Stop The War march for the people of Gaza: 9th August 2014

Protest for Gaza on Oxford Street
Protest for Gaza on Oxford Street.

I don’t go on a lot of protest marches. In fact, the only big, proper protest march I have been on was the one in favour of fox hunting, when I reported on it for the Hastings Observer.

Today’s march was similar, yet different. It featured the same good-natured canter through London’s beauty spots, adorned with placards, whistles and slogans. But while that rally was defending human’s right to kill foxes for fun; this protest, in contrast, defended human’s right not to be killed (for fun, or otherwise).

I attended for several reasons:

a. Seeing those boys killed on the beach when they were having a kickabout was horrific
b. Our government has not condemned the killing of children, even those in UN shelters. We have been less critical of Israel than any other nation on earth, including the US. I wished to show that this “do nothing” approach is not a vote-winner
c. I was interested to see who was on the march, and why they were there.

When I pottered down to Portland Place, I was pleased to see that there was a significant crowd gathered. Not nearly as many as pitched up against the foxes, but still tens of thousands.

Almost the first person I saw was a young man pulling out a placard which conflated Israel’s actions with the Nazis. I asked for a photo, then explained that I found his sign insulting (idiotic, would have been nearer the mark). I was soon joined by a Jewish man who said much of his family was killed in the holocaust, and he found the sign offensive and insensitive.

We got tangled up in an extremely polite argument, in which it became obvious that the man had a very loose grasp of history, and was beginning to regret bringing the banner out. I slipped away as they carried on their debate, and am glad to say, I did not see another banner of that kind for the rest of the afternoon.

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The people gathered outside Broadcasting House, in criticism of the BBC’s reporting of the conflict. I don’t think its reporting has been as bad as people have suggested. However, the BBC’s problem stems from two factors: a timidity in asking hard questions of Israel; and editorial guidelines which demand balance. That approach doesn’t work when the conflict itself is so desperately unbalanced.

(The BBC did bother to report on this protest, while neglecting to mention that it was the object of part of it.)

I bumped into a fellow QPR fan, who acted as a timely restorative after my previous encounter. We discussed another grave, internecine conflict: between Joey Barton and Adel Taarabt, before he handed me a socialist leaflet and tottered off. To my surprise, and pleasure, I noticed West Ham and Chelsea fans carrying banners in support of the people of Gaza. This is good not only because it shows football supporters standing for something more than their team, it shows how many different types of people feel strongly about this issue.

Chelsea fans supporting Palestinians
Chelsea fans supporting Palestinians

I next got talking to a mother of three from south London, who was pushing two children in a buggy, and carrying a tiny baby in a sling. She said, simply: “I hope we can make a difference. I hope we will be listened to.” We had a lovely chat where she explained her determination to come out and show her support, despite having three children. “You have got to do something,” she said.

We strolled down Oxford Street, when I noticed people were directing their ire towards Marks & Spencer. I asked a man chanting what the issue was, and he said: “They are Jewish. They support Israel.”

An elderly lady, who was marching with a friend, timidly said: “I’m a bit concerned they are just attacking Jewish businesses.”

We walked around the US embassy, which saw people shouting: “USA, shame on you” to a large, unimpressed building, with a bored-looking security guard stood outside.

As the march progressed towards Hyde Park, I found myself alongside a man who was enjoying using his loudhailer to start chants, a bit croakily by then, along the lines of: “In our thousands, in our millions, we are all Palestinians.”

To which I didn’t reply: “No, I am not a Palestinian. I am Richard Purnell, a one-half Jewish, one-half Yorkshire, one-half Essex man who is putting aside his great and ongoing need for attention and applause to spend a few hours cantering about the streets of London to draw attention to the plight of the Palestinians, not to you, you mindless sloganeer.”

Which is perhaps why I don’t go on many marches.

That said, I am glad I went on this one. I saw mums, dads, teenagers, old people, business people, tourists, from just about every walk of life, walking through the streets to show support for fellow humans suffering a very obvious injustice.

I am not presuming that much will come of this protest. After all, the protest to defend an Englishman’s right to frighten the life out of foxes came to nothing.

However, simply to see that there is a groundswell of support for the Palestinians, which today is less easily ignored by our Prime Minister, made it worth it.

Del boy would be proud - chaps selling Palestine merch
Del boy would be proud – chaps selling Palestine merch
What is boils down to
What it boils down to
Orthodox Jews on the protest
Orthodox Jews on the protest
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My favourite writer got crushed by an Israeli bulldozer

A true hero – Rachel Corrie

It’s easy to hate the Israeli state. They do bad stuff and don’t even give enough of a shit to  create coherent excuses.

The Israeli state is like the little brother in year seven whose bigger brother is in year eleven and is Mike Tyson. They aren’t that hard, but they can do whatever they like and get away with it.

It’s such an obvious, acknowledged truth that very few people bother to point it out, or pay attention.

I rarely pay attention. I’m too busy being incredibly witty and ironic to worry about Israel. And in any case, the kind of people who worry about Israel have nothing better to do than worry about stuff they can’t change.

I certainly wasn’t paying attention when Rachel Corrie was crushed to death in 2003 at the age of 23 by an Israeli bulldozer when she tried to stop it destroying a Palestinian home.

I wouldn’t have paid attention at all, but it turned out that Rachel Corrie, in writings which amout to a few diary notes and emails home to her parents in Washington state, was one of the most brilliant, funny, honest and idealistic writers I have ever come across.

Her story was told in a play produced by the Royal Court theatre, which I had the privilege to see a few years back. Remarkably, it was almost entirely produced from her own writing.

Here is a sample:

When we graduated fifth grade we had a list of questions for our yearbook. One of them was, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ Everyone wrote something like ‘doctor’ or ‘astronaut’ or ‘Spiderman’ and then you turned the page and there was my five-page manifesto on the million things I wanted to be, from wandering poet to first woman president. That was real cute in fifth grade but when it’s ten years later, I’m a junior in college, and I still don’t have the conviction to cross Spiderman off my list – well, you can imagine it gets a little nerve-wracking.

This is a woman who was so aware of her own ridiculousness that she could inherently spot the ridiculousness in others, such as the Israeli state. So when she learnt, with horror, about the type of stuff that was going on in Gaza and the West Bank at the turn of the century, she didn’t just sit back and take comfort in her small-town environment in the US. She tried to raise awareness locally; and, when that wasn’t enough for her, she went over there to bear witness. And when she does so in her writing it is with the same humanity and candour as Vasily Grossman at the Battle of Stalingrad.

Diary entry:

7th February 2003

I have been in Palestine for two weeks and one hour now, and I still have very few words to describe what I see. I don’t know if many of the children here have ever existed without tank-shell holes in their walls. I think that even the smallest of these children understand that life is not like this everywhere.

They love to get me to practice my limited Arabic. Today I tried to learn to say ‘Bush is a tool’, but I don’t think it translated quite right. But, anyway, there are eight-year-olds here more aware of the workings of the global power structure than I was just a few years ago – at least regarding Israel.

A month later, her somewhat jolly descriptions have turned inescapably darker. The place has changed her and, perhaps, she foresees an endgame.

An email from March:

Mom.

I have bad nightmares about tanks and bulldozers outside our house, and you and me inside. Sometimes the adrenaline acts as an anaesthetic for weeks – and then at night it just hits me again a little bit of the reality of the situation.

I am really scared for the people here. Yesterday I watched a father lead his two tiny children holding his hand out into the sight of tanks and a sniper tower and bulldozers because he thought his house was going to be exploded.

Of course, that endgame was played out and Rachel Corrie was killed. And then it was the role of her parents – those parents who she had bullied and cajoled into becoming more aware – to take up her fight.

Her writings were shared and turned into a show – a  show that was sold out night after night. And beyond this, they set up a foundation in their daughter’s name to carry on her work.

Today, Rachel’s parents were in an Israel court where – surprise, surprise – it was found that the Israeli state was in no way responsible for her death.

In their public statements, Cindy and Craig expressed their dismay that all of their carefully compiled evidence had come to nothing. But perhaps, just like their daughter, they were aware enough to understand that this was the only possible result considering who was making the judgement. And, knowing this, they thought it was still worth it to claim some headlines and raise awareness of the injustices of the Israeli state, and to wake up a few self-satisfied people out of their slumber.