December 13, 2023
WASHINGTON (JTA) — Wearing black T-shirts bearing the photos of their captive loved ones, families of American hostages held by Hamas met face-to-face with President Joe Biden for the first time, part of a high profile U.S. tour by the group to keep the hostages’ plight at the front and center of public discussions about the Israel-Hamas war.
“We are grateful to President Biden for his steadfast commitment to bringing our family members home and the compassion he demonstrated today,” said a statement from the families after they met Wednesday with Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“We are encouraged by our conversation today, and we urged President Biden to continue doing everything in his power to negotiate a swift and total release of the remaining hostages,” the statement said. “We also offered to do anything he needs to support his efforts to bring back our loved ones.”
Biden, Blinken and Jon Finer, the deputy national security adviser, met with 13 family members while another three phoned in. Together, they are related to eight hostages abducted by Hamas one Oct. 7, when thousands of terrorists invaded Israel, massacring more than 1,200 people and abducting more than 240.
In the days after the Oct. 7 attack, Biden held a 90-minute video call with family members of American hostages. Since then, Hamas has released four hostages with U.S. citizenship: Mother and daughter Judith and Natalie Raanan on Oct. 20, and Abigail Edan and Liat Benin Atzili as part of a deal with Israel last month that saw the terror group release more than 100 hostages in exchange for a weeklong pause in the fighting and the release of hundreds of Palestinians held by Israel on security offenses. More than 100 remain captive, and a number have been killed in captivity.
Wednesday’s meeting took place as family members of hostages have been pressuring the Israeli government to conduct negotiations to free the remaining hostages. Those relatives and their supporters marched on Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, on Tuesday and Wednesday, driven by fear that the ongoing fighting endangers the lives of those still held in Gaza.
Those who spoke with Biden on Wednesday included relatives of Edan Alexander, Itay Chen, Omer Neutra, Sagui Dekel-Chen, Keith Siegel, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, Judith Weinstein and Gad Haggai.
Siegel’s wife, Aviva, who was herself among those released during a recent pause in fighting, was among those meeting Biden. Also meeting Biden was Liz Naftali, Idan’s great aunt, who continues to advocate for the hostages.
Speaking to media following the meeting, the families praised Biden for his work in mediating the release of the hostages during the recent pause in fighting.
“We are here because the president and his team have been bringing out light in a dark time,” said Naftali, “and Abigail as a four year old is a symbol of that light.”
The families have visited other leaders in recent days. They joined for Hanukkah menorah lighting on Tuesday evening at the Capitol, with congressional leadership, and then at the Israeli embassy in Washington, where some were beset by pro-Palestinian protesters as they entered. They also met with Edmond Whalen, a Catholic bishop in New York, and New York City Mayor Eric Adams.
A number of them also recently joined Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Jewish Democrat, for a menorah lighting in Harrisburg, the state capital, where family members of the Jews massacred in the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue attack were also present.
With news of the war focusing more recently on the devastation in the Gaza Strip following weeks of intense Israeli airstrikes and an ongoing ground invasion, Jonathan Dekel-Chen, whose son is Sagui, said the families appreciated the broad support they were getting.
“We’ve been in frequent and very transparent contact with administration officials,” he said. “I think most importantly, our sons, daughters, fathers, sisters, brothers and others have also really seen how, in a very divided time [that] members of Congress, members of the Senate, from wall to wall showed solidarity with us.”