Arzu Merali outlines the urgent need for the Palestine solidarity movement to learn lessons from its fractured past
It has been a traumatic and for some surprising week. The UK Home Secretary has labelled the peaceful and almost wholly – thus far – arrest free pro-Palestinian marches in (particularly, but not solely) London, as ‘Hate Marches’. Alongside this she has pressured the Metropolitan Police Service (London’s police force), to ban Saturday 11 November’s march in vocal fashion, culminating in a comment piece in The Times criticising them for not doing so and claiming (among other things) that many of those marching had links to terrorists.
This febrile atmosphere has been developing with stories running in right leaning media of Iranian backed and or fomented protests, seeking to demonise further both the protests and key activists and organisations (including IHRC). From the outset of the genocide against Gaza, politicians have weighed in asking for bans on chants, claiming protestors were anti-Semitic, the usual playbook to demonise pro-Palestinian activism.
Meanwhile far right figures and agitators have been calling for mobilisation against a perceived ‘threat’ to Remembrance Day on Saturday 11 November. Whilst the official ceremony and the time and place of the demonstration do not match, this supposed threat, initially branded an insult and offence is being increasingly hyped, with far-right voices being amplified by more established figures in the media, and by any number of paltry but popular pundits on social media. Some of these going so far as stating those resisting in Palestine are worse than the Nazis, demonising and dehumanising all expressions of Palestinian resistance, peaceful or otherwise (and incidentally humanising actual Nazis in ways that even staunch Zionists find deeply problematic*).
White supremacists have arrived at the “Nazis weren’t as bad as we think” level of genocide denial https://t.co/JK3lWR8tTz
— Tarek Younis (@Tarek_Younis_) November 10, 2023
As I said at the outset, to many this has been a surprising and alarming state of affairs. Alarming it is, and people should feel alarmed at the toxicity of the environment, the levels of hatred being levelled at pro-Palestinian demonstrations and protestors. But surprised? Not so much.
For those of us attending the annual Al-Quds Day March (running annually in London in support of Palestinian liberation) now running for nearly four decades, this type of demonisation, threat and harassment is nothing new. Particularly the last fifteen years and especially so in 2017.
You can read details of what happened on this site, but the summary can be described thus: a coalition of right leaning groups within and without the Zionist community in the UK, alongside some Zionist media and some right leaning media amped up a discourse of hatred starting weeks before the event. The explicit aim being to get the march banned. They succeeded in dragging the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan into the fray to join the chorus of demonisation that year and the next. All the accusations, as in the past week, revolved around it being a ‘hate march’ ‘anti-Semitic’ linked to terrorists and so on.
The march was not banned. However the hyperbole did damage. This was the year Darren Osborne drove a white van to London and into worshippers leaving a mosque in Finsbury Park, killing one and maiming several others. His original target? Al-Quds Day.
In the words of the judge sentencing Darren Osborne to life in prison, Mrs Justice Cheema-Grubb, there was no doubt that he set out to “murder innocent people, lawfully assembling and protesting in London. You told the jury you intended to “plough through as many of them as possible”. But you failed in that endeavour because you could not get your van near the march. There is no doubt at all that the detailed public safety arrangements made by the Metropolitan Police for the Al Qud’s[sic] Day march saved many lives.”
It is one of the great ironies that despite the various accusations thrown at Al-Quds Day, the police have always stated that the march is peaceful, legal and that there have never been (bar one in 2019) any arrests of those attending. Indeed all the police’s capacity and organisational planning revolves around those counter-protesting and threatening the march.
Yet few at the organisational level of the movement talk about this. Because the demonisation stuck and those seeking mainstream acceptance don’t want to be seen defending the ‘hate marchers’. What happened in 2017 with the demonisation of Al-Quds Day was a precursor to what has been happening this last week or so. Just as the weekly marches this last month are peaceful protests calling for justice and equality for all, Al-Quds Day is the same. The key differences are that the annual event is more family friendly, more organised, it is proactive and has a wider breadth of speakers with different religious and political affiliations. As with the marches this last month, it is genuinely a march against hate.
The fact that it was and is targeted in such vile and violent ways shows its effectiveness in exposing the Zionist supremacist project. The fact that certain organisations and organisers in the Palestine solidarity movement have felt the pressure of the demonisation and started distancing themselves, getting involved in sectarian and racist discourses levelled at the organisers, agreeing to drop association in return for government access etc. was an extreme failure on their part. It was reflected in other incidents, e.g. where people were ejected from demonstrations for showing support for resistance – in one notable case not only were ‘heavies’ deployed to eject two activists, anti-terrorism police were called on them (nothing – of course – was found against them). These collaborations from inside the movement with state institutions that are overtly against the cause of Palestinian liberation, did not bode well.
On the part of Al-Quds Day those spaces vacated by such organisations and organisers have been filled many times over, and annual participation grows despite the overt hatred from state institutions and Zionist organisations and whispering campaigns. The failure however to stand fast in the face of that pressure, and speak out and challenge the demonisation of Al-Quds Day, and indeed beyond that different sections of the pro-Palestine movement is the failure that has led us to this week’s events. No-one should be surprised by it. Everyone in the pro-Palestine movement really needs to learn the lessons of the attacks on Al-Quds Day, rather than repeat the same mistakes, as seems to be happening thus far: suspension of activists, self-censorship, whispering campaigns, tacit and overt support for racialised policing, and the failure to defend those affected by it have all been in evidence. By failing to stand up for Al-Quds Day and other sections of the movement and capitulating to the pressure, all that has happened is that the state has hardened its stance against Palestinian solidarity and found courage to reuse its playbook on a mass scale.
There has already been an upsurge in anti-Muslim / Islamophobic attacks. The attack on the IHRC offices is but one. As it happens, they were warned back in March by local police that they thought an attack would be made on their premises because they had a Palestine flag in the window at that time.
Let’s pray that in this rerun of demonisation none of us get another Darren Osborne, or worse. And let’s also start learning the lessons of our often political, religious and ethnic sectarianism within justice movements before we sabotage this amazing moment of mobilisation ourselves.
Arzu Merali was formerly head of Research at IHRC. She is one of its founders. She is currently a freelance researcher and writer, and one of the editors of The Long View.
* See e.g. tweet below