WASHINGTON — The families of American citizens kidnapped by Hamas militants on Oct. 7 said Tuesday they cannot fathom why people would rip down posters showing the names and faces of their loved ones — a phenomenon that has led to tense confrontations captured on video.
“How can you do that? I just don’t understand it,” Orna Neutra, whose 21-year-old son Omer was kidnapped, told NBC News’ Lester Holt in an exclusive interview in Washington, where thousands of people from across the U.S. gathered Tuesday for a pro-Israel rally on the National Mall.
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In cities across the U.S., posters have been taped to light poles and public buildings, but many flyers have been torn down by anti-Israel activists who in some cases have been recorded by people nearby. The street-by-street battles over the posters have turned into a cultural flashpoint in the U.S. as the war between Israel and Hamas rages with no end in sight.
Liz Hirsh Naftali, whose 3-year-old great-niece was taken captive after her parents were killed, said the fact that people are removing the flyers underscores the importance of speaking to the news media about the atrocities carried out across southern Israel last month. Hirsh Naftali and seven other families sat down Tuesday for their first group interview since the start of the war.
“No matter how many times someone wants to tear down a poster,” Hirsh Naftali said, “we are living to tell who has been kidnapped, who was murdered, what happened on Oct. 7.”
“It’s not a matter of going to that place of being angry or being frustrated, because we can’t control that,” she added.
Israel’s government has said Hamas militants are believed to hold 239 captives. In television interviews over the weekend, the White House’s national security adviser said the U.S. does not know the exact number of hostages, though he confirmed that nine Americans are still missing after terrorists stormed into Israel on Oct. 7 and killed more than 1,000 people.
Israel and Hamas have been at war since; Israel’s retaliatory aerial bombardment and ground offensive in Gaza has devastated the enclave and killed more than 11,000 people, according to Palestinian officials. Hamas claims that it does not have custody of all the hostages and that some were taken by a militant group also based in Gaza, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Yehuda Beinin, whose daughter and son-in-law were kidnapped from the Nir Or kibbutz, said people ripping down or defacing posters were on a “very misguided path.”
“I think that … the ultimate conclusion one can reach here is just that people don’t understand what’s in the balance,” Beinin said.
Hanna Siegel, whose uncle and aunt were taken captive, said she was just as baffled by the poster-ripping and urged protesters on both sides of the geopolitical divide to remember that the hostages and their families are simply human beings.
“We’re mothers and fathers and nieces and nephews and siblings,” Siegel said. “We are families who don’t know anything about where our loved ones are. We are living in a nightmare.”
Jonathan Dekel-Chen, a professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem whose 35-year-old son, Sagui, was also taken from Nir Oz, said the Oct. 7 attack and the defacement of posters were both symptoms of “blind hatred.”
“Nothing is perfect. Israel isn’t perfect. We’re not perfect. But there’s an element of light here that must conquer this dark, hatred and evil,” Dekel-Chen said, referring to Hamas and bigotry against Jewish people worldwide.
In interviews and videos on social media, some protesters have said they believe the posters are pro-Israel propaganda. In an apparent rejoinder to the wave of hostage posters, some pro-Palestinian activists in New York and other cities have displayed flyers showing pictures of people killed in the Gaza Strip amid Israel’s aggressive military campaign there.
Rachel Goldberg, whose 23-year-old son, Hersh, was kidnapped from the Supernova music festival, said she found it “intriguing” that many of the posters that she has seen taken down depict people “who are not Jewish, who are not Israeli.”
“I think we also have to be really careful to understand that a lot of these people … were Thai, Buddhists, Nepalese, Hindus, African Christians — they’re all there,” Goldberg said, referring to Gaza, where the hostages are believed to be held.
Goldberg said she, like many people around the world following news of the war, feels deeply upset whenever she sees images of innocent civilians in Gaza who have been wounded or killed by the Israeli military’s aerial bombardment and ground offensive. “None of us want to see innocent civilians getting hurt,” she said.