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Jews on the march!

From a small group of seasoned protesters, a lively and creative coalition of Jewish groups has come together to form a growing, visible bloc in solidarity with the Palestinians on all the protests against Israel’s war crimes in Gaza. RUTH LUKOM reports

WE’RE sick of writing letters to the Guardian. Much good it did anyway.

It was only the Guardian which ever reported that it had received a letter from “Several Jewish activists who have condemned…”  

So many atrocities. So many wasted words in print.

The Establishment Jewish press snorted in derision. The mainstream shrugged and ignored it. There was no Jewish left or any significant Jewish dissent as far as they could see. And yet the British Jewish left has always been active, whether as trade unionists, councillors, Labour Party members or campaigners on local health or environmental issues. They marched with CLPs or trade unions. They marched as LGBT or stood on picket lines. They were elected as union reps and addressed meetings. But they weren’t there as Jews. It simply wasn’t relevant.  

The exception to this was groups like the Jewish Socialists’ Group (JSG) who have always proudly asserted their right to organise as part of a wider labour movement. 

Our banner and presence attracted curiosity, which was good, because any conversation about the place of Jews in the fight for justice and equality is enlightenment. 

The banner was there for the NHS and for migrant campaigns and in solidarity with trade union disputes. We’re always there for Palestine, though marching with the JSG before October 7 could test your patience. Please remember that some of us have been on these marches since the world shuddered at the thought of Ronald Reagan as US president. But at times we were treated like five-year-olds competing at our first school sports day as some people would approach us, pat us on the arm and say “Well done you…”

The events of October 7 have led to a marked shift in responses to our presence. For that we thank Suella Braverman, most mainstream politicians, and their adoring lieutenants in the Jewish press. 

Our marches were “hateful” and “full of Hamas supporters.” Central London was “rampant with Jew-hating militants.” Photos of the demos were scoured for hours so that a bone-headed placard or two could be used to discredit the hundreds of thousands who were calling for a ceasefire. 

Despite the horrifying reality of the bombardment of Gaza and the murder of Palestinians in the West Bank, most of their energies were devoted to vilifying the left. And “protecting Jews.” Because — as we were told by the very many non-Jewish politicians and commentators — any attack on Israeli forces is an existential threat to any Jewish person worldwide. Suella and Rishi and Dave and Keir and David L and Lisa have all got our backs.

In late October, Sisters Uncut staged a sit-down protest in Liverpool Street station during the rush hour. Over 500 people sat down on the concourse and chanted “Free Palestine” and “End the Occupation.” 

Draped over the first-floor handrail was a huge “Jews Against the Genocide” banner. The utter confusion of the media’s celeb Jewish spokespeople to a loud, visible, Jewish presence was delightful. Simon Schama, the esteemed historian, didn’t bother examining the footage all over social media and misquoted the chants as “intifada.” After retracting, he still called it an “intifada at a railway station.”

Suella has gone for now. The rhetoric quietened as the slaughter intensified and the Israeli leadership openly announced its genocidal intentions. The “Israel-has-a-right-to-defend-itself” parroted by all our political leaders gave way to the mealy mouthed “a humanitarian intervention.”

Our newly formed Jewish Bloc — including, among others, the Black-Jewish Alliance, Na’amod, Jews for Justice for Palestinians, the Jewish Socialists’ Group, Jewish Voice for Labour and Jewdas as well as individual Jews and activists who have come together — is now a recognised presence. No longer a curiosity. 

We are getting an entirely different and sometimes quite moving response to what we have previously encountered. It is a combination of gratitude and relief as we have vindicated what everyone knew in their hearts: that what they were reading and hearing in mainstream media about British Jews being united on Israel and Palestine was a lie. 

As more groups joined, our Jewish Bloc began organising more methodically. Someone knew a graphic designer and they came up with our watermelon/star logo, which has been picked up everywhere. 

Before a mass demo, we talk online and arrange a meeting place which is put on to our Jewish Bloc logo and then circulated. Our numbers have grown — up to 1,000 on one demo. The people joining us are a combination of longstanding activists and other Jews who are horrified and angry at Israeli brutality but still wary of the mass protests because of the raw emotions, fear of hostility or uneasiness about the “river and sea” chants. 

Since December the Jewish Bloc has met up each month with other comrades and friends for a Shabbat dinner, where we eat, drink, sing and dance with our group banners draped around the room. 

But that’s just in London.

Around the country, in all the major cities, Jews are demonstrating as Jews. In Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool, Jews have joined the Palestine demos and organised vigils. Says Carla Bloom, a member of Na’amod in Brighton: “We demonstrate to all and sundry that it’s possible to be an ‘out’ Jew and not support Israel. We encourage other Jews to have the confidence to speak out against Israel — because the pro-ceasefire argument is strengthened when ‘even’ Jews espouse it.” 

And Misha in Scotland says: “I will often march with a wider community group of Jewish people at the protests, or will visibilise myself as being Jewish through holding different signs. To believe in and act for Palestinian liberation is what my Judaism requires of me. 

“The mainstream narrative, perpetuated by both global and mainstream British Jewish institutions, holds the belief that all Jews are zionists. I identify as Jewish at the demos to resist this narrative: to show that there is Jewish solidarity for Palestine; that there is a global community of Jews who stand in solidarity with Palestine and we are no less Jewish for this.” 

Both Misha and Carla have been taken aback by the responses they receive. Says Misha: “We often get a lot of people taking pictures of our signs. It can be quite surreal at points where random people at the protests have shaken my hand, thanked me or hugged me.”

Carla has experienced the same: “Particularly Palestinians,” she says, and “lots of thanks for support and, from some, recognition that it’s not necessarily an easy thing for Jews to do.” 

But Misha also has mixed feelings about the responses. “It is sad to know that the absence of the mainstream Jewish community from these spaces means that our small Jewish presence appears as a novelty, rather than something that should be a given … a sad reflection of the British Jewish disengagement and absence in these spaces.”

Our university campuses have also been active. There are now anti-zionist Jewish student groups in Cambridge, Soas, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Oxford, Manchester and Warwick. 

And, after the Union of Jewish Students stated that anti-zionist groups “damage our Jewish community,” Cambridge and the other groups wrote a joint letter in reply, saying: “The assertion that our stance against colonialism, white supremacy, apartheid and genocide is damaging our own communities is sickening. We stand strong, knowing that they are losing their monopoly on Jewish life as the tide is turning among young Jews.”

It is five months since we first heard the news of the Hamas attack on Israeli civilians. Protests and solidarity actions for Palestine have widened everywhere. 

There are many local actions. In Brighton, Carla reports on sit-ins at Brighton station; pickets of Barclays and other businesses that invest in Israel. “There have been people at most of these events holding placards/banners identifying them as Jews, and speakers (including myself) at a few of them, speaking from a Jewish perspective, plus pickets of L3Harris factory where they manufacture bomb release mechanisms used by IDF.”

In Scotland, Misha says: “As well as active protest presence since October 7, there have also been many spaces to celebrate Palestinian life and culture, as well as to educate about the realities of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation, apartheid and genocide. 

“These spaces have manifested through art fairs, food pop-ups, open-mics, photography exhibits, film screenings, book launches, panel discussions, teach-ins, and public talks.”

I asked Carla and Misha what hostility they had faced — whether from family and friends or from the wider Jewish community. Misha reports: “I have faced some hostility in interpersonal relationships. Myself and others in our student group — Kehillah (a group of Jewish students in solidarity of Palestine) — have also faced hostility from the mainstream Jewish student society at our university.”

Carla says: “Most of my Jewish friends feel the same as I do, and by mutual agreement I tend not to talk about the issue with the few who don’t.” And on the demos? “There are usually a number of Israeli flag-waving counter protesters — some Jews, some EDL types, rightwingers, some Christian fundamentalists. 

“There’s also been very antagonistic behaviour from members of Sussex Jewish Representative Council plus the filming of kids who are demonstrating.”

But I end this report on a positive note. Misha tells me: “Many members of the local Jewish community are involved in the wider Jewish pro-Palestine community group I am in. This group has been a really grounding and meaningful space to have over the last few months to maintain community outside of mainstream Jewish spaces where non-zionist/anti-zionist Jews are often excluded/unwelcomed.”

Out of this horror there is hope and maybe a new understanding. So join us. We have work to do. 

This article will appear in Jewish Socialist, the magazine of the Jewish Socialists’ Group. Subscribe at www.jewishsocialist.org.uk.

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