Move along nothing to see?

On Tuesday 9th November 2021, Tzipi Hotovely, an Israeli ambassador  spoke at the London School of Economics.  At the venue, students gathered to protest.  Video footage shows her being greeted by a wall of noise, chants of “shame on you” and having to be ushered quickly into a car. Additional reports state that students had been induced with the promise of free drinks if they successfully attacked and damaged her vehicle.[1]

There was a strong, emotional response to this, particularly from Jewish media. The significance of the date being particularly noted. November 9th is the anniversary of Kristallnacht when the Nazis unleashed a pogrom against Jews, attacking and smashing up their property. 

In this article here, one Jewish member of the Board of Deputies argues that the demonstration against Hotovely should not be seen as antisemitic and that the comparison with Kristallnacht is wrong.[2]  One important rule when seeking to oppose racism is that you cannot pick and choose who you listen to from other ethnic groups. This includes with antisemitism.  There is no such thing as “the wrong kind of Jew.” Tomer Spence has the right to be heard on his own terms even, and especially if that isn’t seen to be helpful to others’ agendas and causes just as those who provided a recent report on racism were entitled to say that they did not think that institutional racism is a problem in the UK.

At the same time, equally, it is also unwise to rush to leap on the comments of of one Jew and use then to nullify the concerns of others.   Here’s an example.

When challenged on this, Jones was quick to insist that in effect there was nothing to be seen and we should all move along. Of course, the protest was on the anniversary of Kristallnacht but then that was the night of the speech.  Protestors should have the right to disagree with the Israeli  spokesperson and concerns about antisemitism should not be used to prevent that.

I want to challenge Jones on two counts. First of all, I think we have a broader issue in terms of protest.  There is a proud history of freedom to protest and dissent here in the UK. However, there surely has to be a distinction between protest intended to make a point in order to engage in debate and win the argument. Such protest is in fact not a freedom on its own but a subcategory of freedom of speech. However, there are those who see protest not so much as a means to make your voice heard on an issue as to silence others. Protestors in effect create picket lines. The implications are clear. If you host a speaker, come to speak or come to hear a speaker then your life will be made difficult. The intention is intimidation.

I’ve personally experienced this kind of intimidation as a student when participating in politics and debates. I’ve ben surrounded by a baying, chanting mob. I had the door of my student room vandalised and I was told by our friendly local socialist workers that I needed to leave the city. I didn’t because I worked out that it was all bark and no bite. I got on, completed my degree, enjoyed the student politics and the debates then left behind all of that with my student days.  I was disillusioned with the particular party I’d supported to the point where I didn’t vote for them at the next election and I’d decided that a life in politics was not for me.  Who knows, I could be PM now, or perhaps a failed and disgruntled backbench MP!

Anyway, my point is this. An argument for protest in principle is fair enough. The Israeli Government should not be able to use antisemitism to hide behind. It is legitimate to disagree with them and their actions. It’s legitimate to disagree with particular movements and agenda.  However context is king.  Hence, looking at the type of protest and the time when it happened matters.

Those responding in anger and distress were not randomly comparing an event to Kristellnact. The incident happened on that anniversary and when you read about incitement to smash windows, damage property and intimidate, the imagery is eerily similar. You can no more ignore the connections than you can suggest that a car bomber striking close to a memorial service on the Sunday closest to Remembrance Day is nothing to do with Remembrance Sunday.  The implications of the date are well known to all.

It is one thing for one writer to disagree with his fellow Jews and say “look, I don’t think we should read it like that.” It is quite another for you and me to presume to lecture Jews on their reaction to an action that strikes at something so deeply emotional, symbolic and painful to them.

Furthermore, the events at the LSE on the 9th November were experienced and witnessed within the context of recent history where British Jews have felt increasingly intimidated because of antisemitism. This antisemitism has included the hounding of Jewish MPs, frequent antisemitism on social media, protestors driving down streets in Jewish neighbourhoods chanting about sexual violence to Jewish women and girls, and a significant period of time when antisemitic language and actions were tolerated at the heart of mainstream politics.

Finally, , I’m particular struck by Jones’ insistence that the comparison was disgraceful.  The only disgraceful thing to my mind is a journalist’s decision to police the emotions and reactions of Jews to something that happened to a fellow Jew.

[1] LSE: UK ambassador slams mob following Hotovely antisemitism threats | UK | News |

[2] It’s not antisemitic to protest Israel’s ambassador. Just ask British Jews – Israel News –  (paywall)

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