Hundreds of demonstrators rallied in New York City’s Times Square on Thursday to demand the release of hostages taken by Hamas, as President Joe Biden faces mounting pressure to leverage every diplomatic tool to secure the freedom of American captives.
Billboards showed the faces of people believed to be held hostage, including babies and elderly people, as the crowd chanted, “Bring them home.”
Speakers at the rally included Ronan and Orna Neutra, whose 22-year-old son, Omer, is thought to be held captive. They described him as a natural leader and avid athlete who captained the basketball, volleyball and soccer teams at his school.
The grandson of Holocaust survivors, Omer Neutra postponed his college plans to move to Israel, where he joined the Israel Defense Forces. The night before the attacks, Neutra spoke with his parents by phone, telling them he was looking forward to a quiet weekend after a month spent patrolling the border, his father recounted.
“We are heartbroken. We are worried,” his mother said. “But we are focused and resolute in doing everything within our power to bring Omer back.”
U.S. officials have said Hamas is holding some 200 people hostage after the Palestinian group’s Oct. 7 surprise attack on Israel, when militants killed about 1,400 Israelis.
While there is no official list of Americans in captivity, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Jim Risch, told reporters on Wednesday that 10 of the hostages were American.
“It is the highest priority here. We want those people out,” Risch said.
Thursday’s protest in Times Square was organized by the nonprofit Israeli American Council, which represents Israeli Americans in the U.S.
Speakers, including U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, the first Jewish Senate majority leader in history, vowed to stand with Israel and fight back against Hamas.
“We no longer can be the Jews trembling in the shadows,” actor and activist Yuval David, a dual Israeli and American citizen, told the crowd. “We know what happened to us then, and we know what is happening to us now.”
Americans across the U.S. are taking to the streets on a near-daily basis to protest on behalf of Israel or the Palestinian people, with bitter divisions re-emerging over the decades-long conflict in the Middle East.
A pro-Palestinian rally was planned for Friday outside the main branch of New York City’s public library to call for a ceasefire. On Wednesday, hundreds of protesters demanding a ceasefire were arrested while occupying the rotunda of the Cannon House office building at the U.S. Capitol.
“Ceasefire is the only way for the deaths to stop. Ceasefire is the only way to bring hostages home,” organizers of Friday’s New York rally said on their event page.
Biden visited Israel this week to reiterate his support and urge the country’s leaders to avert a humanitarian disaster as it prepares a ground invasion into the Gaza Strip.
His administration must walk a fine line. The task of securing the hostages’ release may require negotiating assistance from countries in the region, including Qatar, that have no diplomatic ties with Israel.
Rachel Goldberg, the mother of 23-year-old hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin, a dual Israeli and U.S. citizen, said the last messages she had received from her son were sent on the morning of Oct. 7, when he wrote, “I love you guys. I’m sorry.” She said police confirmed the last signal from her son’s phone showed it in Gaza that morning.
“I don’t know that he’s alive, I don’t know that he made it,” Goldberg said in an interview in Jerusalem.
US officials have not released names of the Americans believed to be held hostage. But media reports have identified several missing people with American citizenship, including Goldberg-Polin; a 66-year-old nurse, Adrienne Neta; 35-year-old Sagui Dekel-Chen, a father of two with a baby on the way; and Itay Chen, who serves in the Israel Defense Force.