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23 October 2023

Bring them home

At a London rally in support of Israel over the weekend fear was palpable – but so was the defiance.

By Will Lloyd

The UK is experiencing a surge in anti-Semitism. On Friday (20 October) the Met Police said it had recorded a 1,353 per cent increase in anti-Semitic offences this month, compared with the same period last year. The war in Gaza is continuing to unsettle domestic and international politics.

It was difficult to see in Trafalgar Square on Sunday afternoon (22 October). The sun was high and powerful and glaring. You had to squint to make out the faces on the placards: a toddler, a middle-aged woman, a grandmother.

These were images of the hostages Hamas took on 7 October, more than 200 of them, a sea of faces, held up in the hard autumn light at the largest gathering of support for Israel, organised by a number of groups, including the Board of Deputies of British Jews, since the war began.

London has seen many protests in recent years. Hundreds of thousands marching – absurdly – for a second referendum during the Brexit freakout. Anti-lockdowners screaming about vaccine passports. Rallies for the “anti-Trump resistance” when that president visited in 2019. And in recent weeks, politically controversial, mass pro-Palestine demos.

The perils of living in this city mean that I’ve observed, or accidentally been caught up in most of these marches. They tend to be splenetic gatherings, with little to show in achievement other than making the participants feel better about themselves.

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[See also: Who funds Hamas?]

Yesterday’s gathering in Trafalgar Square was deeply distinctive. For one thing, it was the first time I ever had my bag searched before attending a demo. It was the first time I had seen dozens of Union flags flying without irony above a crowd of this size. The first time, too, I had seen a speaker (the chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis) thank the King, the Prince of Wales and cross-party political leaders before their remarks.

But what was most palpable and most unusual about this rally was the fear. It’s difficult to describe the atmosphere that results from thousands of people looking over their shoulders every time a siren goes off. A sense of threat hung in the air. The close police protection at the event did not make that feeling go away.

We listened to stories told by families who’d had their loved ones kidnapped or killed by Hamas. Many people in the crowd cried. They chanted “Bring them home”. Michael Gove appeared. He tried to articulate the suffering of those families. He talked sincerely about “evil” and “barbarism”. He said:

“The world made a promise 75 years ago: never again.”

Those words ought to have been more reassuring than they sounded. The rally finished with a minute’s silence. Hamas continues to hold the hostages captive in Gaza.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.

[See also: The deadly logic of existential war]

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