Israeli MPs and European supporters of Israel claim that pro-Palestinian marches are rife with anti-Semitism. But is it true?
Not content with the French government ban on pro Palestine marches in Paris and elsewhere, Israeli MPs have been lobbying for restrictions on such protests elsewhere. This denial of free speech is being cloaked in terms that accuse protesters of anti-Semitism.
The demonstrations against Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza have been growing. But so too have complaints that these demonstrations are anti-Semitic, that the protests are criticisms not just of the state of Israel, but of Jewish people in general. Richard Littlejohn, one of Britain’s most right wing commentators, puts it in his own inimitable style:
'The Stop The War crowd are myopically selective in their indignation. They’ll overlook all manner of atrocities in the Muslim world and in the former Soviet bloc, but become incandescent with fury when Israel exercises its inalienable right to self-defence. Underlying all this is a nasty streak of anti-Semitism, the unholy alliance between the self-styled 'liberal' Left and stone-age Muslim headbangers'
Douglas Murray – who must surely qualify as a non-Muslim headbanger – writing in The Spectator called our demonstration on 26 July an anti-Semitic protest, in a slander against the tens of thousands of people who took part.
Some Israeli MPs have gone so far as to lobby EU officials to impose 'strict regulations on the format and content' of pro Gaza demos. They want to see the creation of a Special Commissioner in the European Union who would be empowered to 'monitor' antiwar protesters and restrict them from portraying Israel an 'an aggressor' during its assorted invasions of Palestinian territory.
The Israeli government is badly hurt by the European demonstrations – and far beyond Europe – and therefore wants to discredit them. Moving the issue of anti-Semitism centre stage shifts the focus away from the reason these protests are taking place, as shown in the line of questioning on Sky News, when reporting last Saturday's demonstration in London.
But how true are the accusations of anti-Semitism among those marching to protest at Israel's attack on Gaza? Emma Barnett, writing in The Telegraph, has no doubt:
'Last week’s major pro-Palestine rally, which stopped London’s traffic, was littered with placards comparing Israel’s – and Jews’ – actions to the Nazis (“Well done Israel – Hitler would be proud”, read one such sign, accompanied by a swastika)'
Outside of that one placard, the photographic evidence to show that a demonstration of more than 50,000 marchers was "littered" with anti-Semitic placards is notable by its absence. However, for anyone on the left, these accusations are very serious.
Any sign of anti-Semitism should be challenged and opposed, wherever it occurs. It has a long and dishonourable history in Europe. Over 150 years, it was a key factor in shaping the history of the continent.
The pogroms in Russia and Poland at the end of the 19th century persecuted Jews and led to many of them migrating as a result, often to Britain and the United States. The Dreyfus affair in France led to a huge wave of anti-Semitism. The 1930s saw the rise of fascist and anti-semitic parties and governments, and of course led directly to Hitler and the Holocaust.
When fascist and far right parties began to revive with the economic crisis of the 1970s, anti-Semitic ideology was at the heart of their politics, and was bitterly contested by those of us who campaigned against fascism at the time, notably in the Anti-Nazi League, a mass movement that was central in defeating the neo-Nazi National Front, which had appeared on the brink of an electoral breakthrough.
So it would be inconceivable to tolerate a form of racism on pro-Gaza demos that we would otherwise find utterly unacceptable. The organisers of Stop the War's marches – and the wide range of other organisations involved – have always been very clear on this. The protests are against Israel’s actions with regard to the Palestinians, not against Jews. They are against Zionism as an expansionist ideology which is used to justify driving Palestinians from their land.
In these circumstances, we have had on occasion to ask people to change slogans or to take down placards in order to make it crystal clear that our protest is not against Jews and that we do not equate what is happening in Gaza with the Holocaust. Had I seen a placard as described by Emma Barnett, I would have asked the carrier to take it down.
However, these instances are rare, and are dealt with by the organisers as they occur. To pretend, as Douglas Murray and Richard Littlejohn do, that they are symptomatic of the demonstrations is, quite simply, a lie.
Divisions on this question are not primarily religious. There are many Jews who define themselves as anti-Zionist, many of whom have played brave roles in opposing all forms of racism. At every demonstration they speak, carry banners and fully participate in the action, and they are always well received by the whole crowd.
There are many non-Jews who support Zionism on the other hand, ranging from Rupert Murdoch to the Washington neocons and their British counterparts like Douglas Murray and the Henry Jackson Society.
The tragedy of the Gaza conflict has been that some people may conflate Zionism with Judaism, and attack individual Jews. We must condemn that very strongly, and we do. But I have to say that the strong feelings over anti-Semitism and racism are fairly selective on the part of many of these commentators.
They often feel no such qualms about addressing Muslims in insulting and sometimes racist terms. And they obviously haven’t noticed the level of anti-Semitism even within governments in countries such as Hungary and Ukraine.
If there is a rise of anti Semitism in Europe, then this is at least in part due to the rise of fascist and far right organisations who in countries such as Ukraine are harking back to the extreme right nationalism of the Second World War, when Jews were the subject of terrible persecution.
To the extent that it is influenced by the conflict in the Middle East (and let us remember that historically anti-Semitism has been a European problem) then it is incumbent on those of us who oppose what Israel is doing to make it absolutely clear that we also oppose any attacks, whether verbal or physical, on Jewish people.
This involves, as our campaign does, a range of organisations working together with people of different faiths and outlooks. In the process of doing so, we set an agenda for the campaign which rejects any racism based on race or nation.
In France, where the level of anti-Semitism is reported to be higher, it is even more important for the left and solidarity and peace organisations to work with the Muslim community to ensure there is a political outcome to the anger which is felt over Gaza. That should include opposing all government bans and regulation of demonstrations that want to express this anger in a political direction.
No one should be complacent about anti-semitism, whatever form it takes. There has undoubtely been an increase in incidents in a number of European countries, and this is alarming, even if as yet it does not yet represent 'a wave of anti-Semitic attacks' sweeping Europe.
It is imperative that all of us confront the issue, but even more so for the growing movement that campaigns for justice for the Palestinians. Any taint of anti-Semitism in that movement would not only be utterly intolerable, but would be a disservice to the cause of Palestinian rights that has in the last four weeks brought protesters onto the streets in hundreds of cities and towns across the world.
Barnaby Raine, one of the organisers of the Jewish Bloc that marched on the London demonstration for Gaza on 26/07/14, interviewed about allegations of anti-Semitism on pro-Palestinian demonstrations.
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’.
More articles from this author
- The nasty parties unite to stop Corbyn - election briefing 12 November 2019
- The world turned upside down - election briefing 11 November
- Why have the Greens joined an anti-Labour alliance? - election briefing 8 November
- The mask keeps slipping - election briefing 7 November
- Rees-Mogg: the ugly face of class privilege - daily election briefing 6 November
- The battle that will shape a generation – weekly briefing
- Trump’s coming to London during the election