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London Gaza protest: has row over ‘openly Jewish’ remark changed the march’s mood?

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A woman is standing next to a group of Holocaust survivors and their descendants in Trafalgar Square, clutching her dog’s lead and livestreaming her challenge to the pro-Palestine marchers on her phone. “Why will none of you condemn Hamas?” she repeats several times, for the benefit of those watching online.

Most of the marchers ignore her, preferring instead to show their appreciation for the group of 11 survivors who oppose Israel’s actions in the war in Gaza. One man yells at her but is quickly ushered along by his friends. One young woman standing with the survivors kneels down to make friends with the dog.

But this is a march of thousands of people and one Londoner, probably in his 50s, takes the bait, yelling about “you bloody evangelical Christians” and knocks her phone out of her hands as she turns to film him. “Where are the police?” she calls, and in the commotion ends up on the ground, cutting her leg on some broken glass. Some of the marchers come to her help, and she dabs the blood with a tissue, then goes back to her livestream. She refuses to give her name, just that she “represents the kingdom of God”.

Does the scuffle show that London is a no-go zone for people who disagree with the demonstrators? Or, if even someone apparently trying to provoke a response can stand in relative safety, is that evidence, as the Holocaust survivors group hopes to show, that this is a peaceful protest where Jews should feel safe?

The survivors group were at the front of the march when it set off just before 1pm in Whitehall on Saturday, the thirteenth time demonstrators have gathered in central London to oppose the war in Gaza after the 7 October attacks by Hamas.

After the previous march, Gideon Falter, the leader of the Campaign Against Antisemitism, released a video clip of a police officer telling him that he could not walk across the march because he was “openly Jewish”, which Falter said showed that London had become a no-go area for Jews during the protests. It led to calls from former home secretary Suella Braverman for the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley, to resign.

The Rev Hayley Ace at the Enough is Enough counter-demonstation on Saturday. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

But the release of a 13-minute video showed a much longer and more nuanced exchange between Falter and the officer, who offered to escort Falter away from the demonstration and said he was being disingenuous about his motives for wanting to cross the road at that point.

Stephen Kapos, an 87-year-old from Budapest who lost most of his family in the Holocaust, was in the centre as they walked up Whitehall.

“We want to stress our solidarity with the Palestinian people,” he said, adding that memories of the Holocaust should not be used as cover for Israel’s actions in Gaza. “The right wing has been claiming that there are no-go areas of London for Jews. We want to prove that’s wrong – we are very welcome here.”

“Openly Jewish” had become something of a slogan on the march yesterday, and some people were spurred to join the demonstration by Falter’s video.

Simon Moore, a GP from Muswell Hill in north London, wore a handmade sign around his neck about his father, who arrived on the Kindertransport.

“I know my dad would have believed in the Palestinian cause,” he says. “He was a victim of the same thing that is happening now. It’s very important that Jews or people with Jewish heritage say that this is wrong.”

Along Pall Mall, there was another potential flashpoint – a counter-demonstration by a group called Enough is Enough, separated by lines of police and barriers, too far away for anything except a few rounds of football finger-pointing. One of the organisers, Rev Hayley Ace, said: “We’ve had enough of open calls for support for terrorist organisations such as Hezbollah and Hamas.” Jews are being demonised, she said, adding of the marchers: “If they want a ceasefire, why aren’t they calling for the release of the hostages?”

Richard Wistreich from Hastings British Jews forming the ‘Jewish Block’ group gather outside the Ministry of Defence during the pro-Palestine march. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

Since 7 October, both antisemitism and anti-Muslim hatred have risen – factors that led to fewer organisations commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January, according to Olivia Marks-Woldman, the chief executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. Numbers fell from 4,500 last year to 3,700.

“Some local organisers were worried about the physical safety of their events,” she said on Friday. “At the same time, we had some people who were very deliberately disengaging and citing community tensions, but occasionally cited reasons which are intrinsically antisemitic.”

She said that Holocaust survivors who worked with the trust had a variety of views on the Israeli government and its western allies, but were “almost all very, very worried about the rise in antisemitism”.

“One thing we hear quite often is people saying ‘the war in Gaza is another genocide, it’s just like the Holocaust’, or comparing the Israeli government with the Nazis,” she said. “Those are Holocaust distortions, where victims of the Holocaust, the Jewish people, are being accused of being Nazis themselves. That’s antisemitic. It’s deeply worrying. And it shows a fundamental lack of knowledge of the Holocaust.”

Marchers at the protest in London on 27 April. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

In Trafalgar Square, people stopped to greet the Holocaust survivor group. Mark Etkind is one of the organisers – his father Michael was from Łódź in Poland and survived after the 45 Aid Society brought him to the UK.

“It was quite clear from the beginning that Netanyahu was going to take the opportunity to conduct massive ethnic cleansing, what could become a genocide,” he said. “Myself and my friends in the group realised we had a responsibility to make it plain that we were opposed to that.

“It’s hard to talk about without getting a bit upset,” he added. “When we are on the protest, being openly Jewish, the level of warmth and support has been overwhelming.”

What of Marks-Woldman’s point that some of the ways the Holocaust is used in the debate are distortions?

“I think that people who compare what is happening in Gaza to the Holocaust are not being antisemitic,” Etkind says. “Anyone who knows history knows that we can’t understand things except in comparison to each other. What is happening now or in the future will never be on the scale of the tragedy of what happened in the second world war.

“But that’s not a comfort to someone who has lost their whole family in Gaza, and it would be cruel to say so to them.”

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