Slain soldier's mother: 'When will you bring my child back?'

Weekly rallies juxtapose Passover themes with enduring captivity of hostages

Two days before Jewish holiday of freedom, protesters demand hostage deal, slam government: ‘Instead of sitting at the Seder table, you should be sitting at the negotiating table’

Demonstrators at rally for hostages held captive by Hamas hold a picture of US-Israeli Hersh Goldberg-Polin near the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on April 20, 2024. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
Demonstrators at rally for hostages held captive by Hamas hold a picture of US-Israeli Hersh Goldberg-Polin near the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on April 20, 2024. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Thousands rallied nationwide for the release of the hostages held in Gaza and against the Israeli government on Saturday night, linking the plight of the hostages to the message of the upcoming Passover holiday, which begins on Monday evening.

Demonstrators grappled with how to mark the weeklong Jewish holiday, which commemorates freedom with the story of the ancient Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt, while 129 hostages are still being held captive by terror groups in the Gaza Strip after Hamas’s October 7 massacre.

“It is incomprehensible that we have come to this holiday that represents freedom, and they [the hostages] aren’t here,” said Tom Barkai, an organizer with the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, to a solemn crowd in Jerusalem’s Paris Square next to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence.

Protests in Tel Aviv, Haifa and dozens of other cities across the country echoed the theme. In Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, many anti-government protesters merged with the Hostages Families Forum demonstrations, and vice versa, later in the night.

Recent weeks have seen an increasing convergence of the hostage families’ protests and the mass anti-government demonstrations that were a weekly event in the months before October 7. Some of the families accuse Netanyahu of blocking a deal for political reasons.

In Jerusalem, hundreds convened outside the prime minister’s official residence around an hour after the end of Shabbat to demand a hostage deal.

“Does it even cross your minds how the families of hostages are going to deal with this holiday?” Barkai, who gave the opening speech at the rally, asked of Israel’s leadership. “Instead of sitting at the Seder table, you should be sitting at the negotiating table.”

Hostage rally organizer Tom Barkai speaks to the crowd at a demonstration near the residence of the prime minister in Jerusalem on April 20, 2024. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

As she spoke, Barkai raised her left hand with the date 7/10 written on her palm.

One of the speakers unequivocally called for the government’s ouster.

“The time for this government has run out, and they need to go,” said Eyal Eshel, whose 19-year-old daughter Roni Eshel, an IDF lookout, was killed on the Gaza border during Hamas’s onslaught on October 7. “This is the time for new leadership.”

The crowd met Eshel’s comments with enthusiastic agreement, chanting “shame” and demanding the prime minister’s resignation.

Shlomo Alfasa-Goren, a relative of murdered hostage Maya Goren, also had harsh words for Netanyahu’s right-wing ruling coalition.

“You abandoned [us], and you need to pay,” he said. “Reach an agreement, despite the difficult price.”

A crowd of demonstrators at hostages rally near the residence of the Israeli prime minister calling for their release in Jerusalem on April 20, 2024. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Also speaking in Jerusalem was Rabbi Benny Lau, a prominent Orthodox leader, who attempted to answer a question that Barkai posed at the start of the rally, where she inquired who among the crowd intended to celebrate Passover.

Lau said that he indeed planned to sit at the Seder table, invoking his father, a Holocaust survivor, who marked the holiday in the ghetto, then later in Buchenwald concentration camp.

“In 1942, on the night of the Seder, my father, 16 years old, sat at the table with his father. He spoke of that Seder as quiet — part of the family was no longer there, and it was just a minute before the Final Solution. My grandfather, his father, was murdered soon afterwards,” said Lau. “We didn’t believe that we would tell these sorts of stories in our free country.”

“We are a nation that tells stories, in every situation,” he said, adding that this year, he planned to honor the hostages with an empty chair and by showing his grandchildren pictures of those still held captive by Hamas.

After the speeches ended, protesters in Jerusalem marched from Paris Square to the President’s Residence for an anti-government protest organized by the group Safeguarding our Shared Home.

At the front of the march, protesters held a large banner with an excerpt from the Haggadah: “He [God] took us out from slavery to freedom, from sorrow to joy, from mourning to festival, from darkness to a great light, and from enslavement to redemption.” Under the quote in bold, black letters, read the words, “Deal now!”

Prof. Tsevi Mazeh, who won the Israel Prize in physics this year, invoked Passover with the assertion that Israeli citizens live under the government in “a state of slavery.”

Tsevi Mazeh, an astrophysics professor, speaks at an anti-government rally in Jerusalem on April 20, 2024. (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)

“We are enslaved by a government that has no mandate, we are led by a government that has no way, we are enslaved by zealous messianics who want to drag us into the war of Gog and Magog,” he said.

‘Abandoned’ by Israel

At an anti-government protest attended by thousands in Tel Aviv’s Democracy Square, Hagit and Ruby Chen, parents of slain IDF soldier Itay Chen, said that they had received a call from US President Joe Biden after being notified last month that their son was killed on October 7 and his body held in Gaza, but they were never contacted by Netanyahu.

“How could it be that the country abandoned you and abandoned me?” Hagit Chen said through tears. “When will you bring me my child back?”

Ruby and Hagit Chen, the parents of slain IDF soldier Itay Chen, speak at Democracy Square in Tel Aviv, April 20, 2024. (Iddo Schejter/Times of Israel)

The protesters later congregated with the hostage families rally on Begin Street, and after organizers read out the names of all captives who remain the Gaza Strip, the unified group continued to march through some of Tel Aviv’s most bustling streets, urging bar-goers to join the demonstration.

Many protesters carried signs referencing the Passover Haggadah and the Four Questions, with one sign that read, “How is this government different from all others?”

Police dispersed the marchers at Dizengoff Center mall with light force, but made no arrests and issued no fines throughout the relatively calm night.

Further north, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid addressed an anti-government rally in Haifa, calling the government “a disaster that happened to the country.”

“You all came out after October 7 and you went and did everything that this government didn’t do. You took responsibility, each one in their community, you prepared food for evacuees and reservists, placed yellow ribbons for the hostages — you can be relied upon,” said Lapid.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid speaks in Haifa on April 20, 2024 at a protest calling for new elections (Courtesy Eilat Markovitch

The opposition leader added that he’s been asked why he has not joined the government amid the war and explained that he wants to get rid of the government rather than strengthen it.

“This is not the best that Israel can offer its citizens,” he continued. “For the hostages, we need elections now.”

In light of the upcoming Passover holiday, hostage rallies were held in 55 cities and towns across the country this week, all planned by the Families Forum.

At a protest outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s private residence in Caesarea, a speaker lamented that nothing feels like a holiday right now, and “certainly not a festival of freedom, when 133 of our brothers and sisters have spent more than six months in the tunnels of Gaza where they are assaulted, starved and raped.”

In Kfar Saba, speakers urged protesters to keep coming out to demonstrate, even during the Passover vacation. Demonstrators also gathered en masse in Beersheba, Rehovot, Ra’anana, Hod Hasharon, near Netanya and elsewhere.

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