More than 100 supporters of Israel from across Massachusetts loaded onto three buses at Gillette Stadium Monday morning, bound for Washington D.C., where national Jewish leaders on Tuesday will stage a March for Israel.
The group that left from Gillette is part of a delegation of nearly 1,000 attendees that Boston-based Combined Jewish Philanthropies is sending to D.C., according to the organization, which sponsored 10 buses across the state.
Rabbi Marc Baker, president of CJP, greeted attendees as they filled a section of the parking lot around 8 a.m., shaking hands and taking photos of protesters bundled in winter coats and Israeli flags.
Baker said “the world changed” on Oct. 7, when Hamas militants launched a brutal and deadly attack mostly on Israeli civilians, including children, which prompted Israel to declare war and, later, begin a ground offensive in Gaza.
“This is a historic opportunity for people — Jews, and friends, and allies across North America — to show up proud and strong in Washington, D.C.,” Baker said. “And to let the world know and let our country know that we are going to fight for our future.”
Baker said demonstrators will gather both in support of Israel’s “right to defend itself and its people” and to condemn rising antisemitism in the United States. He said the group wants to see the release of more than 200 hostages still believed to be held captive by Hamas.
Nationally and locally, there has been a renewed and emotional dispute about the line where criticism of Israel veers into something more sinister, including debate over the use of some pro-Palestinian rallying cries, like the phrase “From the river to the sea.”
Baker said reasonable criticism of Israel’s government is possible, but discussions have become increasingly antisemitic as the war continues.
“When you demonize Israel and the entire Jewish people, when you dehumanize Israelis, when you reduce Israel to a settler-colonialist state, when you deny Israel the right to defend itself, and when you deny the Jewish people the right to their national self aspirations, that’s antisemitism,” Baker said.
Eric Fingerhut, president of the Jewish Federations of North America, said Tuesday’s march is intended to show President Biden and Congress that the majority of Americans support Israel, despite growing criticism of the country and what he called an “extreme rise in antisemitism” in the weeks since the attack.
The federations organized the march alongside the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Demonstrators will gather on the National Mall as early as 10 a.m. Tuesday, when gates open, and programming will begin at 1 p.m.
“We’ve known from Oct. 7 that it was important for us to mobilize in our communities, to help ensure that Israel has the civic and political support that it needs to defend itself, to eradicate this terror threat,” Fingerhut said on a phone call Monday. “We have to make sure the world does not forget the fate of the hostages.”
The event comes as a cascade of pro-Palestinian protests ripples through the United States and international communities. Earlier this month, thousands of marchers from Paris to Milan to Washington called for an immediate end to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, the Associated Press reported. And several local rallies have filled Boston and Cambridge streets with thousands of protesters.
As of last Friday, more than 11,000 Palestinians, two-thirds of them women and minors, have been killed since the war began, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas. In Israel, the death toll is more than 1,400, mostly made up of those killed in the initial attack.
Brighton resident Annette Pechenick was among the first to arrive at Gillette Monday morning. The 61-year-old said she hoped Tuesday’s march will help push Congress toward increasing financial and military support for the Jewish state and show Israeli civilians and soldiers that American Jews stand behind them.
“We have to make sure that Hamas doesn’t exist, that Hezbollah doesn’t exist, that ISIS doesn’t exist, and that it’s safe to be a Jew,” she said. “I want to see that there’s no cease-fire.”
Pechenick said she was grateful to Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, for lending the parking lot.
Jack Skowronski, who drove to Gillette from Marblehead, said he spent the night at Patriot Place hotel to make sure he caught his early-morning bus. A miniature Israeli flag was tucked into his jacket.
Skowronski said he hopes to see a massive crowd take to the National Mall Tuesday.
This is “an existential moment for Israel in its history,” Skowronski said. “I’m hoping that it will be peaceful. There’s always a concern that with all the emotions involved on both sides, that this would turn away from being peaceful.”
Skowronski said the international community initially appeared unified in its support for Israel after the Oct. 7 attack, “but it didn’t take long before the world . . . turned substantially against it.”
The buses pulled into the parking lot just after 8:30 a.m., and attendees began to board and settle in for what organizers said could be a roughly 10-hour drive. Organizers loaded stacks of blue yard signs, dozens at a time, from pallets into the undercarriage cargo compartment of one bus.
“Boker tov and good morning to everybody,” one attendee called out just before stepping into the bus, greeting the crowd in Hebrew and English. As he walked up the stairs, he continued: ”Am Yisrael chai” — Hebrew for “The people of Israel live.”
The buses began to move just before 9:20 a.m. Riders waved from behind tinted windows as they left the stadium.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.