I was scared to go to a pro-Palestinian march in Brighton after the Hamas terror attacks. Yet thinking of October 7 and the horrors Israelis endured I felt silly to be so cowed. So, reluctantly, I did go to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) march. My trepidation was not without foundation. Pro-Palestinian protests have seen dozens of arrests and many more sought by the police for racially aggravated offences. The “racially” part being antisemitism.
The local Brighton PSC events have been both chilling and threatening. The day after the Hamas atrocity a speaker there said we need to “celebrate” the attacks and described them as “beautiful” and “inspiring”. My husband witnessed this grotesque speech and just hours later discovered that his cousin Tsachi’s daughter Ma’ayan,18, was murdered by Hamas. Tsachi was taken. The terrorists had livestreamed holding the family captive as Ma’ayan lay lifeless near them – Tsachi drenched in her blood after he desperately tried to save her. An orgy of cruelty.
The speaker at that PSC event was later arrested on terror offences for supporting Hamas. A subsequent PSC event had a Quaker speaker, and former chair of the local Amnesty chapter, who challenged everything I believed about their pacifism when she compared Hamas to Nelson Mandela and the ANC: “They never gave up the armed struggle,” she winked and nudged.
A speaker called Gaza a “concentration camp” and “extermination camp” – an ideological alchemy designed to transmute Jews into Nazis. A nudge made with the sharpest of elbows. A wink to produce tears.
The third week’s PSC event saw two of Brighton’s MPs confer respectability to their actions. Caroline Lucas (Green Party) and Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Labour) participated with prospective Green candidate Sian Berry in tow.
My stomach was somersaulting the day I pushed myself to Palmeira Square where the hateful gathered, the local Reform synagogue a short hop from the rallying point. An installation of the 33 child hostages held by Hamas was already present near the square where they gathered.
As I arrived, I rooted myself in the images of the children taken. It oriented and steadied me. Made me brave.
A woman approached. She asked “Are you with the protesters?” nodding in the direction of the noisy flag-bearers. With cautious neutrality I answered that I was just curious. She seemed relieved yet flustered: “One of them came up to me when I was looking at the hostage posters and asked what I was doing.” Her indignation rising – she wanted me to be an ally: “She told me to join the march. That I should be ashamed.”
I couldn’t feign indifference any longer and agreed that was awful. Yet my muted outrage was still a betrayal. “I’m Jewish” she told me. I was heartsick not to wrap my arms around her, but I couldn’t give myself away. As I crossed the gap between the hostages and the protests, the mood shifted from sombre to celebratory.
Then instructions came. The speaker – one of the organisers I had seen in previous events comparing the Hamas attacks to the French Resistance – gave a shout out to every organisation that was present. Whoops and applause erupted for each. Then he said we should also remember that Jewish people were suffering and were traumatised. Not by what. Nor by whom. Just traumatised from an unspoken nowhere, an unacknowledged nothing. Silence fell across the vocal crowd. Not a sound. No mournful respectful clap. No murmur of agreement. Nothing. He sensed the unease and moved quickly to the “but”.
“But there are also many Jewish people in this country that support the Palestinian cause”. The relief in the crowd was palpable. Claps and hollers and whoops, equilibrium was restored. Jewish people as acceptable entities once again redeemed (provided they have the right qualifications, of course).
The mass of flag-waving protesters had to pass directly through the bollards to which posters of child hostages were fixed. Balloons had been tied to each and small toys attached. A young man was moving edgily along the row of hostage posters weaving in a way that alerted me. I followed in his wake as he smiled mischievously moving through the bollards teasing lunges at the balloons.
At the last second, he changed his mind and disappeared into the mass and yet another albeit older man came into view. He was more determined. Gleefully, he grabbed at the balloon of a hostage child and yanked. It floated up and away. The man ripped another and another. I could stay silent no more.
“Why are you doing that?” I asked.
He paused and turned in the direction of the unexpected reprimander. The anchored balloon he was about to lunge for, mercifully, escaped his hand as he spun to eyeball me.
“This isn’t their demonstration,” he said.
Their - the Jewish children. Why would “peace” be for them? Why would a “ceasefire” be for them? My indignation was hard to contain:
“This is a free space,” I countered.
If they could wave 100 Palestinian flags then why should the faces of children be erased?
“It’s not” he spat.
I persisted: “These are kidnapped children,”
He didn’t answer. A police support officer whisked him away then. A giant of a man taken prisoner by the tiniest of authority. He went meekly. I was rattled though. I realised I had exposed myself as belonging not to their world whilst in the midst of it. So I put space and speed between us.
I joined the march further up. Filmed the many chants of the genocidal cry: “From the river to the sea…” Many doubt its murderous intent yet hear the words in call and response from these people and the wish is clear – Israel must die and the sanctuary it provides for Jewish people with it. Evil, genocidal, racist, baby-murdering, apartheid Israel. Hostages don’t exist and Jewish people don’t suffer. Those are the rules of their reality.
I sped up past an elderly lady who was complaining to the police that these people were allowed to march: “I’m on the other side,” she proclaimed sagely and marched off in her own protest.
There were the bemused and sometimes curious faces of onlookers while a woman with a megaphone shouted that Hamas were merely “so-called terrorists”. I continued down past a group of children leading the genocidal chants, and out to the relief of the sea. I could take no more. The children screaming hateful slogans finished me. I needed a break.
Staring at the sea I tried to reorient myself to my own city again. To find calm and peace in the stormy water. Then the yelling began. There was a second installation some distance away from where the marchers would finally gather at the endpoint of their parade.
This comprised images of children and adults taken by Hamas and a small Israeli flag hung at the centre. Before the main crowd had arrived a group of young people had dashed towards the flag. So enraged by its presence one young man tore at it and kicked a Jewish man in the stomach. Shouts of “F*** Israel”. I filmed belatedly as the police subdued them. The spark of fury dissipated quickly in the face of authority. Once again. Meek. A reminder of the power of effective policing.
Speeches in the distance shouting “genocide” and “apartheid” and “racism” ramped up the tension. More police arrived to protect the faces of the kidnapped from the “righteous”. Then I spotted Balloon Ripper being arrested. Properly this time, surrounded by officers and with an entourage of protesting activists. “Let him go!” they demanded. That they never say such words for the hostages of murderers was a bitter truth.
I left eventually. The marchers dissipated. The hostages’ installation was removed. As I walked home, I realised there were still many people wearing keffiyehs around me so I picked up the pace, wishing to put some more distance between us. I practically ran home. In part it terrified me and in part strengthened my resolve. A fight-or-flight impulse. I had fought. Now to flee.
It wasn’t until I had given my statement to the police about Balloon Ripper that I began to process the day. I began to remember the many passers-by who sympathised, read the posters, laid flowers and toys, added to the display. One woman hugged me. I hadn’t registered it while surrounded by hate. I remembered my world. Where people are mostly good and kind. I remembered and it helped.