Lord Walney

These marches are fuelling a highly intimidatory atmosphere for Jews in Britain

This explosion of antisemitism should never be tolerated and we should do whatever it takes to ensure Jewish people feel safe


People take part in a 'March For Palestine', in London on October 21, 2023, to "demand an end to the war on Gaza". The UK has pledged its support for Israel following the bloody attacks by Hamas, which killed more than 1,400 people, and has announced that humanitarian aid to the Palestinians will be increased by a third -- an extra £10 million pounds ($12 million). Israel is relentlessly bombing the small, crowded territory of Gaza, where more than 3,400 people have been killed, most of them Palestinian civilians, according to the local authorities. (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS / AFP) (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images)

November 08, 2023 17:05

Those who claim Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman are inappropriately stoking fears of unrest by questioning the police’s refusal to ban London’s pro-Palestinian march on Armistice Day should have a word with poppy seller Jim Henderson.

The 78-year-old army veteran's account of being shoved over, punched and kicked at his stall after being caught in a mob of protestors in Edinburgh is sickening.

“As I bent down, someone punched me in the back. And then I got another punch in my side,” the Royal British Legion volunteer told the Daily Mail. “I’ve never known anything like it.”

Mr Henderson’s alleged ordeal exposes the naivety of claims that any march calling for a ceasefire could happily take place alongside remembrance activity and be naturally respectful of it.
Most Brits would agree that the right to protest peacefully is important and people tend towards tolerance even if they do not agree with the cause people are advocating. But for many, the prospect of any such protest disrupting the nation’s quiet tributes to our war dead would be unconscionable.

So the ever-increasing political focus on the decision of whether to allow the march this weekend is understandable, and much is riding on the police’s operational judgement that they can keep protestors away from activity at the cenotaph on Saturday. Thus far, the prime minister and home secretary have - just about - stayed the right side of a difficult line reflecting the public’s concerns to the Metropolitan Police while acknowledging the decision is an operational matter for officers.

Sir Keir Starmer’s decision to create a political dividing line by criticising the government for expressing concern about the Armistice Day march is strange. His intervention was an uncharacteristic misstep from the Labour leader who has otherwise only grown in stature through the crisis, despite the pressure being applied on him by significant parts of his party to call for an Israeli ceasefire.

The questions around the Armistice Day march are important, and the back and forth this week is an important test of the new legal framework for policing public protest set out in the 2022 police and crime act, which I have broadly welcomed as the government’s independent adviser on political violence and disruption.

But the focus on this particular day should not obscure the frightening truth that these marches – on whichever day they occur – are enabling or fuelling a highly intimidatory atmosphere for Jews in Britain.

I can appreciate why some of the home secretary’s cabinet colleagues will not follow her lead in calling the demonstrations ‘hate marches’. Many of those attending would be horrified to think they were fuelling antisemitism and a threatening atmosphere for Jews. Many see reports of civilian suffering of Palestinians in Gaza and desperately want to do something – anything – to register their alarm to their government. The fact that a ceasefire from Israel would empower the genocidal Hamas butchers, entrench the status quo and leave Israelis vulnerable after the worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust, makes the majority of march attendees blinkered and wrong. It does not make them hateful.

Nevertheless, it would be equally blinkered for good-hearted protestors not to recognise that the events they are attending are stoking dark undercurrents that are indeed fuelling hatred and intolerance.

The marches are an obvious factor in the record number of antisemitic incidents being recorded by the Community Security Trust. The chants of ‘Jihad’, the appalling antisemitic banners, may not reflect the mainstream but neither are they one-offs that can be dismissed.

The fear of the Jewish community in the capital and across the UK is palpable and it shames our nation. It is heartbreaking to hear my Jewish friends say they are afraid to use public transport, to send their kids to school, to go about their daily life.

None of us who have the privilege to live in relative peace and security should turn away from the darkness that is spreading on our streets. This is the ancient evil that the UK played its part in beating back in past decades. That drove the foundation of the world’s only Jewish state. It is so deeply sad that some Jewish people here in Britain are thinking they may need that safe haven to escape from the hatred growing on British streets, even as Israel is reeling in a sense of vulnerability and shock from Hamas’ attack on its citizens.
Difficult decisions about the continuation of these marches must be seen in that context, beyond any one-off clash with remembrance. This explosion of antisemitism should never be tolerated in Britain and we should do whatever it takes to ensure Jewish people here feel safe.

Lord Walney, the former Labour MP John Woodcock, is the government's Independent Adviser on Political Violence and Disruption

November 08, 2023 17:05

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