home.

Judith Falk is the creator of the Upper West Side Shtetl Facebook group. You can follow her on instagram @upperwestsideshtetl. She is a lawyer by day and a former legal reporter.

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