Stand up for Gaza? Is it worth it?
On the first Saturday of the year, I was down in the centre of town at the Stand Up for Gaza march. I was joining thousands of people showing their solidarity, just as Israel was gearing up for the ground invasion and the US was reiterating its position that it was up to Hamas to stop the violence. I was frustrated, to say the least.
But don't worry - I'm not intending to bore you with the rights and wrongs of the conflict. I’ve a very simple position: Israel has a right to exist and to defend its citizens, but that its military actions in Gaza (and those in Lebanon, last time round) represent a disproportionate response to a complicated threat. I also don't think the actions are in the country's long-term security interests, but that's an argument for another time... This is about the march itself.
Whatever your stance, I’d hope you’d agree that my views are relatively moderate, in what is an extremely polarised debate. So I thought I’d be fairly safe in trying to persuade my broadly left-wing, Palestinian-people-sympathising friends to come along.
Kinda ran into trouble though. It turns out that a lot of my moderate friends think that nuanced opinions on the whole Mid-East mess are lost when they a march is dominated by the hard-left, or US-haters, or violently anti-Zionists, or strict Muslims. A whole crowd of people who they can’t identify with.
And to be honest, they did have a point. One of the first placards I saw when I turned up at Embankment tube proclaimed ‘Death to Israel!!’, whereas there were even more calling for an end to the ‘Holocaust’ in Gaza. Away from the political extremism, there was lots of religious piety on view too; on turning into the freezing Embankment gardens, you could see plenty of Muslims gathering on the grass for one of their five daily prayers.
Add to that a very visible crowd from the Socialist Workers’ Party, people disfiguring Star of David flags with the swastika, as well as lots of very angry-looking young men masked in keffiyehs. And then when the chants started going, the hopeful “Free Palestine!” cries alternated with slightly less unifying shouts of “Allahu-Akbar!” (God is Great). It was a bit alienating.
These people have every right to express themselves, and that’s what marches and protest are for. But given that I and my shrinking violet friends don’t agree with so many – probably the majority – of the protestors, was it really worth us being there?
There’s an argument that we were even being counterproductive. When the figures come out, and it turns out that people like me have pushed the attendance up to 10,000, won’t the other side just be able to dismiss it as a crowd of fringe loonies?
But I’m glad I went.
Firstly, a protest is made up of the people who have the balls to go. I’m not really thinking of myself, but of Jews for Justice, who I went over to speak to when I saw their banner. These were people in what must have been a very hostile environment, who nevertheless stood up to be counted because they believed that their own people, more than any other, should not be responsible for the suffering in Gaza that Israel is behind.
Secondly, although the most visible and noisiest elements of the march were the most obvious, there were plenty of more mainstream elements of society. Imagine if we hadn’t been there. What if it was only the angry young male Muslims, for instance?
What would the message be if, having used their civil right to politically protest, they discovered they were the only ones who seemed to care? Yeah, it sounds a bit fluffy, but I really believe that anything that can bring Londoners from all walks of life together and establish common ground can only be good for social cohesion.
Thirdly, protesting is just like voting. When you do it, it feels insignificant; you might as well not bother, for the difference it would make. And when it’s over, the majority of people who took part might not even like the end result. But unless you engage, you have no right to complain. If you don’t make your voice heard, you can’t expect anyone else to do it for you.
Despite my misgivings, I’m proud to say that I was there when London stood up for Gaza.