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'I went inside Israel-Palestine protests and stood face to face with hate'

News'I went inside Israel-Palestine protests and stood face to face with hate'

Almost every week since the Israel-Hamas war began there has been a pro-Palestine protest through central London. Last weekend, that movement reached its peak when over 300,000 people marched from Hyde Park to Vauxhall.

While this was ostensibly a peaceful protest, the impact of these marches has had a significant impact on the Jewish community who feel more afraid to go out because of the war.

This has been reflected in hate crime statistics which have seen antisemitic hate crimes rise by over 1,000 percent since the conflict began and left many feeling unable to protest safely.

This could all change on November 26 when a solidarity march against antisemitism makes its way through the capital. Ahead of this, I joined one of the organisers behind this march, Campaign Against Antisemitism, on one of their counter-protests on Wednesday night.

The counter-protest involved driving around a fan covered in LED screens showing images of the children kidnapped by terrorist group Hamas.

The last time the CAA tried this, they were stopped by the Metropolitan Police and protesters who were unhappy about their demonstration. Fast forward three weeks and the charity has got a new van and I joined them on its first outing.

The location was Parliament Square, where a pro-Palestine protest calling for a ceasefire was being held with a few thousand people.

On the way to the protest, I was a little nervous because while I was there to cover the event, there was nevertheless an element of danger from potentially rogue protesters. As a result, it increased my admiration for the two people from the CAA who sat on either side of me.

On the slow approach to Parliament Square, the van went quiet and we saw another screened van also doing laps near the protest calling for a ceasefire.

Once the van I was in moved into the area there was a surprising level of calm as the we swung past the thousands of people gathered outside Parliament who didn’t notice the images at first.

No doubt they would have done had a second pass, but this was sabotaged by two protesters blocking the road chanting ‘From the river to the sea chant’, a phrase sung by so many who probably don’t know its true meaning; for the Jewish community, it is an antisemitic slogan.

And this is one of the most dangerous things about the stake of ignorance being driven through London and the rest of the UK at the moment, that people are chanting slogans they don’t fully understand.

This isn’t to say none of the thousands of people who have marched know what it means, but plenty I’m sure don’t realise that that slogan is anti-semitic.

What’s more, I worry that some people are joining in these protests not because they truly support Palestine but because this protest is the flavour of the month, it is an experience, a box-ticking exercise.

This brings us, inevitably, to the question of free speech because while I am sceptical of the motives of some alleged pro-Palestine protesters, I do not believe for a moment that these marches should be banned.

The push for their cancellation is indicative of another stake of ignorance being driven through free speech, one where the extreme right and extreme left have entrenched themselves.

The right sometimes defines free speech as being about saying what you like regardless of whether it offends or not whilst the left sometimes cancels certain words and vice versa. Recently Michael Gove announced a change to the definition of extremism that Libert said would “suppress freedom of expression”.

The truth is that free speech is a nuanced balancing act, it’s not one thing or the other and I think we’ve forgotten that. It is the ability to say what you like ‘BUT’. It is the process of thinking about what you’re saying and considering whether it is offensive and therefore whether you should say it and whether you really understand what it actually means.

What’s more, the thing about free speech is that it is changing as society changes; words that were offensive once aren’t anymore and vice versa because societal dialogue changes through informed discussion rather than just yelling.

I believe that in some cases, you don’t need to shout because the audience can hear you. What being inside a counter-protest has reminded me is that there is a lot of shouting, but not enough listening, and we need to do more listening if we are to stop the rise of hate running out of control.

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