David Hirsh: Divided in peace

July 28, 2006

Marching for and against a war

Last weekend there were two peace demonstrations in London. One was organised by George Galloway's Stop the War Coalition, the other by the Jewish community. People who opposed the war had to pick their protest: either "Yes to Peace, No to Terror, stand with the Israeli people", or standing with the Lebanese people, with Hamas and with Hezbollah, in opposition to the Israeli bombing. There is no peace movement in the UK capable of organising a demo to unite the millions of Arab, Jewish, Muslim and other Britons who want a free and democratic Palestine and Lebanon living alongside a secure Israel. As it happened, fewer than 10,000 people turned out.

The Lebanese Londoners waved the red-and-white flags that made our hearts leap last year when they became symbols of popular protest against Syrian occupation. A well-to-do family in cedar tree T-shirts got out of black cabs to join the demo. Some children wore homemade cedar tree hats. Teenagers protested with friends, parents and grandparents. Theirs was a march for Lebanese pride, an expression of outrage and desperation.

"Peace for Lebanon," they chanted, hundreds of cedars swaying over the sea of demonstrators.

But these anti-war protesters were forced to march alongside pro-war campaigners. Respect tried to draft them into its global war against President George W. Bush, Tony Blair, "imperialism" and "Zionism". Stop the War had produced "Don't attack Syria" placards to push its dogma that Israel is nothing but an American colony. The Socialist Workers' Party pushed "Freedom for Palestine", a slogan that in this context hides the military destruction of Israel behind three happy words.

British jihadists distributed hundreds of placards. "We are all Hizbullah,"

said one. With the words "I'm sure you'll want one of these", a man with a bearded grin handed me another that bore a picture of Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and the slogan "Boycott Israel".

One can only guess how the Lebanese patriots felt marching among Hezbollah placards held by mostly uncomprehending young Brits making common cause with the foreign militia that occupies Lebanon from the southern border to the suburbs of Beirut and has brought war upon their heads.

As well as a few loonies who had been up late with felt-tip pens to give voice to their grim Zionism = Holocaust fantasies, there was probably a fair sprinkling of Jews on the march, but most went to the alternative rally. When the President of Iran threatens to wipe Israel off the map, denies the Holocaust, tries to make nuclear weapons and builds a militia on Israel's border, Jews are likely to take this seriously. Here too, though, peace protesters rubbed shoulders with a pro-war movement; those supporting the Israeli settlers, gleefully claiming that the pullout from Gaza had proven to be a terrible mistake.

I can imagine a peace demo where Lebanese, outraged at the Israeli bombing, could march alongside Israelis worried about the existential threat posed by Hamas and Hezbollah; where Palestinians and Jews could protest together for a free and democratic Palestine alongside Israel; where those who support the Jewish fundamentalist settlers and the jihadists would not be welcome.

But Galloway finds more glory in the stiff-armed Jew-haters of Hezbollah than in their deadly enemy, the democrats and feminists of the Cedar Revolution. "I am here," screamed the feline leader, "to glorify the resistance, Hezbollah. I am here to glorify... Hassan Nasrallah."

J David Hirsh is lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.

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