For three minutes, the National Mall stood still. No cheers, no chants. Pure … attentive … quiet.

Hundreds of thousands of people dotted the green patches of grass between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, and listened. Tears streamed down the cheek of the woman to my left. A young father cradled his child in his arms. Everywhere I looked, people stood with their feet perched slightly apart, heads erect, as if in collective prayer, ears attuned to the speaker behind the podium.

There were many speakers that day. With each speech, many in the crowd applauded; some held signs; others waved flags. People hugged, kibitzed, snacked, walked about amidst the largest rally in American Jewish history.

But for three minutes, no one moved. They listened. Behind the microphone was Rachel Goldberg, the mother of 23-year-old Hersh Goldberg-Polin, one of the 240 hostages abducted by Hamas on the morning of October 7.  

“We hostage families have lived the last 39 days in slow-motion torment,” she said. 

Affixed to her shirt was a piece of tape with the number 39, a reminder of how many days had passed since she last saw her son, how many days since he was kidnapped from the music festival and loaded on a truck with half his left arm blown off.

She continued, slowly:

For 38 nights, none of us have slept the real sleep of the Before. We all have third-degree burns on our souls. Our hearts are bruised and seeping with misery. But the real souls suffering are those of the hostages. And they want to ask everyone in the world …. Why? Why is the world accepting that 240 human beings from almost 30 countries have been stolen and buried alive?

One person in the crowd attempted to whoop in solidarity but was drowned out by the overwhelming quiet and focus of the masses.

These children of God range in age from nine months to 87 years. They are Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindu. Why are they being left underground in the dirt?

Above-ground and under a clear blue sky, the rally-goers held up signs with the word “kidnapped” mapped on to a red background set atop a picture, a name, and an age.

Ema Cunio, age 3. Amiram Cooper, age 84. Maya Goren, age 56. Tal Shoham, age 38. Noralin Babadilla Agojo, age 60. And hundreds of others.

None of the hostages’ families know where they are, whether they’re alive or injured or maimed, whether they’re huddled in the underworld beneath Gaza’s surface, whether they are held by Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad or another terrorist organization. No humanitarian organization has been granted access. No government has made direct contact, at least not publicly. No one knows.

In what moral universe does this global calamity not spark universal demands from governments and civil society for the hostages’ immediate, unconditional, and safe release?

It has now been 46 days since Hamas committed one of the largest mass abductions in recent times. According to recent reports, a release of a significant number of hostages may be in the offing. Let us hope this is the case, but even if it is, it will leave scores of hostages in Gaza, hostages whose return has not been a sufficient-enough priority for a wide enough segment of the international community even though the horrific and barbaric circumstances of their capture were widely known nearly instantly.

Unlike in other international hostage crises, these abductees are not necessarily corralled in a single location like an airport hangar or a school gymnasium. 

Unlike in other hostage crises, these abductees are not confined to a single nationality: Many are Israeli, but some are Thai, Argentinian, German, American, Nepalese, Russian, Sri Lankan, Tanzanian, Chinese, and Filipino. 

Unlike in other hostage crises, those kidnapped represent every major religion in the world. They also reflect every life stage from infancy to old age. 

The current hostage crisis is therefore an international one, a global humanitarian crisis that affects people from every region, major religion, and age bracket. 

So it raises some obvious questions: In what moral universe does this global calamity not spark universal demands from governments and civil society for the hostages’ immediate, unconditional, and safe release? In what bizarro world are the victims of an undeniable war crime also the victims of erasure on college campuses across the United States? It takes a perverse logic at best, or antisemitic delusions at worst, to rip down posters of hostages under the presumption that the image of hostages is itself propaganda.  

It is impossible not to grieve at the images and deaths of innocent Palestinian civilians in Gaza. It is heartbreaking, full stop. 

If university students and faculty started placing photos of missing Palestinian children on the quad, I would be hard-pressed to find an informal campaign devoted to tearing them down, let alone mocking them with “Missing Cow” posters — as recently appeared on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. And if such a campaign did occur, it would merit, and receive, the strongest condemnation.  

While gaslighting the Jewish community may be new, Jews are no strangers to the trauma of being held in captivity. The Jewish tradition is filled with stories, laws, and commentary on the imperative of pidyon shevuyim, redeeming captives. From the biblical accounting of Abraham, who waged war against four kings to free his nephew Lot, to last century’s struggle to save Soviet Jewry from the desperate clutch of a dying empire, the relentless pursuit of freedom is etched into Jewish consciousness. 

The Bring Them Home campaign may just be this generation’s Soviet Jewry moment.

And this brings us back to the rally in Washington, D.C. While there were any number of messages from the main stage, there was one galvanizing call to action and three simple words that unified the crowd over and over and over again: 

Bring … Them … Home! 

People chanted this message with an emphatic determination in the middle of and in between speeches, in unison and in waves. 

Bring … Them … Home!

With each chant, it almost seemed as if the people were carrying on the legacy of their forbears who, in support of Soviet Jewry, brought 250,000 people to the National Mall in 1987 under the banner “Let My People Go!”

Bring … Them … Home!

As if the parallels between that era and this weren’t evident, Natan Sharansky took to the stage on November 14 as he did in 1987 (and in 2002, at the last major rally in D.C.) to remind this new generation: “Many of your grandfathers fought for our freedom. Many of your parents fought for our freedom. Many of you fought for our freedom. That’s what made all the change.”

The Bring Them Home campaign may just be this generation’s Soviet Jewry moment. Notwithstanding the diplomatic and military challenges in both situations, there is simply no moral complexity around the importance of freeing dissidents from a despotic land and freeing hostages from a terrorist group. This is a cause that can and should inspire those on the left and the right and everyone in between.

What can everyday Americans do to “make the change?” Here are a few ideas that I encourage all of us to build upon.

  • Adopt a hostage. During the Soviet Jewry era, many American Jews had a “twin” from the Soviet Union whose story they integrated into their bar or bat mitzvah service. Hillels, schools, synagogues, local Jewish Federations, and even individual bar/bat mitzvah kids should commit to telling the story of their twin, raising awareness whenever and wherever possible.
  • Call your government representative — every day. After a few weeks’ time, the Senate or House office’s legislative correspondent should know your name and thousands of others who are equally relentless in keeping this issue front and center.
  • Infuse it into your religious service. A prayer for all of the captives, including those taken hostage before October 7, should be recited in every synagogue around the country. Individuals in the congregation can be given the responsibility to recite a certain allotment of names, the sum total of which will be accounted for each Sabbath.
  • Amplify existing mechanisms. A number of steadfast efforts by grassroots organizations and legacy institutions are shining a light on the plight of the hostages. Sign the pledges, attend the rallies, add your voice, make a difference.

Toward the end of her remarks, Rachel Goldberg shared a brief story about a Christian German who was asked why he went to such lengths to save an untold number of Jews during the Holocaust.

His answer was simple: At least I know when I die and stand before God, He will not ask me what He asked Cain in the Bible: Where were you when your brother’s blood cried out from the ground?

Rachel paused and then asked, “What the world needs to start thinking about today is, What will your excuse be?”

This article was published on November 21, 2023.