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26 March 2018updated 06 Aug 2021 2:48pm

“Never did I expect this, in living memory of the Holocaust”: What happened at the rally against anti-semitism?

Over 500 people demonstrate against anti-semitism in the Labour Party, and are met with a counter-protest backing Jeremy Corbyn.

By Anoosh Chakelian

“NO to anti-semitism”, “NO to Holocaust Denial”: black placards fill Parliament Square on Monday evening, as a crowd of over 500 gather to protest against anti-semitism.

But there are other banners too. “Jews for Jez”, “Jeremy is not an anti-semite”, and “Stop Smearing Labour”.

Among lively debates are moments of grim tension – as soon as the rally begins, one counter-demonstrator standing on the edge of the main protest begins questioning if those around him feel they’re “God’s chosen people”, and is removed by police amid cries of “racist!” and “arrest him!”.

A police officer tells him not to enter the main protest to unnecessarily upset and antagonise people.

The clash of views follows a weekend of division over Jeremy Corbyn’s response to anti-semitic views in the Labour movement. The slogan on the protesters’ banners – “#EnoughisEnough” –  is a reference to an open letter, sent by Jewish community leaders to the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn yesterday, accusing him of siding “with anti-semites rather than Jews”.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council organised this rally, and urged Labour MPs – meeting tonight – to stand up to their leader, calling him, “ideologically fixed within a far-left worldview that is instinctively hostile to mainstream Jewish communities”.

A Facebook comment by Corbyn resurfaced from 2012 a few days ago, appearing to defend a mural bearing grotesque anti-semitic imagery – the final straw after a series of scandals involving anti-semitic comments by Labour members and supporters under Corbyn’s leadership.

Over three days, Corbyn’s defence that he hadn’t looked properly at the mural turned into an admission of “pockets” of anti-semitism on the left, and eventually an apology to Jewish leaders this afternoon.

In response to their letter, Corbyn wrote: “I am sincerely sorry for the pain which has been caused, and pledge to redouble my efforts to bring this anxiety to an end.”

But it isn’t enough for MPs present at the rally, who tell the crowd they will be challenging their leader this evening, at tonight’s meeting – though he was not scheduled to attend (and didn’t turn up).

“What is going on with the Labour Party when this kind of event even has to be considered?” John Mann MP asks, pledging to demand Corbyn expels “every single antisemite”.

“Denial is not an option,” says Luciana Berger MP to much cheering. “Being a bystander is not an option.”

“I don’t know why Jeremy Corbyn, who speaks out against racism, can’t see left-wing antisemitism, ” Louise Ellman MP tells the crowd.

“That this event is necessary is a stain on the reputation of the Labour Party” says Wes Streeting, the last MP speaker, promising to “drain the cesspit of anti-semitism in the Labour Party”.

All demanded “action” from their leadership rather than words, including: ensuring that Ken Livingstone is not readmitted to the party, expelling everyone who has expressed anti-semitic views, and implementing the recommendations of Shami Chakrabarti’s report for a “genuine” fight against anti-semitism.

The New Statesman spotted over 30 Labour MPs in the crowd, and there were Tory politicians too, including Housing Secretary Sajid Javid and former cabinet member Theresa Villiers.

“It’s got to be rooted out, we just can’t explain it away, because it goes to the very core unfortunately,” says Philip, a 62-year-old retired teacher from Merthyr Tydfil, who isn’t Jewish himself.

“I come from the place of the first Labour MP Keir Hardie, and my grandparents were all miners and they were Labour Party members and today they would be ashamed. So I’m up here to right a wrong.”

He calls the MPs’ speeches “all talk”: “I’ve heard them all before – something needs to be done.”

But Joseph Masri, an 18-year-old student from London, who is at his first ever protest, finds the MPs’ words “insightful” and the turn-out “encouraging”.

“I’m Jewish, and I’m apolitical,” he says. “Never did I or any of my contemporaries believe that in living memory of the Holocaust that we would have to stand outside Westminster and protest against a mainstream party and its leader – it’s very sad.”

This note of sadness is prevalent. “It’s the sad realisation that it’s no longer anti-Zionism, or just a few token incidents,” says a 24-year-old from London, who has supported the Labour Party under different leaders. “It’s systematically undermining the Jewish community.”

“As a British person, that anybody could impose tropes and suggestions that they know how we think, feel – nobody would pick up any other religion or nationality and project assumptions or prejudices. This is the 21st century” says Anuta Rosenfelder, a 54-year-old from London.

“In Russia, Jews were accused of being capitalists, in America, Jews were accused of being Communists. It doesn’t really matter, whatever we do is wrong.”

Carolyn Mandelson, a 60-year-old Jewish woman from London, also despairs at the racist tropes Jewish people are subjected to, like the images in the notorious mural Corbyn commented on.

“If Jews ran the media, we wouldn’t have to be here [at this rally] – we’re clearly not running the world, otherwise things like this wouldn’t be happening,” she says.

After the Labour MPs exit the stage, protesters and counter-protesters cross paths. Some debate amiably and shake hands; others shout over each other. A man carries a portrait of Corbyn reading “For the many, not the Jew”; another group morph the “Ohh, Jeremy Corbyn” White Stripes chant of his supporters into “Ohh, Jeremy’s a racist”.

Mica Nava, a member Jewish Voice for Labour, defends Corbyn. “I think it’s very important to demonstrate publicly and especially to the media that there isn’t a single Jewish community and a single Jewish voice,” says the retired academic, who is Jewish herself.

“A lot of people support Jeremy Corbyn – and a lot of the accusations of anti-semitism are politically rooted, and the timing of these accusations is significant; they’re surfacing now three weeks before an important election.”

This view is echoed by many on the left who support Corbyn, and some of his allies in Parliament have endorsed the idea that accusations of anti-semitism are simply a “smear” to undermine him.

But the Labour leader himself admits being “too slow” to act against the racist attitudes that “have surfaced more often in our ranks in recent years”. The protesters here today hope this acknowledgement will finally lead to some action – and they will no longer have to highlight a prejudice that has no place here in Parliament Square or beyond.

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