As Hostages’ Square rally seeks unity, some families look for help from union instead

Mass rally marked by apolitical stance bringing together people from various walks of life, but smaller group backing more extreme action demands labor body call nationwide strike

Relatives of hostages and protestors rally to demand the release of their loved ones before the Passover holiday, in Tel Aviv, April 18, 2024. (Benoit Ducrocq/Ahmad Gharbli/AFPTV/AFP)

Thousands in Tel Aviv gathered Thursday night for a “unity rally” put on by the main umbrella group representing families of hostages held in Gaza, but any idea of consensus was belied by some hostage families opting to instead participate in a smaller anti-government protest.

The concurrent events, just a few blocks apart from each other in the heart of Tel Aviv, provided a window into growing rifts among hostage families lobbying for their loved ones’ freedom, as some have strayed from the forum’s non-partisanship to point a finger at the government for the difficulty in reaching a deal and call for new elections.

With the goal of “uniting all sectors of Israeli society” to demand the release of those in Hamas captivity, the Hostages and Missing Families Forum brought together a diverse crowd of secular and religious Israelis to Hostages’ Square to hear from hostages’ family members, rabbis, parents of fallen soldiers and residents of the Gaza Envelope communities.

Missing from the panoply were several hostage families and their supporters who have shifted to more direct criticism of the government in recent weeks. They instead marched from military headquarters to the offices of the powerful Histadrut labor federation, demanding its chairman, Arnon Bar-David, call a general strike to push the government into signing a hostage deal with Hamas.

At Hostages’ Square, most speakers refrained from discussing how Israel should go about freeing the captives in Gaza, whether through an agreement or warfare, focusing more on the rhetoric of unity before the Passover holiday.

“There is no right, no left, there is no religious, traditional or secular. We all want to see them home,” said Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau near the rally’s outset. “We are all united in worry, love and care for each and every one who is not home, for those who were kidnapped.”

Two demonstrators join hands while attending a rally calling for the release of Israelis held kidnapped by Hamas terrorists in Gaza at “Hostage Square” in Tel Aviv, April 18, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The top rabbi urged those in attendance to recite a special prayer for the hostages at their Passover seders, emphasizing that “[the hostages] deserve a holiday of freedom, to celebrate a true holiday of freedom and return home.”

“How can we drink four cups at the seder when we have hostages taken in their pajamas, in their slippers from their homes?” he continued. “It is our obligation to bring them home, and to think of them all.”

With the exception of Lau, most speakers ascended to the stage in groups of two or three, representing the big tent that the Families Forum has been striving to achieve through a more conciliatory tone.

Unlike the Forum’s demonstration in Jerusalem earlier this month which attracted mostly secular Jews to the capital, visible in Hostages’ Square were swaths of men sporting kippot and payot [sidelocks], women in headscarves and long skirts and even one demonstrator waving a giant “Mashiach” flag, symbolizing the Chabad movement’s messianic wing.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau speaks during a rally calling for the release of Israelis held kidnapped by Hamas terrorists in Gaza at “Hostage Square” in Tel Aviv, April 18, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Shelly Shem-Tov, the mother of hostage Omer Shem-Tov, told the crowd that as a resident of Herzliya, a well-to-do coastal city in the country’s center, she hadn’t paid much heed to the experiences of Israelis who live in the Gaza Envelope or the West Bank until October 7.

“I didn’t really understand [a lot] about rockets hitting a home in Sderot or the Gaza border communities until Omer was taken hostage,” she said.

Shem-Tov went onstage with Menachem Kalmanson, who received the Israel Prize in 2024 for “Civilian Heroism” for his deeds on October 7, when he rushed from his West Bank settlement of Otniel to Kibbutz Be’eri in order to fend off Hamas with his nephew and brother, Elhanan, who was killed that day in combat.

“I am with you, and I want your lives to be better, more secure,” she said. Emphasizing in front of Kalmanson that she hopes Israelis in the West Bank “will live in security, [and] won’t be frightened for their lives all the time.”

“We want a place that will be safe to live, anywhere in the land. For this, we need to be shoulder to shoulder,” said Shem-Tov.

Demonstrators protest for the release of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip since October 7, Tel Aviv, April 18, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Former Eshkol regional council head Haim Jelin who survived the October 7 massacre at his home on Kibbutz Be’eri, said even if politicians continue to squabble over credit, the rest of the people could be united.

“Every teacher in their class, every doctor in their clinic, the street cleaners, the rabbis in their synagogues, the corner storeowners, the bus drivers, the nation will do this — the power is in our hands,” he said.

Jelin shared the podium with Hagay Lober, father of Staff Sergeant Elisha Yehonatan Lober, who fell in battle in Gaza, who told the rally that this night had brought him more comfort than any other night since his son was killed.

“There are people who don’t love the word, ‘now,’ but I love it,” emphasized Lober. “For me, a bereaved father, the word ‘now,’ for me, it is a call for immediacy — for bringing home the captives and destroying our enemies.”

Moran Zer Katzenstein, chair of the Women Wage Peace movement and a secular Israeli, reached across the aisle to the religious public in a speech that referenced a passage from the Torah urging action on the hostages issue.

“In addition to prayer, the Torah says that we must make an effort,” she said. “Each one of us should check what effort we are making to return the hostages now.”

‘Shutdown or abandonment’

Outside Tel Aviv’s Kirya military headquarters, hundreds of protesters led by a handful of hostages’ family members explicitly demanded a deal, taking a harsher stance towards the government and mincing no words while calling for a complete shutdown of the Israeli economy until the captives’ release.

Hundreds demonstrate in Tel Aviv for a general strike and hostage deal on April 18, 2024. (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)

Miri Gross, one of the chant leaders at the demonstration, said she felt that the rally in Hostages’ Square would not push hard enough for a negotiated deal because of its inclusion of right-wing activists who back the government.

She told The Times of Israel that the march to Histadrut headquarters represented a “true protest,” designed to put pressure on the government.

At the front of the crowd Einav Zangauker, whose son Matan Zangauker was taken captive in Gaza, worked to unfurl a banner with the slogan “shutdown or abandonment” written on it.

Over the past couple of months, Zangauker has made a name for herself as a former Likud voter turned vocal critic of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Later that evening, Zahiro Prem, the nephew of 79-year-old Hamas-held hostage Avraham Munder, spoke directly to the absent Histadrut chairman, Bar-David.

Protests hold signs calling for the release of hostages held by terror groups in Gaza since October 7, outside Tel Aviv’s Kirya military base, Tel Aviv on April 18, 2024. (Ahmad Gharbli/AFP)

“I don’t know who you are, I don’t know how you got into this position, but this is where you are now. Now is your time to choose,” he said before the crowd gathered at Histadrut headquarters.

“You have the power to change the equation,” she said to the labor leader through the microphone. “You have used your power in other struggles, but there hasn’t been a more important struggle since the establishment of the state than our struggle now. The State of Israel will not be able to recover if the hostages do not return to us.”

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