Stephen Games
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Anti-Semitism rally in London: Can we get it right?

Sunday's planned anti-Semitism rally is missing clarity, strategy and transparency

Our leading Jewish organisations in the UK have urged the Jewish community to support a rally taking place on Sunday that’s addressing not the situation in the Middle East but conditions here in Britain. A group of five activists wants us to gather at the Royal Courts of Justice in London to denounce the growing prevalence and acceptability of anti-semitism.

Those of us who read the papers, listen to the radio, watch TV and waste our time with social networks will have shared this concern. In all the criticism of Israel for its conduct of Operation Protective Edge, there has been a nasty spill-over into physical attacks on Jewish buildings, as well as some disgusting rhetoric, in some cases likening us to Nazis and in other cases calling for our extermination by the same methods used by the Nazis.

We all have reason to be shocked and to feel intimidated and, as the Jewish press has been quick to report, many of us will have been wondering whether Britain and Europe remain safe havens in which Jews can live, prosper and raise families.

The chances are that the upsurge in repellant language is proportional to the raised tensions in Israel and Gaza, and that if the current truce and process of negotiation make progress towards an easing of the blockade and the demilitarisation of Hamas, the inflammatory tone will settle down.

That’s not to excuse it, however, and it is right that those who casually criticise Israel, and us, while equally casually excusing our enemies should now be called to account.

That said, with less than two days to go, I remain worried about the rally and about the apparently automatic support that has been granted it in the UK by the United Synagogue, Masorti, Liberal Judaism, the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council and the Zionist Federation.

None of us knows anything about its organisers, who call themselves the “Campaign Against Antisemitism UK”; nor, apparently, do those who have endorsed it — or if they do, they haven’t told us. The campaign’s website names five people, one of whom chooses not to use his surname, and three of whom prefer not to allow their photos to appear. No credentials are given for any of them. They are unaccountable. That makes this event an unknown quantity, and the rest of us — those who attend and those who don’t — may find ourselves left having to face unknown consequences.

We have been told nothing about how the event is going to be structured, what the slogan(s) will be, what the posters will look like, whether the tone will be accusatory or defensive, who will speak and what they will say, or even whether the event is going to be policed, and if so by whom. The communal backers do not say why they have given the anonymous Campaign their support nor why they find it persuasive.

I’ve looked for evidence that the organisers have thought about how Sunday’s rally will look as a media event and I don’t see that either. No one I have spoken to can answer the question of what kind of photo they want to see on the front page on Monday’s papers, what message will be carried on placards paraded in front of TV cameras, what chants we are expected to join in with.

That’s a huge gap, and does not give any reassurance that this thing won’t go off half-cock, or that we won’t look weak, inarticulate and ill-prepared. Apparently the leaflets have been cleared by the US, and Masorti and the Board, but we’re not allowed to know what will be on them — or why they had to be printed, apparently, in Japan.

The fact that the upsurge in anti-Semitism has, according to the organisers, been talked about over “dinner-parties” sounds brutally insensitive at a time when Gazans themselves have been dealing with power outages, sanitation crises, death and destruction. That’s not to pardon Hamas’s neo-fascist ideology and its Gestapo-like manipulation of recent reporting, but there are appropriate and inappropriate complaints, and this is a perfect example of where more care is needed.

We have to construct our case solidly. The organisers claim in their literature that it is a criminal offence for supporters of Gaza to chant “We are all Hamas” at protest marches. It is not, and if the rally is going to be built around such remarks, it will make us all look whiny and uninformed. Many people think it is perfectly legitimate to challenge Israel’s conduct in Protective Edge. Our job is to show why what Israel did was just, and why our enemies’ lies are not only wrong but racially aggravated: but what we must not do is hide behind a call to lock up protestors on the grounds that they’re being nasty to us. Some are indeed being nasty, but enough people will feel that not all are, and to insist otherwise will make us look cowardly – a reversal of that YouTube cartoon in which a Palestinian schoolboy keeps prodding a Jewish boy and then seeks the protection of the teacher. Apart from that, with the truce now holding, the rise in anti-semitism is very likely to subside. In short, the campaigners may have been outpaced.

The campaigners have brought in someone who knows the media and plans to phone news desks on Sunday and tell them what the group wants them to know, but the best media events don’t need interpretation: they should be self-evident and visual (that’s what the other side does so well). To say, as they do, that the prospective event is already a success because the Chief Rabbi has supported it in the Daily Telegraph is a measure of a certain naivety. We expect the Chief Rabbi to give his support: but would Robert Fisk? Or Seumas Milne? Or the imams of Bradford? Persuading our camp is no big deal. We need to find people from the Left and from the Arab and Muslim community to show that they understand our plight: they carry more weight than our own people.

The Campaign’s website is no more encouraging. Of the three articles under “Archive” the first complains about a report by the BBC that pits recent data against a story based on earlier data and a second, about Sainsbury, reads like a love-fest for the campaigners. The “About us” section of the website talks about the campaigners’ activities as if they were well established when in fact they haven’t properly got started yet. And the section on “Campaigns” brings up “Nothing Found”.

We pay a lot of money in membership fees to our membership groups and we have the right to call them to account. I’ve asked those that I’m associated with — the United Synagogue and the Board of Deputies — to explain why we should trust this event, or trust their support for it. I’m hoping that by next week I’ll be eating my words but for now, I’m still waiting for a reply.

About the Author
Stephen Games is a designer, publisher and award-winning architectural journalist, formerly with the Guardian, BBC and Independent. He was until Spring 2018 a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, habitually questioning its unwillingness to raise difficult questions about Israel, and was a board member of his synagogue with responsibility for building maintenance and repair. In his spare time he is involved in editing volumes of the Tanach and is a much-liked barmitzvah teacher with an original approach, having posted several videos to YouTube on the cantillation of haftarot and the Purim Megillah.