In the past 12 days there have been some of the biggest solidarity rallies in support of Israel that I have ever seen. Public buildings across the world have been lit up in blue and white. Huge crowds, Jews and non-Jews alike, have gathered in places as divergent as Melbourne, Buenos Aires, Paris and Tokyo. And, if you look at news footage, you will see that these gatherings have all been quite similar in tone and character: a somber but resilient mood, people singing Hebrew songs and reciting prayers, people waving Israeli flags, and people mourning those who were murdered.
Meanwhile, what has been happening on the other side of the metaphorical fence?
Well, I stood quietly on a sidewalk a few days ago and watched a huge pro-Palestinian solidarity march wind its way through central London. As pro-Palestinian rallies go, this one was quite tame, maybe because it was in the English capital. Yet even so, in and amongst the chants of “Free Gaza” and “Stop the Genocide” were other chants (and slogans and placards) that seemed like pretty explicit exhortations to (i) remove Israel from the world map, and (ii) take forceable action against Israel, America, and “the Jews” – like the three are somehow all interchangeable.
And the whole thing – from the rows of marching protesters many of whom felt the need to wear masks and army camouflage, to those in the crowd setting off green smoke flares, to the raised fists pumping the air, to the rows of “tactical officers” (a.k.a. riot police) watching nervously from the edges of the crowd – felt (at least to me) like it was laced with a distinct undercurrent of violence.
A feeling that was neatly summed up for me in the form of a trio of blonde ladies in their mid-50s, who’d paused to rest a few feet away from where I stood. Two were (based on appearance) not Palestinian or Muslim, but rather looked and sounded like English ladies who would be more at home in a west-county rose garden than a rally in central London. And I heard the third lady mention to someone that she was a tourist visiting from Slovakia.
Nonetheless, all three were wrapped head-to-toe in Palestinian flags, and were literally red in the face and shaking with pure fury as they screamed an assortment of not only pro-Palestinian, but also anti-Israel (and some pretty clearly anti-Jewish) chants.
Which, it seems, is a common theme.
In France that same day, the Palace of Versailles and Paris’ Louvre Museum were both shut down because of bomb threats, and the entire French nation was put on high alert. It was kind of a sidebar on the evening news in France, and I doubt it even merited a passing mention anywhere else. But why doesn’t this strike any sane person as being completely bizarre? A war starts in a small patch of land thousands of miles away, and the response of someone in France, as a gesture of solidarity with the Palestinians, is to threaten to blow up the home of the Mona Lisa?
A few days before, in my home town of Sydney, a crowd of pro-Palestinian demonstrators had quite aggressively swarmed the Opera House, chanting “gas the Jews”. I saw a video of a car in London, festooned in Palestinian flags leading a protest down the main street, with a loudspeaker blaring “rape their daughters” (to be honest I still can’t believe this one, and I have not 100% been able to ascertain if this video is authentic, but it appears to be so, perhaps from a protest some years back).
Israeli / Jewish institutions everywhere have had to up their security; Jewish schools in the UK told kids to stay home for a few days because of security concerns; there has been a well-documented surge in anti-Semitic incidents across Europe, the USA and Australia, many violent.
And in so many of the reports I’ve seen of pro-Palestinian solidarity rallies in Western countries this past week, there have been flares and flames; there have been scuffles and disturbances and arrests being made; the chants have not only been of “Free Palestine” but also, in various ways, direct calls for a bloody end to Israel as we know it (and, sometimes, to all Jews as well).
Sure, we have come to accept these things as par for the course at the demonstrations we see on TV in places like Iran. But watching the march in London the other day it occurred to me that even in the Western world this undercurrent of violence is taken as a given when it involves people showing solidarity for Palestine.
But why? Why is it that on the streets of our Western cities do those showing support for the Palestinian cause so often adopt the language and symbolism of violence?
Now, I am sure there will be those who will say the answer is that what we are seeing at pro-Palestinian solidarity rallies is an authentic expression of the rage and frustration felt on the ground in Gaza and the West Bank, and it is justifiable on those grounds. And I am sure there will be those who will take a different view, and say that many pro-Palestinian protestors are actually wannabe armchair revolutionaries, who have hijacked someone else’s cause as an excuse to be outraged.
But my point is that whilst we are all entitled to read vastly different meanings and motivations into the same observable facts, that doesn’t mean those observable facts don’t exist, or don’t merit ever being mentioned. Such as the self-evident observable fact I am focusing on now, which is that at so many pro-Palestinian solidarity rallies, we see and tolerate as normal a set of behaviors that, quite frankly, we just wouldn’t accept anywhere else in our modern societies.
Think about it. How many pro-Israel rallies do you recall where Palestinian flags have been burned? Or where flares have been lit? Or where anyone has been arrested? (Apart, that is, from a Jewish friend in Sydney who, somewhat unbelievably, was arrested for holding a rolled-up Israeli flag on the fringe of a pro-Palestinian rally, because he “posed a danger to public safety”).
How many pro-Israel rallies can you point to where battalions of riot police have lined the street? (I suppose I should add because of concerns about the pro-Israel demonstrators getting out of hand, as opposed to concern that there might be conflict with anti-Israel demonstrators).
I challenge you to find a pro-Israeli rally where people have felt the need to mask their faces. Or wear military gear. Or shout “death to Palestine” and “f**k the Muslims”. Or celebrate, as oppose to mourn, the deaths of anyone, Israeli, Palestinian or otherwise.
[Now, no doubt, someone at this juncture will point out examples of ultra-right-wing Jewish protests in Israel where you may hear people shout “Mavet Le’Aravim – Death to Arabs”. To which I would say this is the exception that proves the rule, because the vast majority of Israelis / Jews will be the first in line to denounce these folks as being a totally unacceptable fringe element.]
In any case, please don’t misunderstand my intent. In writing this I am not in any way trying to argue “our rallies are peaceful, theirs are violent, therefore we’re good, they’re bad”. Rather, my aim in this series of “mini-posts” is simply to try to point out what I consider to be reasonably self-evident things that, for whatever reason, are seldom pointed out whenever the discussion becomes one about Israel.
And in this case, I’d say that any person with functioning eyes and ears should, if they are being honest, at least be able to acknowledge that there is a distinct difference in tone and language between those who stand on the side of Israel, and those who don’t. Yet so many people who normally take such pride in being intellectually rigorous , and fastidious about always being “balanced”, just can’t bring themselves to do this. Which, I guess, sums up why many Israelis and Jews are so upset at the moment, myself included.
To put it simply, it distresses me deeply to see that the subject of Israel, almost unique amongst all subjects, seems able to motivate such intense rage and a call to violence in so many of my Western compatriots when they don’t exhibit the same visceral response in relation to anything else. How can that not feel like anything other than a slightly unfair double-standard?
Not to mention that it shakes me to my core to know that many otherwise ordinary people in our modern, Western world are nonetheless so casually able to cross the line into the territory of anti-Semitism and Jew-hatred. And worse: they often don’t even see that they are doing it.