Marching to an Uncertain Future

My wife and I went to the Campaign Against Antisemitism march on Sunday. It was billed as a march against antisemitism, but there were a number of placards and banners supporting Israel and calling for the return of the hostages. We did not come away feeling positive about Anglo-Jewry’s present or future. I suppose I should prefix this by emphasising that my wife and I are neurodivergent (I’m autistic and my wife probably has ADHD) and that affects our ability to cope with large crowds, loud noise and standing around for hours on end. Largely because of neurodivergence, we also don’t have large groups of friends or a settled shul community to go to the march with (we are shul-goers, but struggling to find our place in a community). You can decide if any of that colours what I’m going to say. We did feel that we had to go on the march despite knowing that it would be difficult for us, because of the severity of the situation in Israel and the antisemitism in the UK.

The march started at the Royal Courts of Justice on The Strand (a “whimsical” building for a law court according to my American wife). It passed Samuel Johnson’s statue by St Clement Dane’s Church, turned at Temple Tube, went along the Embankment, past Cleopatra’s Needle, turned at Trafalgar Square, went down Whitehall, past Downing Street and the now-permanent pro-Ukraine protest opposite (they cheered us, we cheered them. We all know we’re fighting the same fight) and finally into Parliament Square where there were speeches.

The placards being carried were a source of some amusement to me. The official CAA ones said “Act Against Hate Before It’s Too Late”, which is reasonable, but says nothing about Jews or antisemitism in particular. Many of the slogans on home-made placards were far too wordy. I think Jews prefer arguments to slogans. If your slogan is more than eight words long, it should probably be a tweet. If it requires explanation to a passerby, as did the one about “A bris takes place at 8 days, but you can cut of your antisemitic ‘friends’ any time” (which is quite funny, but incomprehensible to non-Jewish passersby), it probably isn’t going to be effective. The pithiest, and perhaps most effective, simply said “FCK HMS”. Also effective were the various versions of “#metoo Unless You’re a Jew” but then I think the silence of non-Jewish women’s organisations about the use of rape as a weapon of war against Jewish women is one of the most shocking things to emerge from the conflict.

I said thank you to many of the police officers we passed for keeping us safe, but it was hard to sound genuinely thankful, as I resent the current state of policing in the capital, particularly at the weekly anti-Israel “ceasefire (but no hostage release)” marches. Bear in mind that the Deputy Assistant Commissioner for the Metropolitan Police, Ade Adelekan, says that calls for jihad are “contextual”. Yes, when people shout “Jihad now!” on marches where people are chanting “From the River to the Sea…” they are definitely calling for a period of introspection and personal growth and not at all for a religious war against the unbeliever. If you’re the type of pedant who believes that, you probably still insist that “gay” means “happy.”

There were 105,000 people on the march according to the organisers, although I imagine the police will have a much lower number, because march organisers (of any march) always release an exaggerated number and because the largest estimate for the Anglo-Jewish community is about 400,000 people and I don’t believe a quarter of Anglo-Jewry turned out, even with some non-Jews present. My wife and I did wonder how many non-Jews were there. My wife felt not many at all. I felt maybe a larger amount, but still a fairly small proportion of the marchers. There were certainly some flags other than the Israeli and the Union Jack. I saw Indian and Iranian Democrat flags and maybe one or two more that I can’t remember (also the white rose of Yorkshire). The October Declaration banner was there (we went to their rally against antisemitism the Sunday before).

The march seemed to be full of people who were middle aged or older and lacked energy. I don’t know where all the Jewish youth movements were. Maybe at the other end of the march? We were near the back, I think. Also, we came across a number of dogs. Granted, we are both fairly dog-phobic, but neither of us thought that bringing a dog to a mass march was a sensible idea. One dog in particular seemed terrified by the crowds.

I think my wife was already turned off by the lack of energy by the time we reached Parliament Square. I was doing better, but we ended up near some speakers (as in the electronic amplifiers, not the people speaking) and my autistic sensory sensitivity kicked in. I had to put my noise-cancelling headphones on (without the noise cancellation) to bring the noise to a just about acceptable level.

Gideon Falter of the CAA spoke first. He related some terrifying statistics about antisemitism, including that 90% of UK Jews are too scared to go somewhere if there is anti-Israel protest there, which means most Jews won’t go to Central London on a Saturday at the moment because of the weekly protests. We’re frum and won’t travel into town on a Saturday anyway, but both feel scared going into town generally at the moment (I have to for work). I do feel that we’re seeing a two-pronged attack on Jewish existence, an attempt to make life in Israel unviable, which I think most Jews are aware of, and an attempt to drive Jews out of the public sphere in the diaspora, which I think people are not so aware of – they think it’s isolated incidents of hate, when it’s more focused, not in the sense of someone directing it, which is clearly not the case, but in the sense that there’s an impetus behind, a desire to drive “al-Yahud” out of the public sphere and into hiding.

However, while Falter was powerful, he wasn’t inspiring. Fear isn’t terribly inspiring by itself. I hoped later speakers might provide that inspiration. Unfortunately, wasn’t the case. The next speaker was Robert Jenrick, Minister for Immigration. He’s not exactly a prominent MP and may have been chosen to speak because he has a Jewish Israeli wife. I got annoyed with him for mouthing platitudes about the government cracking down on antisemitism because (a) this wasn’t the place for a party political speech and (b) the government isn’t cracking down on anything. The last seven weeks have seen a political game of pass the buck between the Home Office (the department Jenrick works for), the Mayor of London, Sadiq Kahn, and the Metropolitan Police about the policing of the anti-Israel marches, with everyone saying that it’s terrible that people are saying antisemitic things, but insisting that they can’t do anything about it, it’s someone else’s responsibility. They say we need tougher laws, or more assertive policing or whatever, something someone else should sort out.

Then the party political speeches continued with a Labour Shadow Cabinet member. I’m not sure who it was. I think it was Peter Kyle, who I’d never heard of before, but who turns out to be Shadow Secretary for Science and Technology, not a heavy hitter either. Kyle’s speech began by talking about Labour’s antisemitism crisis under Jeremy Corbyn and its supposed recovery under current leader Sir Keir Starmer, which was a bad move strategically, like starting a speech by saying, “I used to be a serial killer, but I haven’t murdered anyone for four years” and expecting people to be impressed. He went on to mouth the same platitudes as Jenrick, except in the future tense as Labour aren’t in government (yet). But given that 90% of Labour Party members disagree with Starmer’s position on Israel, that only 9% of Labour voters side with Israel, and that Starmer is barely holding the Parliamentary Labour Party together over the issue, it seems that attempts to reduce antisemitic rhetoric (and actions) among the hard-left and among Muslims (both core Labour constituencies) are unlikely to come from Labour once in power.

Neither of the politicians speaking were exactly prominent. In fact, I think the only prominent politician present was Boris Johnson, who is no longer an MP and is probably something of a poisoned chalice, given that he’s a persona non grata at the moment in wake of the Partygate scandal and ongoing COVID inquiry. I don’t think there were any other prominent people on the march who weren’t Jewish. You would think we could find one non-Jewish celebrity willing to risk cancellation (or getting rained on) to march against antisemitism and for the release of children taken hostage, but apparently not.

By this stage my wife and I were both hungry, tired and cold. It had started raining again, I was getting a headache and we were both overloaded. We started to make our way through the crowds when they announced Chief Rabbi Mirvis. I wanted to hear him, but was disappointed. He just said more of the same about rising antisemitism and the crisis in Israel. Nothing spiritual, religious or inspirational. I know most people in the crowd were probably not religious, but I wonder what the point of a Chief Rabbi is, if not to inject some deeper meaning into the everyday. I feel that Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tzl, would have said something deeper. I know Chief Rabbi Mirvis is a different type of Chief Rabbi to Rabbi Sacks, and, although Rabbi Sacks is one of the main influences on my religious philosophy (my life philosophy, really), I appreciate that the shift in style was probably necessary. Even so, I wanted something deeper and more inspirational. We didn’t stay for the end of the speech.

When we got into Westminster Tube Station, there was a teenage girl or woman in a hijab shouting “Free Palestine” at Jews leaving the march. Some people shouted back at her, until a policeman stopped the argument. I muttered “Shefach chamatacha el hagoyim asher lo yeda’oocha,” angrily under my breath (Tehillim/Psalms 79.6). It just seemed to show the futility of the day.

My wife and I both came home feeling depressed. We spoke a bit about the fact that, although neither of us thinks we would be comfortable in Israel for multiple reasons, we might have to make aliyah one day. Not now, but in twenty or thirty years, when the current crop of bland-but-vaguely-normal politicians have retired and been replaced by the super-woke crowd terrorising universities at the moment. My wife said maybe she should learn Hebrew. I said that’s a good thing to do even without the prospect of aliyah. She joked (actually, I don’t think that she is joking) that she wants to raise our (at the moment unborn) children in England, so that they can have English manners and decorum (I don’t think English children have English manners and decorum any more) and English accents like mine.

I came home to an article from Daniel Gordis, who I respect greatly, saying that Israel is going to lose the war (granted, he is a pessimist), and The Guardian (Britain’s leading liberal antisemitic newspaper) covering the march with a headline saying that far-right provocateur “Tommy Robinson” (real name: Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) was arrested at the march, implying he was participating and arrested for doing something racist like other marchers, when he was actually arrested to stop him upsetting marchers. So, you can’t win. There are too many antisemites and they control the media (not us).

I was upset by the older age of the crowd on the march, but also on the relative scarcity of other frum people. Granted, with most people wrapped up warm and many wearing hats, it’s hard to tell for sure who is frum, but I can usually get a vibe. Sociologically, Orthodoxy – Haredi Orthodoxy, really – is the only part of diaspora Jewry that is thriving, but it seems that that part of the community is less connected to Israel or at least to protesting with other Jews for Israel. They are mostly upset about what is happening and maybe saying Tehillim (Psalms), but they mostly won’t protest with non-Haredi Jews. I think I saw one or two Haredi-looking people, but not many.

I feel that something has to change, in the UK Jewish community and globally. We can’t go back to how we were after this (if there is an “after this”…) and not just strategically. We need to keep the unity that has characterised the last two months going: unity between right and left, religious and secular, Israel and diaspora. We need to get religious and secular Jews talking respectfully to each other, and we need to get Orthodox and Progressive Jews talking respectfully to each other. We need to reinvigorate the non-religious world, which can’t be motivated just by Israel, antisemitism and maybe some vague, secularised notion of tikkun olam. I don’t mean kiruv and making people frum, I mean giving people access to Jewish ideas at letting them decide what to do with them, using them as the basis of a shared culture even if we disagree on whether God wrote them or whether you have to be a man to interpret them. We can’t rely on the non-Jewish world for anything. We have to carry on caring for each other, inspiring each other. Being a family again. Am Yisrael chai.

I wrote the above on Sunday evening, after returning from the march against antisemitism in Central London. I have subsequently discussed the event with other people who were there and they had a much more positive experience. They said there were a lot more young people there and a brilliant atmosphere. We got to the march about 1.30pm, the billed start time, but I get the impression that many people got there much earlier. Perhaps the younger people were further down the front and the atmosphere was better there. It also seems that other people have more tolerance for politicians who (ahem) talk in self-important clichés than I do (to quote Yes Prime Minister, we can talk in clichés until the cows come home). Each to their own. I do still feel that my points in the last few paragraphs are valid and I hope to return to them soon, G-d willing.

About the Author
Daniel Saunders is an office administrator, proofreader and copy editor living in London with his wife. He has a BA in Modern History from the University of Oxford and an MA in Library and Information Management. He blogs about Judaism, Israel and antisemitism at Living Jewishly
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