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No bigots on our march, thanks

Observations on a protest

On 10 January, I demonstrated in London alongside an estimated 50,000 others to register my disgust at Israel's assault on Gaza, which amounts to the collective punishment of a trapped and impoverished population.

I would describe my politics as socialist - though I'm not a member of any party - and I believe in the value of peaceful protest. I am not an apologist for terrorism, a crazy Trot, a supporter of clerical fascism, a self-hating Jew, an anti-Semite (being half Jewish, I get to be accused of both), or projecting my own frustrations on to a conflict that has nothing to do with me, as various commentators have tried to dismiss protesters.

Two things in particular convinced me to march. One was an essay by the historian Avi Shlaim published in the Guardian, which detailed Israel's repeated attempts to undermine a functioning Palestinian society under the guise of defence. The other was a growing awareness that many of my peers shared the same sense of outrage.

The crowd, which assembled at Hyde Park before marching to the Israeli embassy in Kensington, was large, diverse and good-natured. contrary to some reports. Placards with a clear, humanitarian message, directed at Israel - "Stop the massacre in Gaza" - vastly outnumbered extremist sentiments. There was also a proliferation of trade union banners - teachers, journalists, civil servants, health workers and many others, were out in force. The march was probably the largest peace protest since the Iraq war demo in 2003, and if it drew a broad section of society back into political activism, then that is something to be celebrated.

It is likely that on any large demonstration you will find yourself marching with some whose views or tactics you do not endorse. Even so, I was alarmed to see a small group of protesters smash up a branch of Starbucks opposite the Israeli embassy. Not because of the minor damage to property, but because the attackers had seized upon a rumour from some Islamic activists and elements of the anti-capitalist direct action movement that Starbucks "funds Zionism".

There are plenty of reasons to criticise the ubiquitous coffee chain, but this has no basis in fact. The origin of the claim lies in the fact the chain's American founder and CEO, Howard Schultz, is Jewish and a vocal supporter of Israel. Yet Starbucks, which in fact closed all its Israeli outlets in 2003, is a publicly traded company and so is owned by its shareholders.

According to the myth-busting website, the idea that the founder of this coffee chain uses the company to pursue his own pro-Israel stance appears to originate from a hoax letter written by an Australian satirist in 2006.

Nonetheless, over the past few weeks the rumour has spread.

Numerous Facebook groups with titles such as "say NO to Israel terrorism: BOYCOTT Starbucks" [sic] have attracted hundreds, in some cases thousands, of members. The activist news service Indymedia reported that "a percentage of Starbucks' profits go directly to the Israeli government". It was echoed at the rally in Hyde Park on 10 January by the rapper Lowkey, who told demonstrators: "You say you know about the Zionist lobby, but you put money in their pockets every time you're buying their coffee".

Despite the clear racist premise of this untruth, some left-wing activists appear seduced by the rhetoric. One, present at the march, told me he had been "particularly excited" that the young Muslim men you can see wielding sticks and shouting "fuck Jews" on a video of the incident posted on YouTube were "making an anti-capitalist connection". Several similar "connections" have been made since, at a number of other London Starbucks branches, including one in Whitechapel, firebombed on 13 January.

In an open letter circulated by the Quilliam Foundation think tank, prominent British Muslims have condemned these anti-Semitic acts, which are growing in frequency around the UK.

The irony is that such attacks risk stifling debate in the Jewish community just as many British Jews are breaking ranks with representative bodies such as the Board of Deputies and starting to openly criticise Israel.

None of this will put me off protesting, but I would suggest to my fellow marchers that anyone wanting to link the Middle East conflict with global capitalism should worry less about coffee and more about our own government, which licensed £18,847,795-worth of arms sales to Israel in the first quarter of 2008 alone.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Nixon went to China... Will Obama go to Iran?