Published in Weekly Worker 1020.
Saturday July 19 saw tens of thousands marching from Whitehall to the Israeli embassy in Kensington to protest against the Zionist regime’s latest series of atrocities in the Gaza strip. Organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and, as can be expected, scantily covered by the BBC, the march was attended by virtually all organisations within the British left, several Muslim associations, and a variety of anti-Zionist Jewish groups. With the exception of Left Unity and the soul-searching International Socialist Network, most left groups had newspapers and other such literature on offer.
The atmosphere of the demo has been described by many as inspiring. And, it is true, it has been a while since this writer has witnessed a protest with comparable levels of energy and a genuine feel of kinship. While a good slice of the participants could be described as young, loud and Muslim, the secular minority was very sizeable. To see swathes of angry young people whose fire was, for once, not directed at the Socialist Workers Party must have reminded its activists of simpler times – the “period of good feelings”, as Alex Callinicos has dubbed it. Accordingly, the comrades seemed very excited and were falling over themselves to get people to sign petitions and such.
Another left group present was the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, whose paper-sellers were loudly proclaiming a “state alongside Israel” for Palestinians. The AWL had been slow to react to the news, initially pushing older articles to the top of its website instead of commenting on Israel’s most recent acts of military aggression. The relevant editorial that was finally published on July 16 (‘Two nations, two states’) peddles the narrative of a “disproportionate” Israeli “response” to Hamas rockets which threatens to undermine the legitimate “self-defence argument” of the Israeli state.1 Implicitly, the piece also makes concessions to the Israeli state’s well-worn “human shield” apologia for its collective punishment policy of bombing densely populated areas.
Rather generously, the AWL concedes that “the Palestinians, too, have the right to defend themselves”, although it remains unclear just how they might exercise this “right” against a major US ally which is armed to the teeth, including with an arsenal of nuclear weapons.2 Ultimately, the solution offered by the AWL is a “peace” deal brokered by the oppressor state itself, with Israel “ensuring equality” and “allowing” Palestinians to set up their own state. A real happy-clappy outcome.
It is hard to believe, however, that the AWL hacks behind the ‘editorial’ moniker are actually this naive. As comrade Moshé Machover explains, Israel’s present leaders are positively keen to assume precisely this type of peacemaker role: “Their cherished wish is that the Palestinian people, dispossessed and subjugated, should peacefully accept their lot and give up the struggle”. The concern of the colonised, however, “is not to make peace with their dispossessors”, which inevitably occurs on the latter’s terms, “but to resist being dispossessed”.3
Over the past year or so, the AWL has faced criticism over its ‘racism’ – especially in the leftish student spectrum, which is its preferred recruitment ground. True to the often idealist worldview of this milieu – where anti-emancipatory politics are seen as a consequence of bigoted thinking rather than the other way round – the AWL is depicted as driven by irrational prejudice against Muslims or ‘brown people’. Behind Sean Matgamna’s notorious gaffes, however, is the social-imperialist concept that there can be no talk of socialist transformation until western ‘civilisation’ is introduced across the globe – including, crucially, as an accidental by-product of military conquest and regime change from above. This implausible – not to mention discredited – strategic outlook forms the political basis that occasionally gives rise to quasi-racist figments of the imagination such as Matgamna’s “envious”, “knife-sharpening” Muslims. Far more commonly, though, it finds expression in diplomatically worded ambivalence regarding imperialist ventures.
Matgamna asserts that the anti-imperialist left is “de factoanti-Semitic”,4 and I have little doubt that he reserves similar words for Muslim-dominated protests in defence of whatever is left of Palestine. While it would be foolish to deny that there exists such a thing as a ‘chauvinism of the oppressed’, no such sentiments were manifest on Saturday’s massive demonstration. When a speaker at the closing rally asked the crowd whether they were anti-Semitic, he received a unanimous and unhesitating “No!” Conversely, thousands replied in the affirmative when prompted to say whether they were anti-Zionist. But there is no pleasing some people: The Spectator’s neocon firebrand, Douglas Murray, for instance, dubbed the protest a “disgusting anti-Semitic spectacle”.5
Despite sub-tropical conditions and protestors suffering varying stages of dehydration, the mood was electric until the end. Electric enough to get carried away for a few fleeting hours, for it was impossible not to notice the contrast in enthusiasm and militancy when compared to most labour movement activity of the past few years. How quickly tens of thousands can be mobilised against national oppression. And how stubbornly ethnic, community, religious and other sectional ties continue to feature as powerful mobilising factors in people’s consciousness, compared to class affinity.
The path to liberation, alas, will not be found via short cuts – ie, by adapting to the various subjectivities of the oppressed – but through the protracted and patient struggle to raise working class political consciousness.