Israel’s inhuman treatment of the people of Gaza , bolstered by arms and funding from the US and UK has produced a remarkable solidarity.

Jane Shallice

One of the most remarkable features of the Gaza demonstrations in London this summer, appears to have gone largely unremarked.

For anyone who participated in or watched these demonstrations, the most immediately striking thing about them was their sheer size both here and across the world in comparison with their predecessors. This time the war on Gaza has taken place in full view. This time social media brought into instant focus scenes that in the previous assaults had been either edited out or not witnessed by journalists.

This time Facebook and Twitter have ensured that injuries and deaths have been filmed or photographed by the people being pulverised, and that the bombings and destruction on a scale that recalls the photographs of flattened Berlin in 1944, have been recorded. Their focus ensured that the main news channels were also brought on board and that good journalists were on the scene reporting on the evidence of their own eyes.

This time the world watched in horror and outrage as the Israeli army attacked and devastated the tiny patch of ground that over 1.8m people call ‘home’.

The aspect of these demonstrations that has gone less remarked is their composition, particularly in the demonstrations in London, which has covered an extraordinarily wide spectrum in terms of their age, cultural background and political affiliation.

As was the case in other parts of the world, the London demonstrations included not just middle-aged and elderly leftists, but large numbers of young people, many of whom have never marched before. But in London the marchers also included many young Muslims, all wanting to express their anger at the Israeli government and at a British government that has not condemned nor in any way attempted to stop the slaughter that we witnessed each day.

The participants came from many political backgrounds and from different campaigns. They included Arabs, East Europeans, British Jews and Muslims, religious and secular, and from all the many backgrounds that have transformed London from a former centre of empire into today’s magnificent mixture of different cultures, races, religions and classes.

Accident of history

This wide-ranging participation is not just an accident of history; it is a testament to the political work of the last 13 years. After the September 11th attacks in 2001 the Stop the War Coalition called for public demonstrations based on three essential demands.

Firstly, to oppose an attack on Afghanistan on the grounds that the correct response to the horrors of 9/11was not military action against a state whose citizens were not involved in the attacks, but a combination of criminal investigations and diplomacy aimed at finding those responsible and dealing with the perpetrators and their supporters through legal means.

In the second place, STW was concerned to protect civil liberties, focussing on the dangers of allowing the state to erode or remove hard won rights, established over long periods of time and through many campaigns.

But there was also a third demand that has been the basis of many of our responses over the last thirteen years; to defend Muslim communities and oppose any anti-Muslim racism fuelled by the actions of governments.

It was this demand that has cemented the relationships between the left and the Muslim community. It ensured that the demonstrations were welcoming to and built with Muslims and their organisations, such as the Muslim Association of Britain, Friends of Al Aqsa, and later on the British Muslim Initiative and others, as well as many local activists around the mosques and other community organisations.

Of course there were some difficulties and objections to such an open response to Muslims. Some secular leftists felt that it was a betrayal of their principles when in November 2001, a section of Trafalgar Square was set aside for prayers. For the first time the organizers of a demonstration had to take Ramadan into account after 4 pm, when devout Muslim demonstrators were required to break their fast with prayer.

But for many of us who had worked in anti-racist campaigns over the years and assessed the successes that we had gained and the relationships that we had forged, it was important that participants from all backgrounds could feel secure and that their religious or cultural beliefs were respected and acknowledged.

This alliance and collaboration was maintained, sometimes with difficulty, but it reflected a very clear belief amongst all of us that such wide-ranging participation was as central to all our struggles, whether on the Stop the War demonstrations or those organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, as it is to many trade unions.

It was therefore with great pride that we saw the front lines of some of the recent anti- Israeli demonstrations outside the Israeli embassy being stewarded by a line of young women all in headscarfs and wearing bibs announcing PSC, Stop the War, Friends of Al Aqsa and others.


This phenomenon is found in very few places. Throughout Europe there are few countries where such secure alliances between different communities, cultural and religious groups have been forged . This is partly because countries like Spain, Italy or Greece have not experienced the same range of migrants until the last ten or fifteen years, and even in Germany when Turkish workers began to arrive from the 1960s, the legal restrictions attached to the notion of ‘gastarbeiter’ forged difficult and sometimes unforgiving relationships between German and Turkish workers which did not facilitate solidarity.

But it is the contrast with France which is stark. France is the only other European state whose imperial reach has sucked a huge and diverse Muslim and black population into its major cities. Today it has the largest Muslim population in Europe.

But the primacy of the principle of laicité, which insists on the separation of religion and state, has meant that secularism has been adopted as an unquestioned and unchallengeable cornerstone of the French republic, and this principle has been reemphasised in the last ten years over the struggles over the right to wear a headscarf.

However the current separation of communities in France does not originate in 1905, but in the liberation movements of the North African colonies that developed during the 1950s. In 1954 the Algerians established the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) and organised an armed struggle against the French state and against the settler population, the pieds noirs, who were bitterly hostile to any separation of Algeria from France.

Alliances between the French left and the FLN were limited. Initially the Communist Party (PCF) appeared to be somewhat sympathetic to the liberation struggle, but by 1958, Moscow was demanding they support De Gaulle’s opposition to independence. The PCF adopted this position in an attempt to keep de Gaulle out of the US orbit, since it was argued that support by the PCF for the FLN would have undermined Khruschev’s policy of détente. The result was that large sections of the left refused to publically support the Algerians throughout the intense struggles of the late 50s.

In Algeria the war was supported by the Algerian masses and was led by a highly developed political liberation movement that fought with great courage against a very large French army of occupation. The French forces in Algeria were led by highly-politicized generals many of whom were of the extreme right, verging on fascism.

Terror was an integral part of a French counterinsurgency strategy, which relied on torture and the decimation of villages in retribution for the killing of French soldiers. The nature of the war was clear to all and yet there were few people or organizations on the French left that would identify with the struggles of the FLN.

It would indeed be very hard to imagine that in London in 1961, somewhere between 60 and 200 people could have been killed by police on a demonstration : their bodies thrown into the Thames and the whole thing kept under wraps. Yet in Paris on October 17th 1961, a pro FLN demonstration in Paris was attacked by the police and tens of North Africans were killed and many injured and detained, and the entire episode was kept under wraps for years.

The African-American novelist William Gardner Smith in his novel The Stone Face (1963) estimated that the numbers of deaths were “over 200 “. All news of the massacre was suppressed with an instant news’ blackout and Gardner Smith’s novel, published a couple of years later in the USA, was one of the very few representations of the event. It was not until relatively recently, when the generation of young Beurs, the children of North African immigrants, has started to probe and question the events of that period, that the French state has had to admit to the blood on its hands.

But the events of the 60s do not in themselves explain the relationships between Muslims and the French left since 2001. Through the 80s and 90s some attempts were made to build anti racist movements, such as the campaigns by SOS Racisme, a movement very much within the orbit of the Parti Socialiste. But there has been no real integration of the Arab population into French society.

Initially housed in the bidonvilles and later in the banlieues, those huge sprawling estates on the outer suburbs of cities, the Arab population has had a very marginal relationship to the French state. After September 11th 2001, no major attempt was made to the Muslim population and its organisations which would cut through the hostility or separation of the country’s very divided communities.


Today, when Western governments refuse to condemn or take a critical stand against the actions of the Israeli government, all communities have to develop some way of standing and working together.

During the attack on Gaza there have been some depressing accounts of anti-Semitism from France some of which has been associated with the anti-Israeli demonstrations. In one or two cases there has been little real evidence, or there have been distortions or omissions in the coverage – such as the participation of the Jewish Defence League (Ligue de Defence Juife) an aggressive street fighting grouping with close ties to the Front National during the Gaza demonstrations.

Whilst it is true that there have been attacks on some Jewish shops, it is also evident that there is too little differentiation (and in some cases a clear elision) between statements which are anti -Israel and anti-Jewish. Though some sections of the left have taken a principled stand against both the LDJ and the fascists as well as the anti-Semitism expressed in parts of the North African community, it is essential to try and build real and lasting alliances between all the people revolted by the actions of the Israeli government, on the lines of those that have been constructed in London.

Such a conclusion might seem complacent, but that is far from the truth. Here in Britain the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal in Birmingham is one more reminder of the dangers of officially-generated Islamophobia.

Nevertheless there are common experiences and some good responses and good working relationships with Muslim organisations in particular that can provide an example to other countries, and support those in France attempting to build genuine cross- community organisations and alliances. This is no small task, when the current political crisis has empowered Le Pen and the French left is divided.

In Britain, support for the Palestinians has been strengthened not just by the active participation of large numbers of Muslims but also by the numbers of Jews and Jewish organisations who have mobilised and marched and demonstrated, written and spoken out.

The speech made by Barnaby Raine, a “young North London Jew” outside the BBC on the August 9th demonstration said he affirmed his solidarity with the Palestinians in the name of humanity. He ended his speech with a ringing call for solidarity, insisting that ” we are all Palestinians”, just as previous generations had once declare “I too am a Jew” in response to the oppression of the Jews or “I too am a black South African” during the Apartheid era.

For such a slogan to go beyond mere rhetoric there has to be room for the individual initiatives of people like Barney (who organised a Jewish bloc on the demonstration on Gaza in London) and also for the collective initiatives of a coalition like Stop the War and Palestine Solidarity, which respecting the cultures of all their participants.

It is sobering that it takes Israel’s inhuman treatment of the people of Gaza , bolstered by arms and funding from the US and the UK to produce this kind of solidarity. But let’s make sure that we value it and build it into the habits of all our organisations for the future.

Source: Stop the War Coalition

21 Aug 2014

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