Opinion

London must unite to stand up against anti-Semitism

The rise of anti-Semitism in London as a result of events in Gaza should inspire people to stand against hatred on their streets

The Battle of Cable Street, anti-facist demonstration in London, 4 October 1936. Image: World Image Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

I’ve lived in London my whole life and experienced a wide array of public disturbances along the way.

I was 15 in 1990 when the poll tax riots kicked off; I didn’t really understand what the poll tax was so had no interest in turning up. But I recall a couple of teachers and pupils coming into school on the Monday morning with a few bruises and some exciting stories to tell. 

In 2003 I was working as a reporter for Channel 5 news, covering the protest against war in Iraq. I was among the one million people who marched on parliament in what turned out to be a futile attempt to convince Tony Blair not to invade. 

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I got to know the legendary protester Brian Haw, who I interviewed for a BBC documentary in 2006, spending a whole night shouting at the House of Commons through a loud hailer with him, by his encampment on Parliament Square.

I’m a fan of protest. In the case of the Iraq war, I was ostensibly neutral, covering the whole thing as a dispassionate journalist. But it doesn’t matter if I have skin in the game or not: if there’s a bunch of people passionate enough about injustice that they’re willing to go out in the cold and rain and risk the batons of the Old Bill, then I admire and encourage them.

I’ve also been caught up in uglier, less noble street aggravation. I’ve been going to football matches since I was a little boy and, over the years, have found myself among the drunken, the drugged, the boisterous, the excited, the angry, frustrated and barmy as they have caused mayhem on the streets of my city and others. Being part of an inebriated, anarchic crowd can feel exciting when you’re young. It’s a release from the stifling conventions and dreary rules of everyday life.

I’ve been charged by the police on horseback. I’ve been shouted at and threatened by violent yobs and middle-class activists alike. Once, I got mistaken for an opposition fan by a bunch of fellow West Ham supporters and had to produce my season ticket to prevent them from kicking my head in.

Once, when covering an event at which Tony Blair was appearing, I was accosted by a bearded militant brandishing images of dead babies in my face, as if I had something to do with it. 

Anyway, the point is that I’ve seen silly bastards pissed up and causing aggro and I’ve seen politically determined radicals shout and march for stuff they believe in. I’ve got a sense of how crowds behave and react. How sometimes a collection of reasonable, fair-minded people can mutate into unreasonable, angry and aggressive arseholes as a result of mass hysteria. 

On the whole, I’ve always backed the sort of people calling for positive change. I’m less keen on those spewing hate or preaching violence. I’ve never seen or heard the sort of rampant anti-Semitism that has started to play out on the streets of London over the past month or two.

There’s a lot of people – many of them the sort of self-proclaimed progressives, liberals and intellectuals who should know better – who are happy to tolerate and sometimes even participate in Jew hate on the streets of my city in response to a war going on in a faraway land that has no direct impact on their cosey metropolitan lives whatsoever. 

It’s wild. I don’t have a side when it comes to Israel and Palestine. It’s a complicated situation that I don’t know enough about. It’s clear that there are victims and villains on both sides and that the whole situation is a mess. But who needs my point of view on that?

I do, however, have a point of view on anti-Semitism in London. Many of the Jews I know are shit scared right now. Jewish schools have been shut. Instances of anti-Semitism have spiralled. Yes, Jews are understandably hyper-alert to existential threats. But, fuck me, anyone would be feeling a bit nervy in a climate like this one.

Put it this way, if the government and the police were happy for thousands of people to walk through the centre of my hometown calling for the extermination of white, British, West Ham supporters, I’d be packing up my bags and cleaning out my current account. 

So, while I’m not taking sides on what’s going on in Gaza, I am taking sides in what’s going on in my city. And I’m on the side of any minority who are threatened with violence. That means both my Jewish and Muslim friends. Islamophobia is on the rise too and is equally as disgusting. It doesn’t feel like the tolerant London I grew up in, and it doesn’t feel British to stand by and let this racism and nastiness go unchallenged.

It’s not on. I’ve always found the story of the Cable Street riots, and the ordinary working Londoners who stood up to Oswald Mosley and his blackshirts, to be inspiring. It runs contrary to the snobbish perception of the working classes as ignorant bigots. Those heroes on Cable Street knew how to fight and were willing to do so in defence of their Jewish brothers and sisters against small minded, hate-filled arseholes.

We should all be willing to do the same. 

Read more from Sam Delaney here.

Sort your head out book cover

Sort Your Head Out: Mental Health Without All the Bollocks by Sam Delaney is out now (Constable £18.99)You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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