Gaza demo: Don't let it go to waste
The latest march in solidarity with the Palestinians was both big and open to ideas; but the old hands of the anti-war movement had little perspective to offer. Peter Manson reports
The August 9 march and demonstration in solidarity with the people of Gaza and in opposition to the Israeli slaughter was undoubtedly a great success. According to the organisers - Stop the War Coalition, Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Muslim Association of Britain and Campaign Against Nuclear Disarmament - “more than 150,000” people turned out, while for the BBC it was a more modest, yet still impressive, “tens of thousands”.
Whatever the exact numbers, the angry determination and inspired confidence of those taking part was unmistakable. While there was a huge mixture of people, the majority were Muslim. But they were, by and large, Muslims of a very ‘British’ and ‘secular’ kind - clearly seeing themselves as part of a big mass movement alongside all the other contingents. An MAB speaker gestured to the sea of people before him in Hyde Park and declared: “Mr Cameron, these are the real British values!”
Like most other demonstrators, the Muslims could hardly be described as highly political, but they were certainly open to ideas. Just as many Muslims as non-Muslims took a copy of the Weekly Worker, for example - we distributed almost 300 on the day.
And there was no sign of anything resembling the anti-Semitism that sections of the media claimed to have seen on previous demonstrations - quite the opposite. Anti-Zionist Jews from organisations such as Jews for Justice for Palestinians were cheered enthusiastically by everyone. The organisers had warned in advance that any display of anti-Semitism would not be tolerated, but this was totally unnecessary from the point of view of the participants: it was clearly a pre-emptive move to combat further possible smears. And when one of the chairs from the platform asked, “Are we anti-Semitic?”, the answer was a resounding, united “No!” - just as the follow-on question, “Are we anti-Zionist?”, was greeted by a massive “Yes!”
But the most impressive noise I noted came when the Liberal Democrat, Baroness Jenny Tonge, called for “the mightiest, biggest cheer for the people of Gaza”. It was not only deafening - it lasted for a good minute, as the thousands gave full vent to their emotions. “In our thousands, in our millions, we are all Palestinians!” was also a popular chant. One speaker did say that “We are all Hamas”, but it was in the context of an occupied people having the right to defend themselves - if you are a terrorist for wanting to defend your homeland, then we are all terrorists.
And there was emotion of a different kind when Sue Bond, representing the Public and Commercial Services union, brought tears to the eyes of this reporter when she talked about two photographs that meant so much to her. The first was of her newly born granddaughter, and the second was of the Palestinian baby cut from the womb of his mother, who had just been killed by an Israeli air strike. This baby’s grandmother had promised she would care for him in loving memory of her dead daughter, but it was not to be: another air strike cut off the electricity from the hospital and denied the baby its life support. Barely able to speak, comrade Bond asked: “How dare they call that self-defence?”
In connection to this question, it was fitting that the march set off from BBC headquarters in central London. The infuriating bias in the BBC’s case, as with much of the media, comes in the form of a mock even-handedness; on the one side, Hamas is launching rockets into Israel and, on the other, Israel is ‘retaliating’, perhaps ‘disproportionally’. This is such an absurd narrative that only the extremely naive actually believe it, yet the BBC, together with much of the media, persists with it.
So August 9 was highly positive. But it is important not to overstate our strength, as, for instance, Sarah Colborne of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign did, when she informed the rally that Baroness Warsi had resigned “because of your pressure”. Similarly STWC declared in a post-demonstration circular: “The movement has already had a big impact. Not only has it helped to turn the tide of public opinion: it has also helped create a crisis in government about the British establishment’s support for Israel” (August 11 2014).
As for the Socialist Workers Party, it claimed in Party Notes: “A new movement has been born.” It went on: “This is not some momentary outburst of rage: it’s a signal of a significant factor in politics that we have to continue to be at the centre of”(August 11 2014). Well, perhaps, but we know from similar large movements in the past that they can dissipate very quickly - think of STWC itself and the massive demonstration in February 2003 against the invasion of Iraq.
There is no doubt, however, that there are some demands that are eminently winnable. The government can be forced by the pressure from below to end the trade in arms with Israel. Protests in all the main capitalist powers could lead to imperialist politicians calling on Israel not only to stop the slaughter, but to end the blockade of Gaza and start dismantling settlements in the West Bank.
But, let me repeat, we should not fall into the trap of overestimating the power of the mass movement. Working class organisation - which, by definition, must be at the centre of any movement for lasting change - is in a parlous state. The balance of forces is manifestly against us. That is why it is just plain foolish to claim that things are going, and are bound to go, our way. Unbelievably there is an article on the STWC website by Paul Rogers entitled: ‘Now we know: Israel withdrew its troops from Gaza because it had lost’.1
At the Hyde Park rally Owen Jones reminded the thousands that, just like Israel today, apartheid once seemed not just strong, but invincible. “Did it not fall?” he asked. Yes, Owen, but it was not only the South African liberation movement and our solidarity that brought it down: the contradictions had become insoluble and apartheid just could not continue. The transition to a safe, controlled democracy was overseen by the imperialist powers.
Can we say the same about Israel’s viability? According to Tariq Ali, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu declared last week that he is not prepared to allow a “democratic Palestine”. That means “there is only one solution,” declared comrade Ali from the platform: “one state”. That, of course, overlooks the question of agency. If Netanyahu cannot contemplate a “democratic Palestine” alongside Israel, what will be his attitude to a single ‘secular, democratic’ state (or whatever description comrade Ali now employs) to replace the Zionist entity? In the same vein, PSC chair Hugh Lanning stated: “Israel’s got to be tried for its war crimes. Israel must pay for the rebuilding of Palestine, brick by brick.”
Once again, we must ask, who will bring this about? Certainly not the leaders of the Arab world. As the MAB speaker mentioned above correctly pointed out, they are “not just silent: they are compliant” in the Gazan massacre. As far as I know, it was only the Weekly Worker that told the truth on this question: “Only an Arab revolution can liberate Palestine,” read our front-page headline for the demonstration. In other words, there can be no solution either within the Israel/Palestine ‘box’ or with the current balance of forces in the Middle East. What is needed is an international movement under the leadership of the working class.
Yes, that seems far away, but we cannot avoid telling such truths. Unlike, for instance, Lindsey German, with her appeals to bourgeois legality: “Under international law an occupied people has the right to resist”; and her platitudes that no-one can disagree with: “We need to change our policy - for a world without war”.
The STWC, then under the leadership of the SWP, was unable to play any role in the creation of an alternative, working class politics. The SWP not only kept its own professed Marxist politics off anti-Iraq war platforms: it closed down the Socialist Alliance, which had brought together all the main left groups, and replaced it with the Respect popular front.
The Palestine solidarity movement must not take a similar route.