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Jeremy Ben-Ami

Not knowing the fate of the person you love the most is a particularly cruel form of torture.

Six months ago – amid acts of unspeakable sadism and depravity – Hamas ripped hundreds away from their homes and loved ones, dragging them into tunnels in Gaza. Over 100 Israelis remain in captivity and unaccounted for, their families enduring unrelenting anguish.

Almost every day since, J Street’s Israel Director, Nadav Tamir, has volunteered with family support groups in Tel Aviv. When we brought Members of Congress to meet with them in a plaza renamed Hostages Square, it was a profoundly affecting moment.

Today, J Streeters across the country are joining peace vigils and hostage release rallies in their communities.

For six months, we have repeated a demand which we make again today: The immediate and unconditional release of all those held captive in Gaza.

Together, we share outrage over the six months of hell which hostages and their families have been forced to endure – and at the catastrophic levels of death, grief and suffering inflicted on families in Gaza, and an intensity of violence which has only put civilians and hostages at greater risk.

The pain of hostage families, already unbearable, has been magnified by those who have sought to excuse or justify the actions of Hamas, as though the crime of hostage-taking could ever be some form of legitimate resistance. It’s been compounded by the horrific stories of abuse and torture from others held in captivity, including sexual assault.

It’s compounded also by members of Israel’s own government openly saying that hostage safety isn’t a primary priority, or seeking to cast protesting families as undermining the war effort. By military operations which have killed and endangered more hostages than they’ve freed. By Prime Minister Netanyahu’s handling of negotiations, which he has been accused of slow-walking to serve his own political interests.

And I know that for our community – which strives to hold the humanity of both Israelis and Palestinians – our pain is made immeasurably worse by the intolerable situation in Gaza and the Netanyahu government’s role in it.

It’s simply unacceptable that there are some who continue to seek to use the suffering of hostages and the crimes of Hamas as justification for inflicting intolerable pain on civilians in Gaza.

I do not need to spell out at length what J Street has said before: That the Israeli government must not use humanitarian aid as a weapon of war. That they must reform tactics and protocols to protect civilians, aid workers and hostages. That they must comply with international law and must facilitate sufficient humanitarian aid immediately – and that the Biden administration must refuse to take no for an answer when it presses on these issues.

These steps are both moral and legal imperatives, and in Israel’s own strategic interests.

Senate Majority Leader Schumer captured the feeling of so many in our community when he said: “What horrifies so many Jews especially is our sense that Israel is falling short of upholding these distinctly Jewish values that we hold so dear.”

We felt this particularly acutely this week, in the wake of the horrific strikes which killed seven World Central Kitchen aid workers – whose pre-approved, clearly-marked convoy was struck multiple times as they called for help and sought to rescue injured colleagues.

José Andrés, the founder of World Central Kitchen, wrote a moving response in the New York Times, which I think is worth quoting at length. (For those unaware, his organization was one of the first on the ground in Israel offering support and services to grieving families in the south, and those displaced by Hezbollah rockets in the north.)

“Israel is better than the way this war is being waged,” he wrote. “It is better than blocking food and medicine to civilians. It is better than killing aid workers who had coordinated their movements with the Israel Defense Forces.”

“In the worst conditions, after the worst terrorist attack in its history, it’s time for the best of Israel to show up. You cannot save the hostages by bombing every building in Gaza. You cannot win this war by starving an entire population.”

“I have heard the ancient Passover stories about being a stranger in the land of Egypt, the commandment to remember – with a feast before you – that the children of Israel were once slaves.”

“It is not a sign of weakness to feed strangers; it is a sign of strength. The people of Israel need to remember, at this darkest hour, what strength truly looks like.”

I couldn’t agree more.

To our friends and family in Israel, we stand with you in these times of grief as you cling to hope, fighting for the lives of the remaining hostages. And we implore those in power to remember, especially in such darkness, what it is to be a light unto the nations.

Thank you, sincerely, for your support as we continue to demand the immediate release of hostages and an end to the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

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