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Creating Their Own Private Gazas

As I made my way through the throngs of people protesting against Israel’s war in Gaza in London’s Hyde Park on Saturday, a passionate reprimand bellowed out of the loud speakers: ‘Israel – shame on you!’ The crowd joined in, … Read More

By / January 20, 2009

As I made my way through the throngs of people protesting against Israel’s war in Gaza in London’s Hyde Park on Saturday, a passionate reprimand bellowed out of the loud speakers: ‘Israel – shame on you!’ The crowd joined in, shouting repeatedly: ‘Shame on you! Shame on you!’

With estimates ranging between 20,000 attendees according to the police and 100,000 according to the protest organisers, Hyde Park was transformed into a sea of placards, banners, Palestinian flags and scarves. Some speakers called for support for Hamas, others – including Tony Blair’s sister-in-law Lauren Booth – attacked international politicians’ feebleness in negotiating a ceasefire. Later, during the march from Hyde Park to the Israeli Embassy in West London, protesters shouted chants like ‘Free, free Palestine’, La ilaha illallah (meaning, in Arabic, ‘there is no God but God’) and ‘end the siege in Gaza’.

The overall feeling at the demo was one of anger and frustration over the war and the lack of intervention from the international community. From veteran demo-goers to young children and pensioners, who do not usually take to the streets, attendees came in droves to condemn Israel and to show their solidarity with those besieged, wounded and dead Palestinians we have all seen in the news over the past couple of weeks. 

One woman told the BBC: ‘I haven’t been on a march for a very long time. About 25 years ago I was outside the Israeli embassy so nothing seems to have changed.’ Another young woman, wearing a keffiyeh as a headscarf, said that even if the London march won’t change the situation in Gaza, at least it will ‘make people aware of what’s going on’. Organised by the Stop the War Coalition, the British Muslim Initiative and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the demonstration ended with some scuffles, flag-burning, ketchup-squirting, Starbucks-thrashing and (emulating the Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoe at George W Bush) footwear-throwing by the Israeli Embassy.


It became clear at Saturday’s demonstration that Israel has for many become a vessel in which to depose pent-up anger. From the evils of Big Business to discrimination against Muslims, from disappointment with British political leaders to disgust with Western nations for failing the ideals of humanitarian intervention, the protest involved eclectic complaints. Israel is seen as the big bully that embodies and sustains all these malices. 

And while Israel-bashing has become a worthy cause for many, upholding Palestinians as ultimate victims is seen as equally honourable – even as a moral duty. Many pro-Palestine demonstrators around the world have been carrying fake blood-stained dolls; the image of the agonised and wounded Palestinian child has come to represent the situation in Gaza. The accompanying message is that the Palestinans – children and adults – need carers: enter ‘the international community’, which apparently has an obligation to shame the bully and correct its behaviour on behalf of the bullied.

With the temperature in London seemingly dropping by the minute, light snow dwindling over the determined marchers, the passion only seemed to rise. Breaking off from the main march, a group of a hundred-or-so mostly teenage, Muslim boys had to be contained by the police. Their dress and demeanour were like those of the young Palestinian men we have so often seen on the news confronting Israeli soldiers; their faces were covered by keffiyehs, they pumped their fists in the air and later on hurled stones and other spontaneous weapons at the police. It seems many on this protest felt the need to look like the Gazans they were expressing solidarity with. Some variation on Arabic scarves and other accoutrements, in the black, white, red and green colours of the Palestinian flag, were worn by most. This, along with the samba bands accompanying the marchers, made the event look like a fancy-dress carnival. But whereas for most people these ‘ethnic’ accessories were worn as symbols through which their solidarity could be more colourfully and graphically expressed, some of the carnivalesque elements at the protest were simply obscene. 

A group of performers wearing skeleton-costumes, wigs with yellow tentacles, and bullet chains around their necks walked around Hyde Park performing a ritualistic dance with a fake decapitated arm in front of a blood-splattered Israeli flag, a red skull covering the star of David. The dancers, representing the Israelis, acted as bloodthirsty vultures.

One protester wearing a big-nosed mask and biting into two red-stained dolls with black-eyes, told me: ‘I am Israel, I like to eat children.’ This man, who wanted to remain anonymous, and the skeleton-dancers were enacting a classic lie – that Jews are infanticidal bloodsuckers. The onlookers did not seem to mind – while some appeared bemused, others cheered and clapped this anti-Semitic spectacle.

In Hyde Park, rapper Lowkey’s three-minute rant on the insidious evils of Israel received rapturous applauds. He attacked companies with ‘Zionist’ links – including Marks & Spencer, Starbucks, Coca-Cola and Huggies diapers – and told the audience: ‘You say you know about the Zionist lobby, but you put money in their pockets every time you’re buying their coffee.’ Apparently aware that such intonations might provoke complaints of conspiratorial prejudice, he added: ‘Nothing is more anti-Semitic than Zionism / so please don’t bring bad vibes when you speak to me / I know plenty of rabbis that agree with me.’

The main message at the protest was the urgent need for the West to intervene to stop the violence in Gaza. Anti-Semitic outbursts were rare, but where they occurred they represented the most degraded form of the anger which the London protest served to alleviate.

The demonstration attracted people of all ages, backgrounds and persuasions. So what motivates these disparate individuals and organisations – from anti-capitalists and trade unionists to young British Asians, British Jews and middle-aged women – to want to express their anger towards Israel? How come this particular conflict evokes so much attention, anger and emotion?

The answer cannot be found in the Middle East, but rather at home. This conflict has taken on an all-together symbolic meaning for many Westerners, which is quite separate from the facts on the ground. For many, Israel has come to represent all that is rotten in the West; their disdain for American foreign policy, the consumer society and modernity is projected on to this ‘shitty little country’, as a French ambassador once referred to it.

 

As for the young Muslims present at the march, their anger, too, seemed to spring from homemade trends. One blogger speculates that what ‘incites’ young Muslim and Arab pro-Palestinians who have been trying to shut down the Israeli embassy for the past couple of weeks is ‘the treatment of our/their Palestinian people in Gaza by Israel’. But how have these young people, born and raised in Britain, come to view the Palestinians as ‘their people’? Their adoption of the Palestinian cause looks more like a vestige of diversity politics. Having grown up in a society which encourages difference and cultural particularity, these young Brits – mostly, to judge from the protest, of Asian background – are now inclined to identify with ‘their Gazans’ because of some spurious cultural affinity.

There can hardly be a more narcissistic form of protest than this projection of the self on to a foreign conflict. Real solidarity involves learning about, and appreciating, another people’s history, hopes and desires, and supporting their pursuit of freedom. When the desire to express solidarity is motivated by a sense of disenchantment, cultural confusion and emotionalism – as was largely the case for many of those at the London protest – then it becomes little more than an outlet for personal frustration.

For the confusing mishmash of individuals gathering under the banner of putting an end to Gazans’ suffering, dressing, acting and talking like Palestinians has apparently become fashionable. But their keffiyeh-wearing and Arabic-chanting antics amount to little more than a new form of ‘blacking up’.

Israel’s violent war should be condemned, but it is doubtful whether the protest, as that young woman interviewed by the BBC hoped, ‘raised awareness’ about what is going on in the Middle East. Because it seems many Westerners on these marches are creating their own private Gazas – a place in which their disillusions are played out in the most nightmarish form possible.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked. (All photos in this article were taken by Nathalie Rothschild.)

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