Jewish Washingtonians gather at Qatari Embassy to push for hostage release

The event was the first major move by the organized Jewish community to pressure Qatar, but organizers were careful not to call it a protest

Rep. Glenn Ivey (D-MD) speaks at the gathering at the Qatari Embassy to push for a hostage release (JCRC of Greater Washington)

On a gray, chilly morning on the edge of Washington D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood, around 200 members of the D.C.-area Jewish community, toting U.S. and Israeli flags, the now-familiar hostage posters and a few handmade signs, gathered outside the Qatari Embassy to push for the release of the hostages being held by Hamas.

Interspersed with vigorous chants of “bring them home,” speakers, including Reps. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Glenn Ivey (D-MD), Virginia Democratic congressional candidate Eileen Filler-Corn and former Cuba hostage Alan Gross urged Qatar to apply more pressure on Hamas to release the remaining hostages — while also expressing gratitude for the role Qatar played in the initial round of hostage releases.

Ivey said he appreciated the work Qatar had done so far, “but we need to make sure that they understand today that we’re not where we need to get to. More needs to happen, and it needs to happen now.”

Raskin also offered thanks to Qatar, the U.S. government and the International Committee of the Red Cross for helping facilitate the first hostage deal.

“We call on Qatar — which is politically and financially in a place to make things happen — to put this at the very top of the priority list,” Raskin continued. “The hostages must be returned to their families and their communities now. On behalf of the American people, we demand that the hostages be brought home and given their freedom.”

Filler-Corn, the former speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, said: “The Qatari government can help — it already has helped secure the release of 105 hostages in November, and they can help today. That is why I join all of you today in asking for the Qatari government to help us.”

Gross argued in his remarks that it is “within the power of the State of Qatar to effectively convince Hamas that it is in everyone’s best interests to return these hostages to their loved ones.” He called on the Qatari ambassador to tell his country’s leadership that “more needs to be done” to pressure Hamas.

The event, organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington was the first major public push by the organized U.S. Jewish community targeting Qatar, but organizers were careful not to describe it as a “protest,” “rally” or “demonstration.”

The event’s tone — most speakers both offering thanks to Qatar and calling for more pressure on Hamas — is reflective of the cautious approach that many U.S. Jewish communal organizations have taken toward the Qatari government. 

Qatar has been a key mediator for talks with Hamas, but also hosts the terrorist group’s leadership and has backed it financially. It has become the subject of growing frustration in the U.S. Jewish community, in Congress and from Israeli leaders.

“We purposely chose the word gathering… This is an event to speak to the Qataris, to ask them to maximize their leverage over Hamas, and to use it to strongly pressure Hamas to bring as many hostages home as possible,” Ron Halber, executive director of the JCRC, told Jewish Insider ahead of the event. “We’re there to thank the Qataris and at the same time to press them to push Hamas.”

“Those two things are not in conflict: you’ve done a good job, you really need to do more of a good job,” Halber said. “We need you to work even harder now and get these people free.”

He described the situation with Qatar as “complex” and said that planning the event required “nuance.” He said he had consulted with American and Israeli experts in planning the event and evaluating how much to press the Qatari government.

He noted to JI after the event that Qatar is a major non-NATO ally, receiving significant defense, political and economic benefits from that relationship. 

“This is one of the most pressing national priority concerns for Israel, and for the United States,” Halber said. “And we expect [Qatar] to relentlessly pressure Hamas until they break and the hostages are released. And we won’t be satisfied until every one of them is home with their family, and anybody who’s been killed is brought home for proper burial.”

In his closing remarks, Halber hinted at further plans, calling Wednesday’s gathering “just the beginning of our community engagement” on the issue.

Filler-Corn told JI after the event, “It is my sincere hope that today’s event spurs Qatar to take action toward the release of over 100 innocent people, including as many as six Americans, who are still held hostage by Hamas. Qatar is in a unique political position to be able to facilitate the release of the hostages.”

“Our message today was clear: the hostages must be released now,” she continued.

In a follow-up interview, Gross described Hamas as a “client” of Qatar.

“We can’t stand for this,” he told JI. “They have to step up and play a greater role in convincing their client, Hamas, to release those hostages… If we don’t speak out and demonstrate against this type of atrocious behavior, criminal behavior, it’s going to happen again and again.”

He described Qatar as working “in several directions at the same time” through their control of Al Jazeera and funding of Hamas, arguing that the Qataris “need to know” that their handling of this crisis will shape their global reputation.

“It’s vitally important that Israelis and Jews, no matter where they live in the diaspora, speak out — not so much against Qatar but at Qatar, so that they can play a more decent role in our civilization,” Gross continued. “They want to be a player in our civilization, they’ve got to play in a civilized manner and not support this type of atrocity.”

Halber said he was pleased with the turnout for the event, especially given that the event was announced just 36 hours ahead of time.

Michael Blumenstock, a teacher from Bowie, Md., expressed frustration with the Qatari government, telling JI it is “disgusting” that Qatar is harboring Hamas leadership, and also raising concerns about its significant donations to U.S. colleges and universities. “We have to be tough” with Qatar, Blumenstock continued.

Lauren Simon, Maryland resident who attended the event, told JI that attending was “the least we could do on behalf of the hostages.” Rebecca Jacobs, who attended with Simon, added that, as mothers, they were “thinking of all the moms and all the children and their strength” living with their loved ones in captivity.

The event went off mostly smoothly and without interruption, although a man driving by before speeches began shouted toward the crowd about civilian suffering in Gaza, and another man with a Lyft logo in his car window flashed his middle finger to the crowd and honked his horn as he sped by after the speeches ended. 

During the event, the response from passers-by was largely positive — several honked their horns in approval, offering thumbs-up or raised fists from inside their cars.

Other than a lone security guard asking the group to keep the embassy’s front gate and fence clear, no one emerged from the building during the event, and the shades on nearly all of the embassy’s street-facing windows remained closed.

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