Demonstrators hold one another during a rally demanding Hamas release hostages at Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco, Oct. 13, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Demonstrators hold one another during a rally demanding Hamas release hostages at Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco, Oct. 13, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

‘Bring them home’: At S.F. rally, crowd demands return of Israeli hostages held by Hamas

Hoisting photos of Israelis held captive by Hamas in Gaza, Bay Area residents called for the immediate and safe return of all Israeli hostages at an emotional rally Friday in downtown San Francisco.

“Bring them home!” shouted the crowd, which included local Israeli expatriates personally touched by the widespread terrorist attack on Oct. 7. One of them was Efrat Rafaeli, who grew up five miles from the Gaza border and went to high school with residents of nearby Kibbutz Re’im, one of the kibbutzim devastated by Hamas terrorists.

Her voice breaking, Rafaeli told the crowd of more than 200 that Hamas kidnapped her friend and her friend’s children and elderly mother. Another friend’s mother, who’s in her late 70s, was also taken hostage. “My friend’s brother was murdered,” Rafaeli said.

Many of those congregated at Civic Center Plaza waved Israeli flags or wrapped them around their shoulders. The police presence was heavy around the rally and nearby streets. The event was intense but peaceful, though one driver rolled down his window to yell “f— Israel” and flipped off the crowd, prompting rallygoers to chant “Bring them home!” even louder.

“The rally needs to send a very clear message that the clock is running against us, and any day that the civilians that were kidnapped brutally by the Hamas terror organization are not back home is a day that we might not see them again,” Offir Gutelzon, a co-founder of UnXeptable, a Bay Area-based grassroots group of Israeli expatriates, told J. prior to the event.

UnXeptable organized the rally, along with Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area and other Jewish groups.

“There are no words to describe the fear, worry and grief we are all experiencing at this moment,” Shimrit Braun Kamin, associate director of the San Francisco region of the New Israel Fund, one of the rally’s co-sponsors, told those in attendance. She described the past week as one of the “most shocking and terrifying” in Israel’s history.

Between 100 and 150 people were taken to Gaza, including seniors, women and children, the youngest just 6 months old. The Israeli government has not yet confirmed the exact number of hostages. In heartbreaking media reports, family members unsure of their loved ones’ fates have shared their anguish. 

“She’s my only daughter,” a weeping Yaakov Argamani told CNN this week. That daughter, 26-year-old Noa Argamani, was among those abducted Saturday at the Tribe of Nova music festival, where Hamas massacred an estimated 260 people, mostly young adults. In a widely circulated video, Noa Argamani was seen being whisked away on a motorcycle by Hamas terrorists, who also captured her boyfriend, Avinatan Or.

At the rally, a young Israeli student living in the Bay Area said his 26-year-old cousin is still missing after attending the music festival. He added that it’s been difficult to go about life as usual. The student declined to give his name, as did others. This week, a Hamas leader called for a global day of “jihad” on Friday, leading Israel to issue a warning to its citizens worldwide. Three Bay Area Jewish day schools closed Friday due to security concerns.

“Our kids were nervous about us coming to the rally here,” said Lauren Kushins, a Santa Rosa resident who attended with her husband, Benjie Kushins. They came anyway. “It’s horrible what’s happened, and we just want to do something,” Benjie Kushins said.  

Friday’s event was the latest local gathering convened this week to show solidarity with Israel following Saturday’s invasion and massacre that killed more than 1,200 Israelis. More than 1,900 in Gaza have died in Israel’s retaliatory airstrikes, according to Gaza’s Healthy Ministry. Thousands more have been injured on both sides of the Gazan border. And then there are the hostages.

Vocal calls for the hostages’ return must continue as their plight grows ever more urgent, JCRC CEO Tye Gregory told the rally.

“We are not afraid” of Hamas, Gregory said. “We are afraid of indifference. We are afraid of apathy.”

This week, schools in Israel, the U.S. and the U.K. urged parents to limit their children’s access to social media apps, such as TikTok and Instagram, out of concern that increasingly graphic content will be shared on the platforms. Hamas has said it will broadcast the murders of hostages if the Israeli military targets, without warning, residents of Gaza.

The focus on the hostages will not end until they are back in their families’ arms, Friday’s speakers said.

“If we stand here and we’re silent, we’re leaving them alone,” Rabbi Ryan Bauer of S.F.’s Congregation Emanu-El, another of the rally’s sponsors, told the crowd. “It’s not the time for that. Right now is the time to yell ‘Bring them home.'”

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.