Marching for Palestine in central London, November 2023. Photo: Flickr/Steve Eason Marching for Palestine in central London, November 2023. Photo: Flickr/Steve Eason

Lindsey German on the ebb and flow of a new movement

The size of London’s latest demo in support of Palestine shows that few are taken in by the ‘pause’ in fighting to allow the release of some hostages and prisoners. Indeed as some homemade placards asked, what is justified about stopping bombing for four days to allow people limited amounts of food, water and other humanitarian aid in order to then resume the killings of those same people? 

The movement is on a remarkable scale, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets every week, and a growing desire to take the protests into workplaces, schools and universities. The attempts to stop it have also grown, despite the welcome departure of Suella Braverman. The narrative from politicians, media and police is all too often to try to taint the marches as ‘hate marches’ or to accuse them of being threatening or violent.

There has also been exasperation from some quarters that the demonstrations keep happening. The attitude is almost, ‘you’ve made your point, can’t you stop now.’ Which totally underestimates why people are protesting and the depth of feeling over Palestine. When there is a major war going on against the Palestinians, then there are going to be weekly or even daily protests at what is happening.

The only immediate answer to this would be a ceasefire in Gaza. So far both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer have refused to call for one, claiming that Israel has the right to defend itself. This is out of step with even many other mainstream politicians. Last week the Spanish and Belgian prime ministers, on a visit to the region, criticised the Israeli attacks on civilians, only to be accused of supporting terrorism by an Israeli government minister.

But they are representative of growing opinion world-wide which is horrified by the situation in Gaza and fears that even worse can take place when the pause ends and Israel – as it has promised – intensifies its attacks in the south of the Gaza strip.

One way that those supporters of Israel try to marginalise the protests is to criminalise them. We have seen bans on marches in France and Germany, although these have not been totally effective. Germany has banned chanting of the slogan ‘from the river to the sea’ as antisemitic. There have been similar attempts here.

The 300,000 strong demo on Saturday was beset with some of these problems. The Metropolitan Police went to unprecedented lengths to treat the demonstration as a problem. Police were drafted in from across the country and, in a new and unwelcome development, the police issued a leaflet to give out to marchers warning of arrests if any crimes were committed.

This was accompanied by a major press operation saying that policing was going to be ‘robust’. The whole impression given was that the march would be trouble, and that large numbers of people on it were potential lawbreakers.

This repeats the narrative of the right-wing Zionists who support Israel’s actions. They describe the marches as antisemitic, supporters of Hamas, making central London a ‘no go area’ for Jews. They claim that those who organise and participate in the marches even if they do none of these things are complicit in racism and supporting terrorism.

It is a great lie, constructed by those who oppose the actual message of the demonstrations, which is for solidarity with the Palestinians and for a ceasefire in Gaza. So nothing could be further from the truth. That was clear from the results of Saturday’s demo – a mass peaceful protest with only a handful of arrests, for minor offences.

The march against antisemitism which took place in London on Sunday was built round a similar narrative. The organisers framed it very much in opposition to the pro-Palestine marches. The Daily Mail reported joyfully that it didn’t have angry placards and speeches, but was just a march of solidarity. While there are many good reasons to campaign against antisemitism, that wasn’t the main purpose of this march. Its attendees included not just the far right in the shape of Tommy Robinson (arrested before he could cause too much embarrassment to the organisers) but also that well known anti-racist Boris Johnson and other assorted Tories, and an assortment of many who had campaigned so vociferously against Jeremy Corbyn.

The demonstration aimed to repeat a similar one in Paris earlier this month where the whole political establishment joined the march. And the links between right-wing politicians and even fascists with support for Israel are growing.

Behind this support lies the spectre of Islamophobia and particularly the attempts to equate Muslims who support the Palestine movement with extremism and terrorism. Already some in the Zionist movement are demanding to know why London mayor Sadiq Khan didn’t go on the antisemitism demo, even though he hasn’t been on any Palestine demos either.

The widespread adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism means that criticism of Israel is equated with antisemitism, so anyone who dares to campaign against the ethnic cleansing and criminal behaviour of the Netanyahu government is branded as such. In the current situation it is being used by governments and politicians to try to silence or criminalise the protests. It will not succeed in this aim.

If we are seeing a rise in racism both in the form of antisemitism and Islamophobia, this has to be fought on every front. Far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders may become the next prime minister there, his electoral success based on anti-immigrant and Islamophobic politics. Far-right gangs rioted in Dublin after a school stabbing allegedly by a migrant.

The Palestine protests have seen the renewal of the left as part of a mass movement. It represents opposition to the imperialist agenda that dominates the Middle East. It also represents opposition to racism and Islamophobia. That’s something the likes of Boris Johnson fear.   

This week: I’m supporting the day of action over Palestine on Wednesday 29th, speaking for Bristol Stop the War on Friday, and going to an activists’ meeting on Tuesday night. And on Thursday it’s the annual Stop the War Coalition fundraiser with our famous auction. There’s another day of action on Saturday with a big rally in east London.

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.